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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Konkan Railway

Konkan Railway

It was mid 90s. Ratnakar Shetty ran a successful Udipi restaurant in sub-urban Mumbai. He was a busy man for most part of the year. But when his children’s school closed for summer vacations, Shetty yearned to visit his hometown near Mangalore and spend time with his parents. His family too looked forward for a break in the lush green surroundings of their native place. But journey wasn’t any easy. He and his family had to perform an arduous road journey via Pune, Belgaum, often in cramped buses, lasting over 30 hours. Reason – there was no direct rail link between Mumbai and the port town of Mangalore. This was the plight of all South Canara people, who had made Mumbai their home. But all that changed on January 26, 1998, when the through line operations from Mumbai to Mangalore began.

The Republic Day, ten years ago, was a red letter day for the Indian Railways. The day marked the dream come true of the Indian Railway’s most ambitious and most difficult project after Independence. It took seven years and almost $1 billion to complete the missing rail link between Mumbai and Mangalore, winding through the tough terrain of Western Ghats and crossing the rapid flowing coastal rivers in Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. It also marked the successful completion of the country’s first ever BOT (build, operate, transfer) project.

The Konkan Railway Corporation (KR) was formed on July 19, 1990 with participation of four states viz : Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala with the Indian Railways. It’s mandate - raise your own funds and construct with speed and economy a railway connecting Mumbai with Mangalore and pay off the loans in the promised time. It was a sweeping challenge and it met its hero in Dr. E. Sreedharan, a veteran railway man known for brisk efficiency. He was persuaded out of his retirement and made the Chairman and Managing Director of the Corporation.

The largest railway project in this part of the world, threw up a whole range of difficulties - technical, financial, emotional and psychological. The rocky Sahyadris had to be bored through, 1,500 rivers had to be forded, a railway line had to be built out of nowhere. And once in a while, a poisonous snake, or a tiger, decided to take a close look at goings-on! In the face of collapsing embankments and unrelenting mountains, the engineers had to be tough. Family life took a backseat during those arduous years. Many engineers stayed away from their families during this period, not even returning home for festivals like Diwali. At the very least, working conditions were uncomfortable; in June 1994, Mahad had floods 10 to 12 feet above the road level, and when they receded, Konkan Railway jeeps had six-inch layers of silt on the seats.

Dr. Sreedharan had divided the length of 760kms into 7 sectors of approximately 100kms each. Each sector had a Chief Engineer with full freedom of decision making. And with the freedom came, a definite time target. Four concrete sleeper plants were set up to manufacture the 1.3 million sleepers required for the project. Besides this, cement, steel, explosives, rails and a hundred other things had to be delivered through harsh terrain. Depots were created for these. Wherever possible design was standardized to be built with pre-stressed parts cast elsewhere. International norms were followed in evaluating and short listing contractors. Their bids were decided upon within 72 hours of opening. Independent quality assurance inspectors were appointed.

The Government of India, recognizing Dr.E Sreedharan’s contributions in building the Konkan Railway and the Delhi Metro, has honoured him with Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award in the country.

When the railway was opened to the public on Jan 26, 1998, it had scored many firsts. For the first time in India funds for the project were raised without touching the government coffers. The authorized capital of Rs.800 crore was pooled together by the railways and the four beneficiary states. This was leveraged by means of public bonds to the extent of Rs.2,250 crore. These bonds carried attractive rates of return, tax breaks and guaranteed repayment. The project also employed the least number of people in its management at its peak a mere 2400, in all.

Ten years hence, KR portrays the picture of an efficient and surging public sector enterprise. It posted an operating surplus of Rs 107.18 crore for the first nine months of the current fiscal, while the total earnings have touched Rs 326.76 crore for the same period. The total earnings for the entire year are expected to be Rs 468 crore. “We expect to achieve a financial turn around within a year “ says Anurag Mishra, Managing Director of Konkan Railways.

With two Special Economic Zones coming up near Navi Mumbai, a massive petrochemical SEZ near Mangalore and a new international airport at Navi Mumbai, the Konkan region is expected to see some hectic action on the economic front. To cater to the growing needs of people, Konkan Railway is planning to build more stations on its route. It is already served by 60 stations.

Beyond number crunching, KR is special in many other ways too. It has a worthy safety record and is credited with inventing the Anti-Collission Devise (ACD), which can prevent midsection head-on collisions, side collisions, and rear-end collisions of trains, in addition to having many other safety features. No other technology in the world offers these features for which the KR holds patent. The first pilot project of the ACD on Northeast Frontier Railway covering 1,736 kilometres was commissioned this financial year. Following this and the live demonstration of ACD to the delegates of International Railway Safety Conference held at Madgaon recently, KRCL has started receiving enquiries from various countries for implementation of ACD. Konkan Railway is also credited with the development of a full-scale proto-type of sky bus service for intra-city transport.

Konkan Railway has completed nine years of operation of RORO (Roll on Roll off) truck-on-train service on January 26. This innovative service has established that railways and roadways can exist in a symbiotic relationship. K R has earned more than Rs 90 crore from RORO service in nine years.

A journey along the Konkan Railway - through its bridges, viaducts and tunnels are a feast to the eye. It is an engineering marvel that has blended so harmoniously with the nature. The tenth anniversary is a time to celebrate and salute all those who rendered their dedicated service to complete the project in a record time of seven years. Had they executed it as a job, it could have perhaps taken 25 years. But K R was not an ordinary project. It was a mission.

(Konkan Railway completed 10 years of operation on January 26, 2008.)

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