The Doomed Bogey
If you are travelling from Mumbai to Delhi and your chosen mode of tranport happens to be the Indian railways, you might say a prayer. Because almost midway on your journey, your train will cross a bridge that might just drop you into the cold, swirling waters of the Mahi river.
The 1,384 km-long trunk route between Delhi and Mumbai is one of the oldest and busiest lines of the Western Railways. The Ratlam junction in Madhya Pradesh is very nearly the centre point of the route, situated 653 km from Mumbai central station and 731 km from railway stations in the Capital.
At least a dozen trains, including the Rajdhani Express, August Kranti Express, Sampark Kranti Express, Golden Temple Mail and Paschim Express, run on the Delhi-Mumbai route daily. In addition to which are scores of other trains that originate and terminate at stations midway along the route. Besides, there are also rail lines towards Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and Baroda in Gujarat that branch out from Ratlam.
About 38 km from the Ratlam junction, into the Delhi leg on the journey, is located the 120-year-old Bhairongarh bridge. The 130 metre-long bridge (No. 226 in the Ratlam division of the Western Railway), spanning the breadth of the Mahi, had been certified ‘unsafe’ in 2003-04 and engineers had recommended its immediate ‘rehabilitation’—for it to be able to sustain the pressure of at least 50 trains that pound down on it every day. It was also decided to build a new bridge to replace the old one. But over eight years down the line, the alternate bridge is still not ready and the trains are still using the old bridge.
Bhairongarh has been declared what is called a ‘distressed bridge’ in railway parlance. Bridges that display signs of a deterioration of physical condition, indicating a need for rehabilitation, are classified as distressed bridges. Tellingly, a ‘distressed bridge’ is ranked just above a ‘dilapidated bridge’. Since the bridge received its ‘distressed’ designation, trains crossing it are flagged down before they enter. They cross the bridge at low—“controlled”—speeds between 20-30 kmph. But experts say if a bridge is declared distressed, it is in need of immediate attention. In the case of an ageing bridge like Bhairongarh, especially considering the high frequency of traffic, a delay of eight years in building a diversion is tantamount to putting thousands of lives on the line daily.
When, after years of dilly-dallying, the railway ministry finally sanctioned funding to build the new bridge in 2011, there were delays—on part of the ministry—in releasing the money. The issue of the poor condition of railway bridges in Madhya Pradesh has even been raised in the Lok Sabha. But to no avail. A BJP parliamentarian recently raised the issue of a dilapidated metre gauge bridge, wherein the driver of the engine had to reverse his train a few kilometres as he was apprehensive about the stability of the bridge he had to cross.
Manish Parmar, the station master at Bhairongarh, declined to comment on the delays in the construction of the new bridge, but did say the passengers were in no danger as the trains cross the bridge at the controlled speed of 30 km per hour. “In case there was any safety risk we would not have allowed trains to pass on that bridge,” he added. The condition of the bridge is tested and verified by engineers. Railwaymen have been posted there for 24 hours for maintenance, Parmar clarifies.
The bridge was constructed in 1890 by British engineers. This was a time when the trains operating on the route were few and far in between. And they ran at much lower speeds and weighed far less. The wooden sleepers and other construction materials that were used during the period are no longer available. This makes maintenance a difficult task, says Deepak Ketwal, a local railwayman who has been working in the Ratlam division for the past 25 years.
The life of a bridge is about 100 years, he adds, qualifying quickly, “But we are taking all measures to avoid any disaster.” Prem Singh, a resident of Ramgarh, the nearest village about two kilometres from the bridge, says the bridge had become very weak. It shakes and makes terrifying sounds when a train runs on it. The new bridge has been in construction for the past three-four years, but is not yet operational. There are around 50 villages on the banks of the Mahi. The villagers are mostly Bhil tribals; farming is the prime occupation.
The bolts that secure the bridge have become loose and the sleepers are being tightened using wires, Prem Singh added. The sleepers are shaking even when people walk on the bridge. Joadiya, 35, is posted as a guard on the bridge. He says he’s scared every time a train crosses the bridge, even if it moves at a very slow speed. The river runs deep and there is no arrangement to meet any eventuality, he says. The bridge is inaccessible by road. One has to walk about two km through a bushy, undulating landscape to reach it. This means that if an accident were to occur, coordinating and carrying out relief and rescue would be a daunting task.
Railway officials counter the criticism by saying that tens of thousands of rail bridges on the Indian railway system are more than a century old. And these bridges are safe for train operations. Work on bridges is undertaken on the basis of their physical condition as ascertained during regular inspections carried out in the field and not on the question of age. All old bridges, therefore, don’t merit rehabilitation. And Bhairongarh bridge is a case in point. According to Prem Kumar Sharma, the public relations officer at the Ratlam division, the bridge is perfectly safe. “There is absolutely no risk involved. And in any case, the new bridge will become functional in a month and a half,” he says. The bridge is so safe that even trains like the Rajdhani pass over it, he adds by way of justification.
With all the ‘down’ trains from Mumbai running over the bridge en route to Delhi, it is a confidence on which hinges the lives of thousands of passengers being ferried across the Mahi daily.
Not replacing a colonial-era bridge, even when it’s not in good shape, is plain callous (Next Stop: Decrepitude, Mar 4). How about bridges built by Indians after 1947? How many of those are distressed?
How about the bridges built by Indians after 1947? How many of those are already distressed?
I remember seing some years ago in the Hindu photographs of two railway bridges near Chennai which had been hit by a cyclone. The "old" bridge built a century earlier was undamaged (at least visually) while the replacement was a heap of twisted metal.
I am surprised.
I thought the great secular giant Shri Laloo Yadavji, under the inspiring leadership of Shri Manmohan Singhji and The Itallion Empress ji, had transformed the Indian Railways and made it envy of the world. He was invited all over the world including at universities like Harvard to reveal the secrets of his wisdom.
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