Designed and built by Indian engineers in a record time of eight years, the Konkan Railway takes you on a breathtaking journey through rugged mountains, lush valleys, sunlit paddy fields, bustling villages and glistening rivers that lead out to sea. Heralding the realization of a long-cherished dream of the people of the Konkan region, the construction of Konkan Railway effectively connected the southwestern coast of India with the rest of the country in a point-to-point straight line.
It is undoubtedly one of the biggest and most difficult infrastructure projects India has undertaken and successfully completed since Independence.
Today, the Konkan Railway travels 738 kilometers through the states of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka, starting just after the Roha railway station (75 km south of Panvel in the suburbs of Mumbai) in Maharashtra and ending at the Thokur railway station near Mangalore in southern Karnataka.
The tale of how Konkan Railway was designed and built is an interesting story that not many know about. This feat of engineering had been contemplated by the British a century ago and abandoned as being too formidable.
Work on the line running along the western coast of India began as early as 1964 when a line was laid between Diva and Panvel. It was further extended to Apta two years later in 1966. However, it was only in October 1984 that the Ministry of Railways decided to build the railway route, dubbed the Konkan Railway after the coastline it hugged, that would cover the west coast line from Madgaon to Roha. Two years later in 1989, work on the Konkan Railway officially began.
Building the Konkan Railway threw up a whole range of difficulties for the engineers tasked with the job. The rocky Sahyadri range had to be bored through,viaducts had to be built through valleys and more than 1,500 rivers had to be forded.
It was a sweeping challenge that needed a leader as formidable as the challenge itself. George Fernandes, the then Railway Minister, belonged to Udupi on the Konkan Coast and he was passionate about seeing this important project through.
He persuaded Dr. E. Sreedharan, a veteran railway man known for brisk efficiency, to become the Chairman and Managing Director of Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd.that was founded in 1990.
The topography of Western Chat is extremely rugged and changes every few kilometres. The builders had to cut through steep cliffs, deep gorges, rocky plateaus, swampy marshes, tropical jungle, and fast flowing rivers, especially in Maharashtra where the Ghats reach directly to the sea. Adding to this was the wild fury nature unleashed in the Ghats during monsoon, in the form of torrential rainfall and tropical thunderstorms that caused tunnel cave-ins, landslides, and flash floods.
To reach the target speed of 160 km per hour, a near flat track with a minimum curvature of 1.25kM radius was needed. The only way this could be achieved was to build the rail line straight through the undulating terrain. This meant constructing a lot of bridges, tunnels and embankments that would allow the track to maintain its level run. Satellite images were used to finalize the alignment and work started from both the ends.
Hydraulic tunnel digging equipment was imported from Sweden to dig many of these tunnels. Piers for major bridges were cast on the riverbanks itself and launched using cranes mounted on pontoons. Around 2000 bridges were built and 91 tunnels were dug.
Nine tunnels were painstakingly dug by hand, meter by meter, as the digging equipment did not have the technology to tackle the wet, soft and loose clayey soil surrounding the tunnels. Nineteen lives and four years were lost while constructing the soft soil tunnels alone.
Work stopped many times, especially in the monsoon, as some of these tunnels would cave in as soon as they were dug and had to be dug all over again. In 1994, the Mahad sector was flooded with the water level rising to 12 feet above road level. At Ukshi, an entire mountainside buried the works and equipment. Engineer Kapoor, who was building the Pernem tunnel, was buried chest deep following a soil collapse and was rescued by his colleague Jayasankaran in an act of daring that won him a bravery award. Many were injured and 10 people lost their lives during the incredibly difficult construction of the rail line.
Despite these hurdles and the criticism they faced due to it, the unflappable team pushed forward, working night and day, to complete the project. The incredible effort going into the project was reflected in a report of SIDA, a government agency of Sweden, that asked,
“Would not Sweden sort out much of its tunnel boring problems by sending its engineers to the Konkan Railway project?”
After eight years of labour, the first passenger train along the picturesque Konkan Railway sea route was flagged off on January 26, 1998. In a country where it takes years to complete a flyover, this was an incredible speed of construction!
The Konkan Railway had also scored many firsts. For the first time in India funds for the project were raised without touching the government coffers. The authorized capital was pooled together by the railways and the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra. This was done by leveraging public bonds (to the extent of Rs.2250 crores) that carried attractive rates of return, tax breaks and guaranteed repayment.
Over 4850 hectares of land was acquired from over 42000 owners in the three states of Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra. Many gave up their properties and lands voluntarily, convinced of the importance of the project. Heritage, community and religious structures were left alone while displaced farmers were properly rehabilitated. Payment cheques were door-delivered at a time when India was still highly bureaucratized, that too, within twelve months.
The scenic route also had India’s then-longest ever tunnel at Karbude, which is 5.6 km. in length. The route also has a 424 viaduct for a single line of broad gauge track over the Panval river.
A visible example of the ingenuity and the dedication of the builders, the Panval Viaduct connects two hills and has 12 spans and 10 pillars, 6 of which are taller than the Qutub Minar ! At present, it is the third highest viaduct in Asia.
Joining the length and breadth of Konkan and touching its core like no one else does, the Konkan Railway is an Indian triumph in many areas – engineering, efficiency, innovation, and dedication. Even today, a journey on this spectacular route, with its resplendent views of the Western Ghats, is an experience that remains etched in your memory for a long, long time.