Southern Railway miffed as Silver Line project threatens its expansion plans

After Niti Aayog found serious flaws in the conception of the Rs-64,941-crore Semi High-Speed Rail (Silver Line) project, the Southern Railway has found that the high-speed project clashes with its operations in more than half of Kerala, from Ernakulam to Kasaragod. It has, therefore, asked the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited (KRDCL), which implements the Silver Line project, to "immediately" modify the proposed alignment of the high-speed project.

The Southern Railway, in a communique sent to the KRDCL on June 10, 2020, said the alignment it has proposed for the high-speed rail would affect existing, sanctioned and proposed Southern Railway projects. The alignment of the high-speed rail comes into conflict with Southern Railway's plans in many stretches between Ernakulam and Kasaragod.

Here are the SR sections that would be affected by the Silver Line project: Ernakulam-Thrissur, Thrissur-Tirur, Tirur-Kozhikode, Kozhikode-Kannur and Kannur-Kasaragod.

Ernakulam-Thrissur section

In between Aluva and Angamaly, the Silver Line alignment is proposed on the western side of the existing track. "The SR's sanctioned third line from Shoranur to Ernakulam is also coming on the western side. Since the CIAL airport is located on the eastern side of the existing track, the future fourth line also has to be laid on the western side in this stretch," the Office of the SR's Chief Administrative Officer (Construction), Ernakulam, said in the communique.

The SR, therefore, wants the Silver Line alignment modified in such a way that there is enough space left for laying two tracks on the western side of the existing track.

Thrissur-Tirur section

Silver Line's Thrissur station is planned opposite the existing Thrissur Railway Station. As per the Silver Line proposal, the existing railway tracks between Thrissur and Punkunnam should be diverted to the eastern side to accommodate piers of the Silver Line's viaducts.

For the SR, this is unacceptable. Two main reasons have been given. One, the third line from Shoranur to Ernakulam has been sanctioned on the eastern side the existing two tracks from Thrissur to Punkunnam that serves Thrissur-Shoranur and Thrissur-Guruvayur. This will leave no space for Silver Line's viaducts on the eastern side. The western side already has no unused land. What's more, the SR also has plans for the fourth line on this side.

Two, when Guruvayur-Thirunavaya line is constructed, Thrissur will become a major junction station with the need for additional platforms.

Tirur-Kozhikode, Kozhikode-Kannur and Kannur-Kasaragod stretches

In these sections, the Silver Line alignment is planned parallel to the existing railway track with the Silver Line track intersecting the SR tracks at many locations.

Problems in Thiruvananthapuram and Kottayam

In another communique shot off five days later on June 15, 2020, the SR finds problems with the alignment in certain southern stretches. Along the Thiruvananthapuram-Kollam stretch, the SR wants more space to be left for the third track between Kochuveli and Murukkumpuzha. The SR has also asked the KRDCL to take the ISRO authorities into confidence before laying the track through ISRO land.

According to the SR, Silver Line's Kottayam junction is proposed at an inappropriate spot. It is near the Kodoor river where the land is waterlogged for six to seven months in a year. "Filling up of this land, therefore, may not be possible," the SR communique said.

It further says that the proposed spot is away from main roads and, hence, the approach road will be very narrow. Further, being a wetland, its conversion will be problematic.

Unrealistic projections

The second communique also questions the proposed cost and deadline of the Silver Line project.

The proposed deadline for the Silver Line project is 2025-26. "It will take at least two years after funds for land acquisition are arranged and hence land may be available only by December 2022. It may not be possible to complete and commission the project of this magnitude in 27 months thereafter. Kochi Metro Project where the land acquisition was much less has taken 48 months to complete the first stretch. Hence realistic targets to be fixed and cost to be are worked," the SR communique says.

The proposed cost of nearly Rs 65,000 crore, according to the SR, will be inadequate. The alignment of the project is through green areas, mainly paddy fields. The 'safe bearing' capacity of such soil, especially of paddy fields, will be low requiring pile foundation for retaining walls. This will increase the project cost, the SR note says.

Spirited fight back

Both the SR communiques were secured using the Right to Information Act by M T Thomas, the president of Mulakulam Residents' Welfare Association. Mulakulam is a project-affected area.

"It is ridiculous that the Govt is going ahead with land acquisition for the project when even the alignment for the project is yet to be approved by the Railways, their joint venture partner for the project. Unless and until the alignment is approved by the Railway Board and the observations of Niti Aayog is addressed, going ahead with the project is highly illegal," Thomas said.

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