From Punalur, it is a yawning gap. A cash crunch has brought the gauge-conversion work on the Punalur-Shencottah railway section to an abrupt halt. Authorities of the Madurai Division of Railways confirm that “the gauge-conversion work has been suspended because of a lack of funds.”
The hopes of people that trains would start tearing down the 110-year-old rail route at least by early 2015 lie in tatters. The work was awarded to 20 agencies, and even about three months ago, it was going apace.
Preliminary work on concrete jacketing of all colonial bridges, including a 13-arch viaduct near Aryankavu, had been progressing during August-September. But now, the whole stretch is wearing a deserted look. A project spokesman says work will not resume until funds start coming, which is not expected for at least another three months.
The project managers are hoping that some funds will be sanctioned when the Railway Budget for 2013-14 gets revised in February. If that does not happen, the resumption of the work will be completely dependent on the next Railway Budget.
But that Budget will be an interim one, which has to be ratified by the new government to be formed at the Centre in May. The suspension of the work because of a funds crunch is not an isolated case. Every gauge-conversion work in Southern Railway has been hit by the same reason, the spokesman says.
In March this year, the railway authorities had set December 2014 as the deadline for completing the 49.2-km track.
The century-old dilapidated road overbridge at Aryankavu across the rail track was proposed to be demolished and replaced by a new one before the start of this year’s Sabarimala pilgrimage. It is left untouched. The bridge on the Kollam-Thirumangalam National Highway takes heavy traffic, especially of lorries bringing goods to the State. But now the project managers admit that uncertainty looms large over the work. “It may drag on till 2016-end or even beyond” depending on fund allocation, the spokesperson says.
Though Rs. 300 crore was required for the completion of the work as on 2012-end, the allocation for this year was just Rs. 30 crore. There is a fear that the allocation could be even less next year.
Train services on the section were withdrawn in September 2010 to facilitate the work. At that time, the railway authorities said the work would be completed in March 2012. In fact, formations on the seven-km Shencottah-Bhagawatheepuram and nine-km Punalur-Edamon reaches had been completed by March this year.
The remaining 33.2 km has to be laid through a difficult ghat terrain comprising colonial viaducts and tunnels bored through granite constructed more than 110 years ago. Between the Bhagawatheepuram and Aryankavu stations, there are five tunnels, one more than 900 metres long. These have to be widened to accommodate broad-gauge traffic. The gradient is such that for a horizontal distance of 50 metres, the track to be laid gets vertically raised by one metre.
The section is part of the 325-km Kollam-Shencottah-Tenkasi-Tirunelveli-Thiruchendur gauge-conversion project and a link of the Tenkasi-Virudhunagar trunk route to Chennai.
The Kollam-Shencottah section is part of the Kollam-Chennai rail route commissioned by the British in 1904. The route was once a lifeline for the people of the southern districts of the State and the Shencottah-Virudhunagar belt of Tamil Nadu. It had served to create a strong link especially among the trading community of these areas in the two States. The farmers of the Shencottah-Virudhunagar belt depended on the trains to market their produce in south Travancore.
Huge quantities of vegetables, groceries and dairy products such as curd were brought into Kollam district from Tamil Nadu by trains that plied through the route. Traders from both sides say that suspension of train service on the section has considerably affected business.
The Kollam-Madras Egmore Express used to be one of the prestigious trains on this route. The Shencottah-Kollam passenger trains were the main means of transport for office-goers and students. Pilgrims to Velankanni used to take the trains through this section. The trains provided a livelihood to a good number of families on the Aryankavu-Punalur section as they could sell a variety of local products to the passengers at stations.
S. Nousharuddin, senior trader from Punalur, says the trains used to provide a comfortable means of cheap and dependable transport for the people of the eastern high range areas of Kollam district. “People depended more on trains than road transport,” he says.
But with the suspension of the train services, the people of the whole area feel cut off. Travel has become an exhausting experience and with virtually no progress on the gauge-conversion work, the people of the area appear to be hopelessly waiting for the return of the good old days of train travel, he says.