Pier damage forces cancellation of train services to Rameswaram

The 100-year-old Pamban rail bridge, India’s first cantilever bridge across the Palk Strait, connecting the mainland with the Rameswaram Island, suffered damage as a barge rammed it early on Sunday.

Tossed by gusty winds and the stormy sea, the barge, after anchor failure, drifted towards the bridge and came to a halt after ramming a pier of the historic two-km bridge.

Multiple hits

“The pier got tilted 60 degrees after multiple hits. The mast and girder also tilted,” a senior Railway official told The Hindu. After the incident, a span got disconnected, triggering red signal for trains, the official said.

The Madurai-Rameswaram passenger train was to leave Madurai at 12.10 p.m. and cross through the bridge at 3 a.m. but the Railway officials cancelled the service before the train left Madurai.

Division Railway Manager (Madurai Division) A.K. Rastogi, who inspected the bridge, said pier no. 121 suffered damage. “It will be restored within seven days. Till then, train services will remain suspended,” he told journalists.

The Railways would repair the pier and claim damages from a Kolkata-based firm, the owner of the barge, he said. There were 10 crew members aboard the barge and they are all safe, informed sources said. None could be contacted about the mishap.

On being alerted, officials went to the site on Saturday night, Railway sources said. However, they watched helplessly as the barge rammed the bridge.

Pamban port officials claimed that major damage to the bridge was averted as they had pulled back the barge with the help of fishing boats. Half a dozen mechanised boats were pressed into the salvage operation. After hours of concerted effort, the barge was anchored at a safe distance. It suffered damage on the rear side. The high drama started with the arrival of a tugboat of the private company with the barge, which also came from Kolkata. The tugboat was towing it to Karwar when it met with the mishap. The company had planned to hand over the barge to the Navy in Karwar.

The two vessels arrived on Wednesday night and anchored on the northern side off Pamban, awaiting clearance from port officials for crossing the bridge. Trouble began when the tug boat ran aground after anchor failure late on Thursday evening.

The port authorities launched a salvage operation with the help of fishing boats on Friday. But they suffered a setback on Saturday with the ‘anchored’ barge drifting towards the bridge and getting stuck close to it, following heavy winds.

However, locals and politicians including BJP National Council member K. Muralidharan accused the Pamban Port and Railway officials of “bungling.”

“The vessels have been there for three days and there was no visible action from the authorities either to pass through the bridge or anchor them at a safe distance,” Mr. Muralidharan told The Hindu.

The bridge has 145 pillars and a portion of it opens up like a pair of scissors to let ships pass under it.

It was built in 1913 and thrown open for rail traffic in 1914. Set to celebrate its centenary, the bridge is regarded as one of the early heritage structures of the Railways.