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Pamban bridge is 100 and still going strong

D. J. Walter Scott
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Railways fail to remember India’s first cantilever bridge

Withstanding all oddsA view of the Pamban rail bridge in Ramanathapuram.File photo
Withstanding all oddsA view of the Pamban rail bridge in Ramanathapuram.File photo

The Pamban rail bridge, an engineering marvel and India’s first cantilever bridge stepped into its centenary year on Sunday.

The 2.06 km long bridge, the second longest sea bridge after Bandra-Worli sea link was thrown open to traffic this day in 1914 and is still going strong, providing the much needed rail connectivity to the pilgrim centre of Rameswaram.

Located at the world’s second highly corrosive environment, next to Mexico, the bridge was constructed amid challenges. Having survived the devastating 1964 cyclonic storm, the bridge entered the 100{+t}{+h}year on Sunday, sans any celebration by the Railways.

The need for rail connectivity between the main land and the island was felt in the late 1870s, when the East India Company, expanding its trade, decided to establish rail link between Danushkodi and Colombo, a Railway Engineer said, giving details of the historic bridge.

After feasibility study, a proposal on “Indo-Ceylon project” was sent to the British Parliament for building a rail bridge from Mandapam to Pamban and from Danushkodi to Thalaimannar at an estimated cost of Rs. 299 lakh. The British Parliament rejected the project, stating that the cost of the project was too high. It, however, gave its nod for the Pamban rail bridge at a cost Rs 70 lakh in 1880.

Soon the excavation work began and the South Indian Railway commenced the bridge construction in 1902.

The ‘Khurai” families from the Kutch region in Gujarat, who had experience in working with the Himalayan Railways were brought to Pamban for excavation and erection work, while the fabricated structures were brought from Britain, the Engineer said talking to The Hindu . Work was smooth till the construction of 112th pier from Mandapam side. The project faced the first major hurdle when the engineers found movement of ferry service in a 65.23 metre wide ‘Pambar’ in the Palk strait.

“They could have moved ahead with putting up piers, but the engineers, unwilling to obstruct the ferry service and disturb ‘first users’ wanted to have the rail link, while allowing the ferry service as well,” the Railway Engineer said quoting old records.

It was at this stage, the Railways approached Scherzer, a German Engineer, who designed and built the famous 65.23 metre long rolling type lift span, which opens up to pave way for the vessels to pass through like a pair of scissors.

After the erection of rolling lift centre span in 1913, the bridge was thrown open to traffic on February 24, 1914.

The strength of the bridge was put to test for the first time in December 1964, when a severe cyclonic storm hit this part of the area. All the girders, both RCC and steel were washed away. Two of the 141 piers also damaged, but the Scherzer’s span withstood nature’s fury.

This time, it was the turn of Indian engineers to show case their engineering prowess. A team of engineers, led by the then Assistant Engineer E Sreedharan (Delhi Metro Sreedharan) salvaged the girders and put the bridge back on the rails in just five months.

The rail bridge threatened to become defunct, when the Indian Railways announced the “unigauge” policy in 2006. The Railways considered a proposal to construct a new bridge, but gave up the idea as it would cost a whopping Rs.700 crore.

Stepping in, the then President A.P.J.Abdul Kalam, who hailed from Rameswaram island, suggested that the existing bridge could be strengthened for gauge conversion. After obtaining expert opinions from IIT-Chennai and structural engineers, the bridge was strengthened to broad gauge standard and train services resumed in 2007.

The bridge was further strengthened in 2009 for running of goods traffic. It suffered a jolt, when a barge, being taken through the channel, crashed into the bridge, damaging the 121{+s}{+t}pier after anchor failure. After a week, train services were resumed in the bridge.


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