Perched between two hill slopes, at a height similar to an 85-storey tower, the Chenab bridge, which is being claimed as the world’s highest railway bridge by India, is expected to have trains plying on it by January-February 2024.
This was stated by Union Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw on a site visit to monitor the progress of the bridge’s construction on Sunday. The bridge is situated at a height of 359 m., making it taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which stands at 330 m.
Traversing a length of 1.3 km, once operational, the Chenab bridge will pave the way for trains to run seamlessly along the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail Link (USBRL) project, and prove to be a crucial connector between Kashmir and rest of India.
“The plan is to run Vande Bharat trains along the stretch and also Vande Metro trains between Jammu and Srinagar, which will reduce the travelling time between the two towns to 3.5 hours,” Mr. Vaishnaw said. Currently, the travel time by road on the 248 km-long Jammu-Srinagar National Highway takes about seven hours.
While the construction of the bridge was completed in August 2022, a broad gauge railway track was laid along the bridge later in the year. Mr. Vaishnaw conducted a trolley inspection across the bridge and supervised the construction work of tunnels.
The Minister said the Chenab bridge had been constructed in a highly seismic prone area, and the biggest challenge was to get the concrete foundation design right. “The area of the foundation spans the size of half a football field. The foundation of the bridge has been built to sustain an earthquake [measuring] up to eight on the Richter scale,” he said.
About 28,000 tonnes of steel has been used to construct the arch bridge. Owing to the strong foundation of the bridge, which can absorb the shock, the superstructure of the bridge will be isolated from any potential impact.
In topographies where granite rocks are prevalent, constructing the foundation is easy. However, the presence of dolomite rocks and soft soil make the process tougher. “The Himalayas on the side of the J&K region are young and there is always a challenge of the soft soil slipping,” Mr. Vaishnaw said.
Another challenge was constructing tunnels along the USBRL project, 37 of them in all. While typically, tunnels are D-shaped, Himalayan tunnels need a horse-shoe shape of curvature, the elliptical shape helping ward off loose soil as the area is prone to frequent landslides, Mr. Vaishnaw said. “The Himalayan tunnelling method developed by Indian engineers is a notch superior to the new Austrian tunnelling method and helps assess release of gas impact and control incidences of fire or other such mishaps,” he said. Adjoining the main tunnels long the USBRL project, a parallel system of escape tunnels has been constructed.
Mr. Vaishnaw mentioned that an area in Badgaon district has been identified for building a train maintenance depot for the USBRL trains. Additionally, the construction of four cargo terminals has been planned in Baramulla, which will ease trade for Kashmiri products such as dry fruits, apples, handicrafts and clothing, including the expensive pashmina fabric. “Air conditioned cargo coaches will be provided for transport to avoid spoilage of fruit. This will also decrease costs of transportation of building raw materials like cement and so on,” Mr. Vaishnaw said.
The construction of Chenab bridge raised several questions on the environmental impact of the project along the course of Chenab river. “An impact study worth ₹3 crore has been commissioned to WAPCOS (a Jal Shakti Ministry-run public sector undertaking) for understanding how the course and flow of the Chenab river has been impacted,” Mr. Vaishnaw said.
While the Chenab bridge project is being touted as the world’s highest rail bridge by India, it may lose the title to neighbouring China, which is constructing the Daduhe railway bridge in Ludig along the Sichuan-Tibet Railway at a height of 380 m. “While we cannot now change the height of an already constructed [Chenab] bridge, we can only aspire to build higher bridges in future,” Sanjay Gupta, Chairman and MD of the Konkan Railway Corporation Limited, told The Hindu.