“A Silver Line on Kerala’s transport horizon”

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Ar. S Gopakumar

Principal Architect, Kumar Group

Currently, trains take somewhere between 9 and 14 hours to cover the distance between Kasargod in the north and Thiruvananthapuram in the south. In a few years’ time, this distance will be covered in 4 hours, thanks to what has been named Kerala’s Silver Line Semi High Speed Rail Project. In December 2019, Central Government approved the semi-high speed rail project, a joint venture between the Ministry of Railways and the Kerala Railway Development Corporation (KRDCL) involving an estimated outlay of Rs. 66,079 crore.

The 532-km long track is to be built away from the existing line an, when completed, will pass through all except 3 of the 14 districts of the State. The project is expected to create a lot of job opportunities in addition to attracting investment into the State. However, land will have to be acquired and loans raised to make the dream project a reality.

Construction Philosophy (CP) sat with Gopakumar, one of the chief architects of the project, to understand a little more about the project and the challenges ahead. Excerpts from the interview.

Construction Philosophy: Could you tell us how the concept of the Silver Line project was initiated? What purpose is it expected to serve?

Gopakumar: Transportation has always been a problem for Kerala. Geographically, Kerala is a linear state or, in other words, thin and long, which is very advantageous for transport, if planned and executed properly. This is because we can take a single line, cutting along the state to connect all the districts. Whereas if we take the case of Madhya Pradesh for instance, its geography is such that towns are spread out over a large area making it very difficult to plan an efficient transport system.

In Kerala what we need is a main corridor running from north to south, i.e., just one corridor, and short connecting lines running across the width of the State. The width of these horizontal connections running east to west will be negligible in comparison to the length of the corridor making it easy to reach any place. Currently, the only way to travel across the State to the east or west is by road, namely the National Highway (NH), of which we have many. Meanwhile, for connecting south to north, we have just one NH.

This is the existing land transport system in Kerala. Then we have water transport connectivity, which is not yet established properly. We have a somewhat disjoined connectivity between Alleppey, Kottayam and Kochi and there is the possibility to extend it beyond, to the rivers.

The existing railway only runs from north to south and vice versa. The problem therefore, is that we need to have multiple stations at various places in order for passengers to have access to the trains. Though we have reasonably fast trains, the major bottleneck to smooth rail travel is that the tracks are highly clogged.

As we have not doubled the tracks across Kerala, we are unable to operate additional trains between two stations. Thus, we can have only one train in a particular direction between two stations. Thus, we end up waiting for the sedate train to reach a station before the faster or express train can overtake. In addition to this, there are goods trains using the same track and, for India, a substantial part of goods are transported by means of the railway.

Then, we have the four airports in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Calicut and Kannur, which provide very good connectivity and is a major advantage for the State. But the problem with air travel is that passengers need to reach the airport at least one hour before departure and the airports are not located within the city. Therefore, even though air travel is shorter than the other options, time taken to navigate the traffic and reach the airport sometimes makes it more time consuming.

Coming to the Highways, there are regular highways and then freeways. Freeway is also a type of highway but in which there is no possibility to take a turn or u-turn. All the right and u-turns are blocked or controlled by grade separators, underpasses and flyovers. This is the existing infrastructure.

We are already aware that vehicles are a major contribution to air pollution and their number is increasing exponentially every day. Therefore, the most ideal option is to have a railway running north to south unhindered, along with major roads to transport people from the interiors of the State. This is how the idea for the Silver Line Semi High Speed Railway Project came about and how it has been approved by the State and Central governments.

Our objective is to offer passengers a single trip to their destination without any breaks in between, by avoiding transit stations. All major cities in the State such as Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Kottayam and Ernakulam will be included in this plan.  Around 11 per cent of the total length will be elevated over the cities and where there are traffic hubs, there will be underpasses.

The project has several benefits. First of all, environmentally it is a very efficient mode of transportation and secondly, it will substantially reduce congestion on the highways as there is no scope for increasing the width of the roads anymore.

Another advantage is that it will carry goods which doesn’t necessarily have to be a dedicated goods carrier, but can even be one container. By this, if we want to transport goods to a remote place, the vehicle can be driven to the station where it gets loaded with the container from the train and then be driven to its final destination by road. This method will be way cheaper than the conventional methods being used now, and will help save time.

Also note that this is a project that fully adheres to the green protocol. The construction will involve recycling of steel and concrete and, instead of being dumped in landfills, construction waste will be reused and recycled. We will also use only new, low-emission construction equipment for the work and all buildings will follow the standards set by the Indian Green Building Council.

What are the challenges you anticipate?

Around 1,200 hectares of land will have to be acquired for the project. Land acquisition is going to be the major problem. Originally, there was a project planned for an expressway, but that had to be abandoned owing to resistance to land acquisition. The project planners were not even able to complete the survey of the land due to intense protests.

So, for this project we need to make people aware of the advantages they will get before we start. We won’t have to acquire as much area as was needed for the expressway project. And because it is not passing through the cities, it will not be very expensive to acquire land. Since it is an entirely separate track and there is no connection with the existing railway route, it will be routed through cheaper land. Provisions for underpasses have also been included in the budget. 

Won’t the fact that the selected route will be traversing through mostly rural areas affect the initial cost of the project?

Actually, the route and location have already been decided. As you are aware, we did a heli-survey and the survey stones have already been placed at various places. We did not go for land-based survey because we wish to avoid protests. We have done the work so far using the latest technologies. The KRDCL has prepared a feasibility report on the project with a total cost of Rs. 66,079 crore to be completed in five years. The train will run at a maximum speed of 200kmph and the ticket fare is proposed at Rs 2.75 per km.  The State Government has already offered Rs. 8,000 crore for the project.

What is the current status of the project? What is are timelines and outcome you foresee?

With the in principle approval from the Government of India and the State government, currently the surveys have been completed. Next is task is to acquire 1,200 hectares of land for the project. A 532-km long rail line with 10 major stations and 27 feeder stations are planned. By 2028, the project will sharply reduce road traffic, especially heavy vehicles carrying goods like trucks, thereby eliminating approximately 2,37,663 tons of carbon dioxide emission. The average number of travelers a day is expected to increase from 82,266 in 2028 to 116,681 by 2040 and 147,120 by 2051.

What are the opportunities a project like this is expected to bring?

A lot of people are going to get employment. The project will create 50,000 jobs during the construction phase and 11,000 jobs once it becomes operational. Out of its estimated cost of Rs. 66,079-crore, Rs. 7,720 crore each would be provided by the Central and State governments.

And what are the challenges that you anticipate?

 

If people start raising objections and are not ready to accept change, it can create a negative impact. Also, interference from political parties can make it very difficult to get this project going. We are hopeful that we will be able to execute this project smoothly for the common good of the State.