The Indian Railways is staring at a possible loss of over Rs 2,500 crore annually due to imminent closure of the 41-km long line between Chandrapura and Dhanbad as the land around the section in Jharia coalfields has started caving in due to underground fire. Rail traffic on the section will be completely suspended from June 15. The closure of the section in Jharkhand will affect the daily movement of 37 passenger and freight trains resulting in a loss of about Rs 7 crore a day. Jharia, one of India’s biggest coalfields is estimated to have nearly 80 cases of underground fire since 1916.
According to experts, unsafe and illegal mining has led to fire in coal deposits under the surface of the Jharia coalfields. The continuous fire now pose a serious risk to the population living in the area and a threat to rail transport. The Director General of Mining Safety has stated in its reports that land around the coalfield has finally started caving in and public utility assets including the age-old railway tracks are no longer safe now.
The PMO held a meeting last month with officials from the Railway Ministry, the Coal Ministry, the Jharkhand government and other ministries concerned to take stock of the situation and in principle it was agreed upon to shift all utilities and railway line from the affected area. “We have been asked to consider the exit plan from Jharia coalbelt to draw up its diversion path for the Dhanbad- Chandrapura line,” said a senior Railway Ministry official who attended the meeting.
The meeting chaired by Nripendra Mishra, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, was also attended by senior officials from the Geological Survey of India and NITI Aayog to discuss the action plan to divert the double line from the area. Besides the goods trains that carry excavated coal from the mines, the affected 37 pairs of daily train services some of the important trains include the Howrah-Ranchi Shatabdi Express, Patna-Ranchi Janshatabdi Express, Dhanbad-Patna Pataliputra Express, Hatia-Gorakhpur Maurya Express, and Dhanbad-Alappuzha Express.
There are a number of problems associated with the task of closing down the Dhanbad-Chandrapura line, said the official. Drawing out a completely new line entails acquiring of land, ensuring alignment with the existing network, setting up rail tracks and station infrastructure which will take a minimum of three years. Though multiple committees and expert groups have advised the government ways to douse the underground fires since nationalisation of mines began in 1971, only around 10 fires out of 80 have been extinguished using different methods.
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Railways is also mulling the possibility of keeping the track alive by mitigating fire-related circumstances at the most vulnerable points by pushing nitrogen foam mixed with water through boreholes in affected mines; filling up of cavities with sand and mud to cut-off oxygen supply and sprinkling water to lower temperatures. Dhanbad Deputy Commissioner A Dodde has said that he had received a letter from the PMO in this regard and a meeting with the Dhanbad divisional rail manager and other officials would be held soon to chalk out the further course of action.
Executive director (civil engineer) of the railway board, Anil Kumar Lahoti, had written to the General Manager of the East Central Railway, D K Gayen, for the closure of the railway line due to coal mines fire and subsidence in Jharia coalfield. Lahoti, in his letter, said the Directorate General of Mines Safety (DGMS) had submitted a report on the railway line, saying a 14-km stretch of the total 38 km track was the “most dangerous” due to the underground mines fire.
“So, having considered DGMS’ reports based on inspection and study, the (Railway) board has decided to stop operation of passengers and goods traffic with effect from June 15. So take immediate and necessary action accordingly,” the letter said. An expert committee had been set up by the Dhanbad deputy commissioner after ECL’s Lalmatia mines mishap, in which nine miners were killed on December 29 last year, for assessment of the railway line in January. The committee had recommended suspension of train movement owing to mines fire spreading towards the track.