The Covid-19 restrictions on the running of trains allowed for ‘traffic blocks’ needed to undertake upgradation pending for years
In order to carry out urgent works, repairs and modifications to existing infrastructure, suspension of all train movements in a given section is inescapable. This cessation of all activities—called a ‘traffic block’—had been hard, if not impossible, to order so far; this was on account of the over-16,000 trains originating everyday on the Indian Railway’s vast 67,000 km of network.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in the number of trains originating every day dropping to less than half, and a ‘traffic block’ could be ordered at the drop of a hat!
ECR (East Central Railways) did just that to fast-track nearly a dozen projects where suspension of rail traffic for long periods of time was involved. These projects had been dragging along for years as train operations were being routinely accorded top priority and providing ‘traffic blocks’ was simply out of the question, unless it was for a safety-related task.
Upgrading the 390-km long ‘Jhajha to Deen Dayal Upadhyaya (erstwhile Mughalsarai) station’ route to run trains at 130 kmph instead of the earlier 110 kpmh was now possible since long ‘traffic blocks’, extending upto six hours could be ordered. This involved extensive replacing of existing rails with those of higher Ultimate Tensile Strength (UTS); Plasser Quick Relaying System (PQRS) machines that could lay down 230 m-long welded rail panels in one go were deployed!
The Jhajha-DDU section, though an alternative to Asansol-Dhanbad-Gaya-DDU route, had suffered neglect for ages. But, having gained adequate traffic over the last decade or so, it was now ripe for an upgrade. No less than six stations that had the antiquated system of hand-lever cabins with semaphore signals were replaced by electronic interlocking and coloured-light signals. Similarly, electronic-interlocking was commissioned at Kiul-Lakhisarai section, and IBH (Intermediate Block Hut) provided at Sachivalay Halt, Block Hut C, Hathidah, Bhalui and Chaura. This upgrade had a salutary effect on the speed of trains, now cut by almost half an hour time to cover the Jhajha-DDU stretch.
RRI (Route Relay Interlocking) is the gold standard for train operations, where hundreds of train-routing points and signals in major yards can be operated from a Central Cabin. Long-pending projects for Patna (Rs 30 crore), Danapur (Rs 52 crore) and Kiul-Lakhisarai (Rs 21 crore) were taken up and completed, a very difficult, if not impossible, task in pre-Covid-19 era of rail traffic.
Another work from the vast basket of projects of ECR that had been in a limbo for a number of years also got sped up—a bridge over River Kosi that would bring prosperity to this remote region of north Bihar. The old bridge, built in 1887, between Nirmali and Saraigarh (district Supaul) in north Bihar (along the Nepal border) had been destroyed in an earthquake in 1934, snapping rail connectivity to this region. The foundation stone for a new bridge had been laid by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002, and the project was in the final stages of completion, waiting for rail approaches from the Nimarli and Saraigarh ends. This project, costing Rs 323 crore, picked up momentum with resources now available due to the pandemic, and the 1.9-km long railway line, along with the mega-bridge over Kosi, was completed at a final cost of Rs 620 crore—it was dedicated to the nation by the PM in September. Connectivity between south and the equally, if not more, prosperous north Bihar has always been an issue. Constructed at a cost of Rs 2,800 crore four years ago, a rail-cum-road bridge over the Ganga provides a vital connection between Munger and Katihar, by-passing the congested Barauni Junction route for movement from south to north Bihar and beyond, to Bengal and Assam.
It was indeed a red-letter day for the Indian Railways when the more than 3-km long bridge over the Son river was converted from double- to triple-track, with advance signalling features, thanks to less than half the level of rail traffic now moving due to the pandemic.
A major upgrade for the Grand Chord route (Dhanbad-DDU), it also involved RRI work at Dehri-on-Son and Sonnagar stations of the DDU division. Expected to make a significant impact on the throughput of coal trains, it is slated to hike the potential for supplying coal to power plants by 20-25%, meeting the burgeoning demand of electricity for the Indian economy.
(The author is former member, Railway Board.)