A public interest lawyer has sent a letter to the union railway minister on the subject of structural
safety and vulnerability of old railway bridges like 161 year old
Koilwar bridge on Sone river seeking a new bridge in place of the old
Although there are 37,689 bridges on railway network which are 100 years or older but the ministry has not classified them for special attention.Dr. Gopal Krishna, the lawyer has pointed out that the CAG’s audit report of 2015 has recorded that 6,680 bridges were over 140 years old including the 161 year old Koilwar railway bridge on Sone river.
The Koilwar Bridge is known as Abdul Bari Bridge in the memory of Abdul Bari, a well known freedom fighter. It is one of the weakest and oldest bridges in India that is getting further weakened because of loss of strength of its foundation pillars due to unabated sand mining in the vicinity of bridge.
The lawyer had written a letter on the subject of "Imminent serious train disaster in Koilwar, cleanliness at Railway Stations and human rights of General ticket passengers" addressed to the railway minister on 4 July, 2015. He was assured that “Action is being taken by this office and we will be reverting back to you at the earliest” but his recent field visit to the Koilwar railway bridge shows that no action has been taken to ensure that steps are taken to replace the old bridge with a new one.
A High Level Safety Review Committee had recommended instrumentation of all bridges and use of advanced scientific measurements and inspection for condition assessment in February 2012. Instead of acting its recommendations, the practice of treating the very old bridges on par with the existing newer and modern bridges when it comes to inspections and maintenance is an invitation for disaster. These bridges have been planned for lesser loads and service conditions that have changed radically over time. The delay in replacing Koilwar’s old bridge with a new rail bridge over Sone river at Koilwar is fraught with catastrophic consequences.
The rail bridge over Sone river in Koilwar between Ara and Patna is endangered. It is likely to be a cause of serious train disaster given the fact that massive sand mining is underway in this stretch. The nuts and bolts of the bridge are coming apart. The bridge itself is in rusted condition and is bearing heavy traffic. This bridge was constructed when this region was part of the Bengal Presidency. It was built to serve as a link between the city of Patna on the east side of the Son River and Ara town on the river’s west bank. This bridge appears in the Oscar-winning movie Gandhi (1982). It may be recalled that the plan for this bridge began in 1851. The initial survey of the site that done by George Turnbull (1809-1889), chief engineer of the East Indian Railway Company. The designers of the Koilwar Bridge included civil engineer James Meadows Rendel (1799-1856) and architect Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877). The construction on the bridge was started in 1856. This road-cum railway bridge was formally inaugurated in 1862 by James Bruce (1811-1863), who had been appointed viceroy and governor-general of all of British India’s provinces in that very year. This bridge commenced as the longest river bridge in the entire Indian subcontinent. It is crying for railway ministry's very urgent intervention to prevent disaster in near future.
The Axle loads and traffic density have increased with the advent of faster and heavier trains. As a consequence the safety of these old bridges are severely compromised which is likely to lead to safety failures. The obsolete technology and materials used in these old bridges may not be compliant with modern rail system. The deficiencies related to aging bridges are a major concern for their structural safety. The current approach of the ministry is detrimental to the health of a bridge since the archaic technology and materials of these older bridges can not withstand the rigours of modern rail transport equipment. These bridges have withstood the stress and rigours for over a century suffering corrosion, distress, wear and tear but their vulnerability cannot be denied.
With the advent of modern rail transportation, older bridges will not be unable to withstand higher load and speed, resulting in accidents. Both Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways and the audit report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) have taken note of the existence of a large number of very old bridges. The latter has identified them “as due for rehabilitation/ reconstruction is a concern for safe train operations.” There is a need for the ministry to re-evaluate the old bridges to augment the safety and security of bridges like on the one Sone river at Koilwar by devising a protocol of inspection and maintenance to include a greater degree of safety and safeguards for bridges.
In his letter the lawyer who has authored his doctoral thesis on the industrial disaster of Bhopal has pointed out that the disasters happen because early warnings are not heeded. The preventable disasters are inexcusable and unpardonable. The public institutions cannot be given the right to feign surprise in the event of disasters.
There is a logical compulsion to replace the old Koilwar rail bridge with a new one at the earliest. Any unfortunate incident on this railway bridge will be the sole responsibility of the railway ministry because no preventive steps have been taken despite it being made aware of the vulnerability of the old bridge at Koilwar on Sone river because of rampant sand mining in the area by sand miners from four states. The sand mining in this region is indefensible and unscientific. The ministry ought to constitute a high powered committee to undertake cumulative impact assessment of its vulnerability and take immediate preventive steps.