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Pamban Bridge to be pulled down for gauge conversion

Raja Simhan T.E.

File picture of the Rameswaram Express passing through the Pamban bridge. - Bijoy Ghosh

Chennai , Nov. 20

THE 90-year-old Pamban Railway Bridge, one of the country's architectural marvels, is to be pulled down. The metre gauge bridge that stands over the Palk Straits connecting Mandapam and the island of Rameshwaram at the very tip of India, is to be replaced with a new broad gauge in about five years.

The new bridge, like the existing one, will also be a `Bascule bridge', which can `open up' in the middle, in order to allow ships to pass through.

The replacement is for two reasons. First, the present bridge outlived its life of about 60 years. Secondly, the Railways are converting all the (British built) metre gauge tracks to broad gauge. The Pamban Bridge is a part of the Madurai-Rameswaran gauge conversion project in Tamil Nadu.

The 6,776-foot Pamban Bridge was opened for traffic in 1914. The spans — the mid portion that opens up — were fabricated in England, brought to India in pieces and assembled here.

"The bridge is superior in construction and compared to similar structures abroad, (of similar vintage)," said Dr G. Narayanan, Chief Engineer, Construction, Southern Railway, said. The total length of the viaduct is 6,776 foot, he said.

When a ship passes underneath the bridge, people manually rotate levers that cause the two `leaves' of the `span' to be yanked away, so that the middle section of the bridge opens up. Each of the two `leaves' weighs about 200 tonne, he said. About 10 ships — cargo carriers, coast guard ships, fishing vessels and oil tankers — pass through the bridge every month.

According to Dr Narayanan, the bridge is located at the "world's second highly corrosive environment", next to Miami, US, making the construction a challenging job. The location is also a cyclone-prone high wind velocity zone. The 1964 cyclone had a devastating effect on the structure, he said.

Dr Narayanan said that the Southern Railway considered six options to replace the bridge: Terminate broad gauge trains at Mandapam and take passengers by metre gauge train to Rameshwaram, strengthen the existing bridge to broad gauge standards, have a fixed level bridge (similar to the adjacent road bridge), an undersea tunnel, divert ships through another (Sethusamudram) channel and build a new bridge.

"Finally, we decided to construct a similar bridge to the existing one by use movable spans. It could be a vertical opening of the leaves, horizontal or even up and down movement. The consultants would decide it," he said.

The Southern Railway, which maintains the bridge, recently issued global tender inviting bids from engineering consultants for constructing the new bridge. One of the conditions of the tender is that a foreign company participating in the tender should have a tie up with a local firm, he said.

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