G V Joshi
On Tuesday, January 29, 2014, a long-time resident of Rameswaram and former President Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (aka Missile Man of India) inaugurated the centenary celebrations of the Pamban railway bridge-India’s first cantilever bridge, connecting the pilgrim-island of Rameswaram with the mainland.
As a two-coach special train took him from Mandapam across the bridge. He remembered his younger days. In his words,”Pamban Bridge is part of my life.” As a young boy, he had travelled hundreds of times on the bridge to take newspapers to the island for distribution.
Mr Kalam unveiled a plaque and released a book “Marvels of South Indian Railway”, marking the inauguration of the nearly month-long celebrations. In the words of Rakesh Misra, Southern Railway General Manager, “The Bridge was an engineering marvel that had withstood corrosion and a violent sea for over a century.”
The 65.23-metre-Iong rolling central lift span (the bridge is 2.06 km long), named after Scherzer, German engineer who designed and built it, has been given a fresh coat of paint and decorated with lights. It opens up like a pair of scissors to allow vessels to pass through under the bridge. The bridge was built by a Scottish company, M/S Head, Wrightson & Co. Ltd.
The Pamban Bridge is a basically a cantilever bridge on the Palk straits which connects the holy, pilgrim town of Rameswaram to mainland India. It spans a 2 km-strait between mainland and island and is the surface transport link between the two.
A cantilever bridge is a bridge built using centilevers-i.e. structures that project horizontally into space, supported only on one end. The steel truss centilever bridge was a major engineering breakthrough when first put into practice, as it can span distances of about 450 m, and can be more easily constructed at difficult crossings.
The bridge is 2,065 m long and was opened for traffic in 1914. It has a double leaf section midway, which can be raised to let ships and barges pass through.
The railway bridge historically carried metre gauge trains on it, but it was upgraded to carry broad-gauge trains in August, 2007.
Until recently, the two leaves of the bridge were opened manually using levers by workers. About 10 ships – cargo carriers, coast guard ships, fishing vessels and oil tankers – pass through the bridge every month.
On December 22, 1964, the six-bogie Pamban- Dhanushkodi Passenger was crossing the bridge in a cyclonic storm when a 6 metres high tidal wave smashed into it and washed it into the sea. The death toll was estimated to be anywhere between 115 and 200, (number of ticketless travellers unknown).
The Dhanushkodi track and station were also washed away, putting an end to the service to this terminus. The Scherzer Bridge was also badly damaged, with 126 of its 145 girders collapsing. Most of them were salvaged from the sea but the Scherzer lift span escaped.
The bridge was subsequently restored to working conditions under the supervision of the then Assistant Engineer, E. Sreedharan, (well- known Indian engineer for his work in establishing Konkan Railway and Delhi Metro Railway) in just 46 days (some sources say 120 to 150 days.).
After ‘the 1964 cyclone, an anemometer was installed to send an automatic warning signal to approaching trains to the bridge, if the wind speed exceeds 55km per hour.
The terminus was shifted to Rameswaram. Earlier the then famous train-boat train (Boat Mail) ran from Madras Egmore up to Dhanushkodi via Rameshwaram. From there passengers were taken to Talaimannar in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, by a ferry.
The rail-boat-rail service continued from 1914 to 64 and was stopped after the cyclone of 1964.
The metre-gauge branch line from Pamban to Dhanushkodi was abandoned after it was destroyed in the cyclone.
As long as it lasted, the steamers carried passengers, goods, cattle and cars, so one could effectively drive a car all the way from Colombo to then Madras now Chennai. Many cricket enthusiasts did it in the 1950s to watch a cricket Test match at Colombo in Shri Lanka.
The Railways have requested IIT’, Madras to assess the strength of the century old Pamban Bridge and analyse options. It has been asked to consider whether it was necessary to build a new one, adjacent to the present structure. The options included building a new bridge with a split span for navigation, further strengthening the existing one, or building a higher level structure like the road bridge.
Dr. Kalam has played a vital role in preserving the bridge. The rail bridge threatened to become defunct, when the Indian Railways announced the “unigauge” policy in 2006.
The Railways considered a proposal to construct a new bridge, but gave up the idea as it would cost a whopping Rs.700 crore. Stepping in, the then President Dr Kalam, who hailed from Rameswaram island, suggested that the existing bridge could be strengthened for gauge conversion.
After obtaining expert opinions from IIT- Chennai and structural engineers, the bridge was strengthened to broad gauge standard and train services resumed in 2007.
The bridge was further strengthened in 2009 for running of goods traffic.
Some time back, it suffered a jolt, when a barge, being taken through the channel, crashed into the bridge, damaging it, after anchor failure. However, there was no serious damage and train services were resumed on the bridge very soon.
A walk on the bridge is an exhilarating experience. At times the breeze could be strong. The view of the distant sea and the string of islands on the left of Pamban Island are simply breathtaking. Though the bridge is a stunning structure, the entrance to the bridge from both the Mandapam and Pamban sides do not do justice to this impressive landmark and need improvement.
The authorities are trying to get the UNESCO world heritage status for the Pamban Bridge on the lines of three Mountain Railways of India; Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and the Kalka-Shimla Railway, which have been granted the UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
There are rumours floating around regarding a worker letting his son die while operating the moving sections on the bridge so that a train passes through safely. But these are probably false as the bridge required twelve people, six on each side, to manually operate its moving sections.