100 Years of India’s First Cantilever Bridge

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.