Higher than the Eifel Tower: The Chenab Bridge is an Engineering Milestone of the Indian Railways
By Arka Chakarborty
The ragged, mountainous terrains of Jammu and the valley of Kashmir surrounded by snowcapped peaks have been historically known for their isolation from the rest of the world. While a few mountain passes have made Kashmir open to influence from the world outside, this influence has seldom come in the form of deep and regular communication. Even in the modern era, various political and economic factors have prevented the establishment of a regular and convenient communication and transportation system that connects Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of India. In this context, the construction of the USBRL (Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail Link) in general and its crowning jewel, the Chenab bridge in particular, represents a historic moment. The humongous Chenab bridge, a concrete arch bridge that sits at a height of 1177 feet (359 meters) from the riverbed and is 1315 m long, is the world’s highest railway bridge under construction and is estimated to be 35 meters taller than Paris’s iconic Eifel Tower. It represents the triumph of human effort over natural obstacles. Recently, a new milestone was reached when the awe-inspiring arch of the bridge was completed through a ‘golden joint’ and the two decades long journey of its construction seems to have entered its concluding phase.
The USBRL was conceived as a 272 km railway line that would serve as a high-speed alternative to the conventional transportation within J&K and would also integrate the erstwhile state with the rest of India for the first time since Independence. It is one of the most challenging projects ever conceived by the Indian railways in the post-independence period due to the extremely challenging terrain and hostile climate of J&K, especially in the rugged Katra-Banihal stretch (111 km). The foundation for the project was inaugurated by the then Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda in 1997 CE. Due to the mountainous topography of the region, the project will feature a series of 38 tunnels (which represent a cumulative length of 119 km) including the longest tunnel in India T-49 (which alone measures a length of 12.75 km) and 927 small and long bridges (total length: 13 km). While planning out the potential route of the USBRL project, a deep gorge in the Chenab valley was encountered. In order to overcome this obstacle, the idea of a single arch bridge of unprecedented scale was conceived in 2002. The ambitious Chenab bridge project was estimated to be completed by 2009, but serious concerns regarding the bridge’s stability and safety led to the suspension of all work on the same in 2008 CE. After careful design re- adjustments, construction on the bridge began anew in 2010, with a projected completion year of 2015. Again, the construction work suffered several delays. Finally, in November, 2017, the base supports were declared completed, making possible the construction of the arch. The arch was completed in August 2022 with the placing of the golden joint. The total estimated cost of the bridge is Rs. 1486 crores (USD 190 million), which forms a large chunk of the total estimated cost of the USBRL project as a whole (nearly Rs. 28000 crores). As the project is of national importance, the cost for the construction of the Chenab bridge is borne by the Indian government. Now, the magnificent bridge connects Bakkal and Kauri in the Kauri region of the Reasi district in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
The Chenab bridge project is a testament to the organizational capacity of the Indian
government. Although the region where the USBRL project is underway is under the jurisdiction of the Ferozpur division of the Indian railways’ northern zone, Konkan Railway Corporation Limited was chosen as the executive agency and the design consultant of the Chenab bridge project due to its prior experience in constructing railway infrastructure in the similarly dangerous terrains of western India. M/s Chenab Bridge Project Undertaking, a joint venture between Ultra Construction and Engineering Company of South Korea, Afcons Infrastructure and VSL India, was awarded the contract. Afcons in particular is engaged in building sixteen additional railway bridges in Jammu and Kashmir. M/s WSP (Finland) was the designer for the foundation of the bridge and the viaducts placed at the two ends of the same. M/s Leonhart, Andra and Partners (Germany) designed the iconic arch. IISC Bangalore provided the design for the critical foundation protection. Proof consultation regarding various aspects of the terrain and design was provided by numerous UK and USA-based organizations as well as IITs Delhi and Roorkee. The Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) provided support in the bridge’s construction by using special steel to make it blast-proof.
The structure of the massive, awe-inspiring bridge is a juncture of technological progress, organizational capacity, engineering brilliance and two decades of vision and determination. The structure and design of the Chenab bridge is masterfully described by Narendra Shah (2022). The Chenab bridge is a large span single arch steel bridge with approach viaducts on either side. The arch is two-ribbed and is comprised of large steel trusses. These trusses have chords which are internally stiffened sealed steel boxes filled with concrete. The number of bearings has been minimized to ensure reduced maintenance and inspection efforts and improves the riding quality. The seventeen spans of the huge arch of the bridge (the longest measuring around 550 meters curvilinear and 467 meters linear) are beyond the scope of Indian construction standards and, therefore, are supplemented with international standards like the Euro, International Union of Railways and British Standards.
The crucial golden joint of the arch has been constructed using High Strength Friction Grip bolts. Apart from seventeen spans, the bridge has ninety-three deck segments which weigh eighty-five metric tons each. The whole structure is supported by two pylons measuring 130 m and 100 m attached with cable. These pylons were designed by VCE Consult ZT-CmbH, an Austrian firm.
Around 1300 workers and 300 civil engineers have worked day and night to make the project a success. The seemingly insurmountable challenges that the difficult topography and hostile climate offered have been overcome using a blend of technological prowess and creative problem-solving. 26 km of motorable road has been built to support the construction of the bridge. Due to the lack of power infrastructure in the Himalayas, electricity has been produced locally to keep the construction work going. Around 28600 MT of steel (including 4000 MT of reinforced steel) and 46000 cubic meters of concrete have been used on this project. Today, the Chenab bridge stands as a monument of strength and resilience. It is built to withstand 266 kmph of wind, any blast, and zone- V level earthquakes. After the placing of the golden joint, broad gauge railway tracks will be laid on the bridge and a few practice runs will be tested. It is estimated that the bridge will become operational by December, 2024.
The USBRL project was conceived to make travel in Jammu and Kashmir easier as well as to integrate its communication and transportation system with the rest of India, an objective that, if attained, will lead to long strides in social and economic development. The magnificent Chenab bridge, which conceptually may have looked like an architectural impossibility half a century earlier, now stands proud as a result of India’s technological progress, technical know-how and ability to mobilize resources for public service. The creative solutions to unbelievable odds that the engineers involved have come up with exhibits the technological acumen they possess and the will to overcome steep challenges to make life easier for the citizenry. Glinting in the sunlight, the marvelous Chenab bridge, once operational, is sure to be counted among one of the world’s greatest engineering miracles.