Prasun Bandyopadhyay is 35 and a senior scientist at a major multinational firm in the rapidly developing Whitefield area of Bangalore. He and his wife Punam, also a scientist, have two children and they live across the Whitefield Railway Station, in north-eastern Bangalore, beyond the Sai Baba Ashram. This is the extended Marathahalli-Whitefield road that goes north to intersect the Hosakote/Kolar highway.
A number of private residential layouts have mushroomed here over the last few years. A whole host of young, as well as middle-aged professionals have started settling down here.
The Bandyopadhyay couple, like many of their fellow-residents are an increasingly worried lot. The Whitefield railway level crossing (LC), located near the Kadugodi Police Station has been a massive congestion hotspot for some years now. The LC is manually controlled by the Railways and every time a train has to pass, it is shutdown and traffic piles up.
"If something happens and we have to rush to the hospital, we have to cross the railway line. There is unpredictability in the level crossing, with goods trains sometimes running into the crossing and stopping right there," says Bandyopadhyay, voicing a worry that is on everyone’s mind. Access in general to everything from schools to workplaces and more has already been difficult and the LC has made it worse. The clogged intersection is hurting everyone, residents from all income levels and businesses alike.
And it isn’t that nothing is being done. Railway over-bridges (ROBs) have been the standard solution for years. In July 2006, well beyond the saturation point at the intersection and after one previous attempt at building a bridge had been aborted, the South Western Railway commissioned a Rs.10 crore-ROB contract. According to this contract, the bridge was to be completed in September 2007.
And yet, almost everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong. The story reads like a virtual lesson in how our infrastructure-building eco-system – government authorities, contractors and the rules they play by – has ended up dooming the project’s timely execution right from the start.
From global market prices of materials and design complications to labour issues, coordination, and monsoon deluges, a number of factors have led to delays and the work sometimes coming to a standstill. By current estimates, the ROB is estimated to complete in March 2009. But this estimate must be taken with a pinch of salt, since an otherwise precarious operational situation persists.
As of October 2008, only about 65 per cent of the physical work has been done, according to the contractor Soham Engineering Constructions, a Hyderabad-based firm, led by Managing Partner Narayanan. Narayanan, a septuagenarian, says he has been in the industry for over three decades.
Citizen Matters spoke to Narayanan at Hyderabad, as well as a number of senior Railway officials who agreed to discuss the project only on conditions of anonymity. South Western Railway Divisional Manager at Bangalore, Akhil Agarwal, could not be reached for comment despite several attempts.
The bridge is a specialised one: its central span is a steel girder, on top of which the reinforced-concrete road is laid. The span is 42 metres-long and leaps over 6 electrified railway tracks, each carrying 25000 volts. The welding on the steel girder is a specialised type.
Ramps (or approaches) to the steel girder are being built, one from the Whitefield side in the south, and the other from the Sai Baba Ashram side in the north. The bridge is to have one lane of traffic in both directions. Everyone, from businesses, to residents, to real estate developers, and the SW Railway officials themselves say they have wanted and still want this project to be finished soon.
Why has it taken so long – steel and cement prices
Two central issues have messed up progress. One, the prices of steel and cement skyrocketed during 2006-07, after the tender was closed and work order issued to the contractor. This has caused cash flow issues for Soham, says Narayanan, and impacted their execution.
"Steel prices were at Rs.27000 per tonne when the contract was tendered in early 2006. Now it is at Rs.43000 per tonne. In between it had gone up to Rs.53000 per tonne," says Narayanan.
"No one stocks more than three-four weeks of steel," he says, responding to a question on whether he could not have stocked more at the lower 2006 prices.
Cement is another story. Cement prices were in the range of Rs.165 per bag in 2005 during the opening of the tender and rose to Rs.220 in 2007, and Rs.270 in 2008. Unlike steel, cement prices did not come down in 2008.
Narayanan claims his firm is going to run a loss from the project, because of these higher prices. Railway officials confirm this is a possibility, and but they add that the price formula used in their tender does not allow for substantial cost escalation based on real market prices during execution time. They confirm that the losses, if any (or reductions in the contractor’s margins) have to be borne by the contractor.
“The total cost of the project is now up to Rs.12.5-13 crores, and may rise further”, says a senior Soham engineer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Railway officials however say that they have been pushing Soham to complete the work, especially after steel prices came down to Rs.44000 per tonne.
More problems – planning and execution
The second cause for delay was technical. The design of the project took longer than expected. By the time STUP Consultants completed it, it had already been nine months from when the work order was issued in July 2006. Furthermore, Soham had no prior experience in the specialised welding needed for the composite steel girder, admits Narayanan. It was in September this year, 26 months after the work began, that Soham finally did a test welding demonstration for the Railways.
There’s more. For the project to proceed on time, Soham not only had to finish the design on time, they also needed the LC to be shut down soon so that the excavations for the ramps on either side could begin. But for this, the Karnataka state government had to complete an alternative route for traffic pour
ing into the intersection. This route was to connect Hope Farm junction (about a kilometer south of the LC) to an intersection north of the level crossing. The time needed for this work was not accounted for in the project.
Ultimately, the alternative route was completed in July 2007, and it was then that the LC was closed.
Worse, when the Railways did close the LC and Soham began excavations, Bangalore was already in its monsoon season. Every evening’s onslaught would fill up the pits. According to Soham, this required de-watering of the ramp pits the next morning. But even with that, earth-movement work could not proceed without land drying up and this further delayed the ramps work by four months.
"The contractor will be most relieved if the project is completed since costs are only higher for delayed projects," asserts Narayanan, explaining that the delays so far have hurt the contractor the most.
With the main technical hurdles overcome though, costs and cash flow remain the key issues. Narayanan says they are committed to finishing the project despite the overruns and will not abandon the project, in keeping with the agreement they have signed. Railway officials acknowledge this.
Railway officials also say that they need two safety clearances: one from their Engineering Division in Hubli and the final clearance from the Commissioner of Railway Safety at Bangalore. Again, officials are optimistic here and say they are working on getting both the clearances at the same time.
Of the 42-metre steel girder needed for the span, Soham engineers are now assembling the first 16-metre segment as this article goes to press. According to Soham, they expect to complete the project in March 2009, with the girder work completing in January 2009. Railway officials say that the end of March or early April 2009 may be when they will open the bridge.
What lies in store
It is anybody’s guess whether the Whitefield ROB will be completed early next year. Narayanan reiterates his central worry remains cash flow since he has to mobilise the extra money for cost overruns, and this could delay things further. "I am not running away from the project because of my moral obligation," says Narayanan as he breaks into a philosophical point when asked about how Soham will finish the project.
In mid-2008, the Railways have modified their formula to allow escalation of project costs indexed to real market prices provided by SAIL. However, this only means that future tenders (i.e. contractors) will be benefited, not existing contracts.
Even after the bridge goes live, it may be a Bangalorean’s classic nightmare. Because there are no ramps (none were planned) for turns into the side road going to the Whitefield Railway Station itself, people wanting to turn at the intersection will have to go over the span and then take a U-turn at the end. During peak traffic conditions, this is likely to cause a jam at the bridge itself, and engineers at the site admit that. The level crossing will be shutdown as per the agreement, so the bridge is the only transit option.
The only really positive aspect about this project today is that despite the messy path, both Railways and the contractor appear to be on the same page on their intent to finish next year.
Until then though, emergency or otherwise, Prasun Bandyopadhyay and scores of other taxpayers will simply have to wait at the level crossing whenever a goods train rumbles in and parks itself on the line. ⊕