Kerala: Metroman Sreedharans new proposal sparks debate on mass transit project
Sreedharan was at the forefront of the detractors of the SilverLine project, alleging it was a non-starter with zero practicality. File photo

Kerala: Metroman Sreedharan's new proposal sparks debate on mass transit project

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Metroman E Sreedharan’s new proposal for a high-speed railway line in Kerala has triggered a new round of discussion about the need of a mass transit project across the state.

With the LDF government’s proposed semi-speed SilverLine railway link still in limbo in the absence of nod from the Railway Ministry, Sreedharan’s proposal has opened up a passage to a possible solution. It was after a meeting with KV Thomas, the former Union minister and Kerala government’s special representative in Delhi, Sreedharan came up with a preliminary proposal of high-speed railway.

Chandy govt’s idea

“The idea to build a high-speed rail network in Kerala was first proposed by the Oommen Chandy government. Subsequently, a project report was prepared. The UDF administration at the time demanded the construction of a railway line from Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram,” said Sreedharan.

Also read: Metroman Sreedharan proposes alternative railway project to Kerala govt

“Later, the LDF government came up with a plan for a semi-speed railway, but the railway ministry didn’t approve it. When KV Thomas and I met, he was looking for a possible revival of the SilverLine project. I have told him that the present DPR could not be implemented given the environmental impact and the protests against the project,” he said.

“I told him that the DMRC had prepared a report on adopting a semi-high-speed railway network when he asked about an alternate suggestion. My suggested idea uses elevated pathways and underground rail systems, unlike SilverLine, which uses tracks on the ground. The main difference between the two projects is this. Additionally, just one-fifth of the acreage needed for SilverLine is needed for my project,” Sreedharan told the reporters.

Public outcry over SilverLine

According to the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited (K-Rail), a joint venture organisation jointly established by Government of Kerala and Ministry of Railways, the SilverLine project was envisaged as ‘a semi high-speed rail corridor’ of 529.45 km length from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasargod which will take only 4 hours to travel between the two cities by traversing at a dream speed of 200 km/h.

There was a significant public outcry over the state government’s long-sought semi-high-speed SilverLine project, which ended up in a stalemate following protests and denial of approval by the Union government. The state revenue department had placed yellow stone markers at the private property indicative of displacement of several hundreds of people, triggering protests from various corners. Even though a hefty compensation was on the cards, the government could not convince many of the protesters, who got strong backing from the opposition UDF.

Sreedharan was at the forefront of the detractors of the project, alleging it was a non-starter with zero practicality. Following the Union railway ministry’s rejection of the state government’s project report, the Rs 64,000-crore project was virtually suspended, despite the occasional assurances of some of the CPI (M) leaders.

Also read: Kerala seeks special financial assistance from Centre

BJP backs fresh move

Sreedharan’s fresh proposal gained political significance as the BJP leadership jumped in supporting their national executive member. It should be noted that the Hindu nationalist party was hell-bent against the SilverLine project and their leaders were instrumental in the Centre’s rejection of the DPR.

“Sreedharan has discussed an alternative plan for the SilverLine that would require less land acquisition, do less environmental harm, and operate rapid trains without bothering the general public. It is undoubtedly crucial for Kerala. I know that it will help the state, and it is his dream project,” said K Surendran, the state BJP chief after meeting the engineer.

“When a new project like this comes along, a lot of poor people shouldn’t get displaced. Our ecosystem shouldn’t be damaged as we are a special state that gets a lot of rain every year. Unscientific methods shouldn’t be used. When it comes to railway infra projects in Kerala, the state BJP unit takes advice from Sreedharan,” Surendran told the media making his party’s intention very clear.

Congress cries conspiracy

On the other hand, the Opposition Congress sees a political conspiracy in the sudden revival of the project. “As soon as KV Thomas and Sreedharan started speaking, the project got back on track. Questions started to emerge once Surendran entered the picture. The resurrected idea, which was brought up in only a couple of days, can be said to have a definite conspiratorial odour,” said AICC general secretary KC Venugopal.

The state government, however, is yet to respond officially to the proposal put forward by Sreedharan. However, many of the fellow travellers of the Left, who had been supporting the SilverLine project, have strongly flayed the new proposal, dubbing it as “old wine in new bottle”.

“The media coverage for Sreedharan’s proposal is in a way significant, that it highlights the necessity of a mass rail transport system between north and south Kerala. But his proposal is not an alternative for SilverLine, but an attempt to revive an old proposal of high-speed rail which was rejected for its impracticality,” opined M Gopakumar, a social commentator and former finance ministry official.

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“The ratio of design speed and average speed is the key factor which distinguishes between the projects. Sreedharan’s new proposal has a design speed of 350 kmph and an average speed of 195 kmph as opposed to SilverLine’s 200 kmph and 135 kmph. This difference will reflect significantly on the economic and social factors which amounts for almost 10 percent of the efficiency,” he said.

All eyes on Kerala govt

This could be the main area of difference between the existing proposal of the SilverLine and the fresh note given by Sreedharan. With Sreedharan making it clear that he is not ready to entrust the project with K-Rail or retain the name SilverLine, it would not be an easy task for the government to go ahead with it.

The Pinarayi government may have made a wise choice in utilising KV Thomas to persuade Sreedharan to rejoin the project, but the BJP has since taken advantage of the situation to further its post-Vande Bharat development circus. The Congress also has gotten themselves in a fix, as the very idea of high-speed rail was mooted by Oommen Chandy in 2011.

Now, all eyes are on Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his government as the ball is in their court.

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