New Delhi: Competing desires within the Indian Railways – to conserve heritage sites but also rapidly electrify tracks – are colliding at the national transporter’s Kalka-Shimla route.
The directorate of route electrification last month proposed to electrify the 96-km-long narrow gauge section, which climbs into the hills of Himachal Pradesh, at a cost of about Rs 31.17 crore.
This has been a demand raised by politicians from Shimla, like the BJP’s Virender Kashyap, who believe electrifying the route will lead to faster travel times and more passenger traffic.
According to sources and ministry file notings, however, railway minister Piyush Goyal has raised red flags over the proposal. He opted to preserve the heritage condition of the Kalka-Shimla Railway (KSR), which is UN World Heritage Site.
Constructed in 1903, the KSR has 18 stations, 103 tunnels, 983 major and minor bridges. Its trains were initially run on steam engines, and in 1955 changed to being hauled by diesel locomotives.
After concerted efforts by the Railways’ heritage wing, KSR was inscribed as World Heritage Site (WHS) by UNESCO in 2008.
Recently, as part of the railways’ criticised push towards 100% electrification, the transporter’s electrical wing had submitted the proposal to electrify the section. This was intended to reduce pollution from diesel engines, as well as to the travel time between Kalka and Shimla.
The proposal did not find favour with Goyal when it reached his desk.
“We may approach UNESCO only if detailed project report (DPR) and heritage impact assessment (HIA) recommend. At the moment let us get DPR and HIA made,” the minister has noted in the file.
While recommending the WHS status, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the technical advisory body to UNESCO had observed, “The property is one of the best preserved mountain railways in India and remains much as it was at the time of its completion.
“In addition, to its engineering infrastructure, it has retained its stations, signalling system and a rural environment and landscape that are virtually unchanged.”
According to railway sources, electrification of the KSR section would render “major changes” in the “design, infrastructure, landscape of this world heritage railway”.
“If the changes are carried out, this could threaten the section’s WHS status,” one source added.
In case the KSR section is electrified there will also be an addition of structures like mast, overhead electric equipment, and other related infrastructure which will alter the integrity of the stations and the route like.
As per the railways’ operational guidelines, major changes that alter the integrity of a WHS is not desirable.
Besides this, UNESCO operational guidelines also stipulate that the world heritage site should maintain its authenticity. This includes original content, attractions, techniques, locations, spirit and feeling of the assets belonging to the site.
“Any effort that significantly alters the authenticity and integrity of a world heritage site can lead to delisting KSR as a UNESCO world heritage site, which will be a major embarrassment to the government,” one person with knowledge of the matter told The Wire.
The Railway Board chairman also expressed his reservations.
“The views of heritage are extremely relevant. while the financial advantage cannot be denied, the fact remains that the heritage of the line would be seriously affected with electrification,” the chairman noted in the Kalka-Shima file.
“In the past also there have been controversies relating world heritage sites involving Hampi and Darjeeling hill railways. In my considered view, going ahead with electrification of the KSR would not be proper.”
With both minister and railway board chairman not in favour of electrifying this heritage section, the proposal is likely to be deferred.
Arun Kumar Das is a senior journalist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.