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Stuck: twin tracks
Route change for Metro

The landlocked Howrah-Sealdah section of East-West Metro has been forced to go back to the drawing board to re-examine a route realignment suggested by the state government two years ago but rejected by the railways.

Land owners at Bowbazar in central Calcutta have steadfastly refused to vacate plots earmarked for the project, while a proposed technology tweak that promises minimal displacement has been deemed too risky in a city sitting on soft soil.

For the jinxed Howrah-Sealdah section, including tracks running under the Hooghly, the only way out now is a route realignment (see map) that might come with a new set of challenges. Since that means starting from scratch, brace for another long delay.

“We will do a survey of the proposed realignment from Sealdah to BBD Bag. Within a day or two, RITES will be formally asked to prepare a detailed project report,” a senior official said on Tuesday.

Consultancy firm RITES, which functions under the railway ministry, had done a preliminary survey to assess the feasibility of the state government’s proposal two years ago. Nothing came of it because the railways then wouldn’t accept any change in route.

The impasse continued when the Mamata Banerjee government refused to acquire the required two acres in Bowbazar despite Calcutta High Court clearing the decks last year. A proposal to use a new technology to bore tunnels at Bowbazar — the idea was to displace fewer people than originally planned — did not pass the feasibility test.

“The Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation (KMRC) conducted a survey and found out that there is a risk of buildings developing cracks because of Calcutta’s soft soil. In any case, about 50 per cent of the families (out of 90) would have had to relocate,” a source said.

Implementing construction firm Afcons’s suggestion would have also meant an additional expenditure of around Rs 400 crore, he said.

A team from the KMRC broke the deadlock at a recent meeting, telling the state government that they were considering a route realignment because the original route did not look viable anymore. “The landowners have moved the Supreme Court and there is no guarantee we will ever get the land,” an official said.

In the original plan that was approved by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the main source of funding for the East-West Metro, the tracks were to run from Sealdah to Bowbazar with Metro Railway’s Central station as the interface.

The state government proposed that the tracks, instead of heading west from Sealdah as agreed earlier, turn north and run below Nirmal Chunder Street towards Raja Subodh Mullick Square, where a station would be built. From there, it suggested that the route head towards Esplanade, where a station near the tram depot would act as the interface between the North-South and East-West Metro routes. “From Esplanade, the proposed route would turn towards Laldighi to reach Mahakaran station and then join the original route on the way to Howrah through the Hooghly,” the realignment proposal said.

But Japan International Cooperation Agency, which is providing Rs 2,253 crore out of the Rs 4,875-crore budget for the Metro route connecting Salt Lake’s Sector V with Howrah Maidan, shot down the realignment proposal.

Apart from the Bowbazar hurdle, there is a stretch of army land at Esplanade that needs to be bored for tracks to be laid. The ministry of defence has yet to clear the proposal. At Subodh Mullick Square, underground utilities, including cables and water pipelines, have yet to be shifted.

H.K. Sharma, managing director of the KMRC, said his organisation wasn’t looking beyond the route realignment survey for now.

Railway and state government officials fear the project will be delayed by several years. The original deadline for the 14.67km Metro link was 2013-14. The revised target for the Sector V-Central stretch is August 2015 and September 2016 for the rest.

“We are now looking at 2018, provided there is no other complication in the proposed realignment,” a project official said.