Kerala’s SilverLine rail is economically unviable and threatens ecosystem

The Summary of the Detailed Project Report sheds light on how the Kerala government’s ambitious SilverLine railway corridor project is substandard, as well as ecologically and economically unviable.
A prototype of a high-speed train
A prototype of a high-speed train

A media house in Kerala recently leaked the 87-page Executive Summary of the Detailed Project Report (DPR) of the controversial Silverline project, a semi high-speed railway corridor of the Kerala government. Along with this secretly guarded DPR, the Feasibility Report of the project, too, was revealed. Earlier, several RTI requests to make these documents public were rejected, with the Kerala government terming them “intellectual property.”  The public debate on the project, to date, was based either on the Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment Report of an organisation unaccredited to carry out EIA or fact sheets from the website of Kerala Rail Development Corporation Ltd (KRDCL or K-Rail), which is executing the project.

The Thiruvananthapuram-Kasaragod Semi High-Speed Rail project, or popularly the SilverLine, is a proposed 529.45-kilometre rail line (built at a cost of Rs 63,941 crore), running through 11 districts to connect Thiruvananthapuram in the south to Kasaragod in the north. The project, which is expected to be completed by 2025, has already run into serious controversies on account of the potential harm it can cause to the fragile ecosystems of the state and equally debilitated financial capabilities of Kerala. 

Strong opposition to the project rings across the state. The public, especially those whose land could be acquired for the project, and those whose livelihoods and normal movements could be hampered have organised themselves into a state-wide K-Rail SilverLine Virudha Janakeeya Samithi. Political parties and civil societies, too, have questioned its merits on technical and financial grounds, as well as the environmental and social impacts. 

Meanwhile, the K-Rail, a joint venture between the state government and Union Railway Ministry, had drawn flak from the Kerala High Court, for laying survey or boundary stones, emblazoned with ‘K-Rail’ on it, on properties to be acquired for the project. The move faced stiff resistance, including a family even threatening to self-immolate. A total of 1198 hectares of private land (and 185 ha of rail land) is expected to be acquired for the project. The court barred K-Rail from laying the stones while allowing the survey to continue “but within the parameters of the law and maintaining the limits of civilized behaviour and civility.” 

It is at this point that the leak of the DPR’s Executive Summary document (dated June 9, 2020) assumes importance. Systra, the Indian subsidiary of a Paris-based consulting company of the same name, prepared the report. Let’s analyse why this document — which, in normal cases, is made public — was hidden away. TNM, which has accessed the 87-page Executive Summary, will flag some of the key concerns in the report. 

Note: The assessment is based on the Executive Summary, which is only one summarised document of the entire project report. 

Economical design or a substandard?  

SilverLine’s Detailed Project Report (DPR), a document that extensively outlines a project, states that this project is conceived as a stand-alone rail corridor on a standard gauge and can run at a maximum speed of 200 kilometres per hour (kmph), with an average speed of 132 kmph. The detailed tables show that this project is substandard when compared to the speed of High-Speed Rails (HSRs) in other parts of the world. For example, the maximum speed of HSRs in Belgium is 347 kmph and the average speed is 247 kmph. The lowest of the speeds is in Switzerland with 280 kmph and 140 kmph respectively.

The report also speaks of seven HSR projects, proposed by the Indian Railways. All of them are proposed to run at an average speed of 250 to 350 kmph, more than twice the speed of the SilverLine. According to the DPR Summary, higher speeds were not considered for the SilverLine mainly because they would be substantially costlier. However, since K-Rail had brought down the speed to a maximum 200 kmph, the technology used would be cheaper. The projected cost, per the report, is around Rs 64,000 crore. 

The seven HSR projects as well as the SilverLine project are big-ticket projects, running on almost fully imported standard gauge technology. While the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a Japanese funding agency, is reportedly being considered for funding the project, land acquisition and other evaluations are prerequisites. 

Inadequate surveys

One of the mandates of any DPR of such massive infrastructure development projects is a Comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (CEIA) and a Social Impact Assessment (SIA), which should be conducted by accredited and reputed agencies. The K-Rail had earlier conducted an EIA using the Centre for Environment and Development, which is not accredited for environmental assessments. The DPR also claimed that to have carried out the SIA, too, when it was not carried out. 

Following criticisms from various experts, in September 2021, the K-Rail contracted a consortium, led by EQMS India Pvt Ltd, of three agencies to conduct the EIA. TNM has also learnt that the Kerala Voluntary Health Services has been asked to conduct the SIA. 

Among the surveys and studies mandatory for a DPR, the report says that Geotechnical investigations, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) Survey, and Traffic Survey have been completed. However, there is no mention of the crucial Final Location Survey (FLS), which is done with ground investigations before fixing the final alignment. This is a serious lapse, especially since the K-Rail officials had started laying stones for land acquisition.

The project, the report claims, evaluated alternative options for the state’s need for fast transportation. However, only one model — the stand-alone standard gauge semi high-speed rail line — has been proposed as the solution. Experts in the sector suggest many options for Kerala by road, rail, air and waterways, which should have been evaluated. For example, modernising railway lines, deploying faster boats and cruises. 

The DPR also estimates a “realistic scenario” where there would be a daily ridership of 79,934 in 2025, which would increase to 1,58,946 by 2052. Incidentally, one of the major railway projects in India, between two of the most populated commercial capitals Mumbai and Ahmedabad, the ridership estimate for 2023 is just 36,000. Going by this, the K-Rail will have to review their numbers as the very financial feasibility of this project is largely dependent on the ridership data and the fare structure. 

Predatory on road/rail development

The Traffic Demand Survey in the Detail Project Report reveals the predatory nature of the SilverLine project. It seems to say the success of the project depends on keeping other infrastructures such as the National Highways (NHs) and State Highways (SHs) underdeveloped. Infrastructure developments such as “road widening and building bypass to NH 66, NH 766, SH 69, Kasaragod-Kanjagad Road etc, which are parallel to the alignment of the SilverLine shall have a negative impact on the ridership of SilverLine.” It added, “But if the NHs and SHs are made to toll roads, due to higher costs, it may lead to a positive shift to SilverLine.” 

At a time when the railway infrastructure in Kerala needs to be upgraded — doubling the present rail line, straightening the curves and modernising the signalling system to improve speed — such improvements to the present system will impact the SilverLine, the DPR adds. 

It even recommends increasing the fare of the existing train services. “With no increase in fares, the passengers travelling by sleeper and 3rd AC class may not be willing to shift to SilverLine. But, if fares are increased, then no impact is expected,” it argues.  

Ecologically unviable

K-Rail continues to claim that the project will, in no way, affect the environment. Its argument is that the project does not align through forest areas nor through Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZs). However, the DPR validates the various concerns raised by the public on environmental issues that most of the project’s construction is done through large embankments (raised platforms for railway lines) that are as high as eight metres above the Highest Flood Line. 

The embankments cover 292 km of the proposed length of 531 km. The embankments, along with the 102 km ‘cuttings’ and the 25 km ‘cut and fill’ constructions, forms 78% of the construction. This will eventually act as a massive wall that will disrupt the geography, landscape, and most threateningly, the hydrology of the state. The DPR states that in order “to economise the cost of the project, default choice has been to keep most of the alignment in the bank (embankments) or cutting.”

While this is the major environmental concern, the Kerala Chief Minister recently released a video that claims that bridges will be built for 88 km over wetlands, lakes and rivers, without addressing the main environmental concerns. 

“The decision to build the rail line in the flood-prone Mid-Highlands region on embankment and cuttings instead of tunnels and viaducts was taken without a hydrological study,” alleged Alok Kumar Varma, retired Chief Engineer from Indian Railway Service of Engineers. Alok had led the team in Systra that prepared the Preliminary Feasibility Report. 

According to the official, these structures can be damaged by floods and also worsen the flood situation by constraining the flow of floodwaters. “In the Preliminary Feasibility Report, we had advised against taking the line to the Mid-Highlands region,” he said. 

The DPR also makes no mention of the impact of climate change on the stability of these structures against extreme weather conditions.

Another serious environmental concern is the availability of earth materials for construction. According to the report, “the availability of moorum, gravel and good earth, required for construction of the embankment, is in abundance in Central Kerala.” This, however, is unfounded as the Vizhinjam Sea Port project, which also requires such material, is experiencing delays due to the shortage of such material. While it is not known (from the DPR) whether a detailed assessment for the materials has been carried out, the concern is if, like in the Vizhinjam project, hills and mountains would be quarried, thereby upsetting the ecosystem. 

Meanwhile, contradicting their official report, Ajith Kumar, the Managing Director of K-Rail, told the Mathrubhumi Weekly that construction materials for the K-Rail project would be sourced from other states.

What experts say

The economic viability projection of the SilverLine project, as per the estimates in the DPR Summary, is Rs 63,940.67 crore, with a project completion period of five years. However, considering the rate at which the project is moving, the total costs are bound to go higher. 

‘Metro Man’ E Sreedharan, who had spearheaded the Delhi Metro rail project, also echoes a number of concerns on this project, estimates that this project would require an expenditure of at least Rs 1,10,000 crore. He has gone on record to term the project “ill-conceived, badly planned and very badly handled.” The NITI Aayog had also raised concerns that the project cost would go up to Rs 1,26,000 crore. 

“The presence of just one premium service (reduced travel time) does not ensure that people will not use the cheaper options for travel, especially for short distances. The estimation of ridership figures also seem way out of proportion and the number of daily rides needed to meet such numbers seems irrational beyond a point”, says Nishank from Delhi-based Centre for Financial Accountability (CFA). 

The Economic Internal Rate of Return (EIRR) of the project has been estimated at 24.04% in 50 years. However, the calculations based on a 50-year period are bound to undergo several changes due to long term economic uncertainties and shifts in various external factors, Nishank points out. “This could happen due to a host of factors such as the advent of new technologies, economic recessions, delay in repayments of international loans or even possible pandemics,” he adds.  

But there are simpler ways of understanding why such projections never work. Most of the road and rail infrastructure projects in Kerala have time overrun by decades and cost overrun manifold. The best examples are our own National Highways and the rail electrification projects (examples, here, here and here). 

The leaked Executive Summary of the DPR is just the tip of a melting iceberg. Meanwhile, refusing the right to critical information that affects the public is always an indicator of misdeeds. The earlier the state government publishes the DPR and leads an informed debate, the better for both sustainable development and progress, as well as for the credibility of the project.

Sridhar Radhakrishnan is an engineer and environmentalist and writes on matters related to the environment, agriculture and climate.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute