Why a proposed semi-highspeed elevated rail corridor to ease travel to Sabarimala shrine worries people

The local community wants the dormant 25-year-old Angamaly-Erumeli Sabarimala Railway Project revived.

ByK A Shaji

Published Oct 24, 2023 | 1:54 PM Updated Oct 24, 2023 | 1:54 PM

Sabarimala

The Railway Ministry’s proposal to construct a semi-highspeed rail corridor to Pamba —  8 km ahead of pilgrim centre Sabarimala — from Chengannur has left the residents of Kerala’s Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts worried.

They feel that the proposed line, if it becomes operational as planned by 2030, might dash the two districts’ possibility of becoming a part of the main national railway network.

The Railways has launched a feasibility survey for the estimated ₹9,000 crore, 76-km elevated rail corridor which would allow Vande Metro trains to zip through at 160 kmph. The project, many fear, may stall the 111-km Angamaly to Erumeli Sabarimala Railway Project for good.

Erumeli is the base camp of pilgrims taking the traditional forest route to the hill shrine, whereas those travelling by vehicles alight at Pamba before trekking to Lord Ayyappa’s abode.

Just a 3-month operation

The Vande Metro trains, incidentally, would be operational only during the around three-month-long Sabarimala pilgrimage season. Despite criticism that operating a route only for three months a year would be a waste of public money, the Railways is pressing forward with the plan.

The public transport provider said it would be beneficial since traffic congestion on the highway to Pamba would dramatically worsen in the next three decades.

The Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) survey and soil testing for the proposed elevated corridor are now underway. Officials said a Detailed Project Report (DPR) will be completed by December.

They expect clearances from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change and the Union government in another two years. The state government will have to acquire the necessary land for the project.

If all these processes are completed on time, the Railway Ministry feels the project could be commissioned by 2030.

Also read: Proposed Sabarimala airport gets green signal

The Angamaly-Erumeli project

Even as the Railway Ministry is upbeat about the project, those living on the way to the forest shrine are a concerned lot. They have been hoping to see the Sabarimala Railway Project — the original 111-km Angamaly to Erumeli-Sabarimala plan — materialise for around a quarter of a century.

The project, which used to find mention during election campaigns, has been lying dormant, despite an allocation of ₹100 crore in the last Union Budget. The state government had also announced an allocation of ₹2,000 crore.

The ₹100 crore earmarked for the project rekindled hope that it would be revived. However, railway sources said if the Chengannur-Pamba elevated project is found feasible, the Angamaly-Erumeli plan, approved in 1997-98, will be scrapped.

When the Angamaly-Erumeli project was approved, the estimated cost was less than ₹550 crore. The estimate was later revised to ₹3,448 crore. Rail infrastructure specialists such as E Sreedharan think that if the project is executed soon, the costs will exceed ₹10,000 crore.

Soon after the proposal was approved, the Railways began construction on a 17-km stretch between Angamaly and Kalady, Sri Shankaracharya’s birthplace.

However, numerous court disputes and protests against land acquisition and compensation delayed the project.

According to Dean Kuriakose, Lok Sabha member from Idukki, the state opted to split the costs when the Union government asked it to do so.

“It would be a great injustice to the people of Idukki and Pathanamthitta if the Railway Ministry abandons the approved project in favour of the elevated corridor between Chengannur and Pamba. Since the pilgrimage is seasonal, the elevated corridor will not be viable in the long run,” he told South First.

Also read: Butterfly watching to understand ecological changes at Sabarimala

The original plan

According to an agreement between the state and the Union government, the Railways would build, operate, and maintain the entire rail route between Angamaly and Erumeli. Railway stations were to be constructed with private partnership, and the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) was to float a special purpose vehicle.

After deducting the expenses, the income was to be shared equally by the state and the Railways. However, the Railway put the project on hold in December 2019.

“If implemented, the rail route would have greatly aided Sabarimala pilgrims. It would decongest trains bound for Thiruvananthapuram, Nagercoil, and Kanniyakumari during the pilgrimage season. Pilgrims from all around South India can ride dedicated trains to Sabarimala’s base camp,” according to K Radhakrishnan, Kerala’s Minister for Temple Affairs.

“The existing line through Chengannur is severely congested, and even if the planned elevated corridor is established, only a few additional trains could be operated. In the larger interests of pilgrims and local communities, the Angamaly-Erumeli line must be implemented,” he added.