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When former president A P J Abdul Kalam inaugurated the centenary celebrations of the Pamban Rail Bridge on January 28, 2014, he reminisced about what the bridge meant to him. Till the road bridge opened in 1988, the 2.05 kilometer railway bridge was the only connection between Rameswaram Island and mainland India.

But now we may be seeing the last of the old bridge which was inaugurated on February 24, 1914. The Pamban Rail Bridge with the Scherzer rolling type lift, which opens up to let ships pass through, is soon to be replaced. A new bridge which is under construction is likely to be inaugurated by the middle of this year.

The Pamban Rail Bridge with the Scherzer rolling type lift, which opens up to let ships pass through, will soon be replaced by a bridge with a vertical lift.

Notably, Sir Arthur Cotton, hailed as the sculptor of the Godavari delta, who was among the first persons to conduct a marine survey between Pamban pass during the 1820s to determine the feasibility of constructing a bridge. Realizing the huge potential for India-Ceylon trade, the British started taking measures to construct a bridge between Mandapam and Pamban by 1870. The construction which began in 1911 was completed in 1914.

The Pamban Rail Bridge was an integral part of the Indian-Ceylon railway line because one could travel from Chennai to Sri Lanka with a train ticket in those days. Till 1964, the railway line culminated at Dhanushkodi, and a ferry carried passengers to Talaimannar to resume the train journey.

For the last 105 years, the Pamban Rail Bridge has been so much a part and parcel of the lives of the people of Rameswaram island. Kalam, for instance, recalled at the centenary celebration how he felt when he crossed the bridge when he went for his high school studies to Ramanathapuram, and later for higher education to Trichy and on to a long career at DRDO and finally the presidency.

The bridge was something that the people of Rameswaram had longed for when there was no connectivity. Former Panchayat President of Pamban coastal village Patrick says the local residents were so enthused about a bridge coming up that they did everything they could to help along the construction.

The Pamban Rail Bridge was an integral part of the Indian-Ceylon railway line because one could travel from Chennai to Sri Lanka with a train ticket in those days. Till 1964, the railway line culminated at Dhanushkodi, and a ferry carried passengers to Talaimannar to resume the train journey.

 

In 1964, the Dhanushkodi Super Cyclone that wiped out Dhanushkodi from civilization, also wreaked massive damage on the Pamban Bridge. Metroman E Sreedharan, who was given the task of restoring it, repaired it in a record time of 46 days, against the initial target of three to six months. Patrick says the coastal people were very involved in the construction and repair works at the time. “The bridge was a lifeline,” he says, and the people wanted to do everything they could to get it back into action.

Since then, the Pamban Bridge has stood the test of time and circumstances.

With 143 piers, the bridge was designed to cater to the meter gauge section of the railways. When the railways adopted the uni gauge system in 2006-07, which would convert all lines to broad gauge, there was a plan to abandon the old bridge and construct a new one. As a road bridge had already been functioning for nearly two decades by then, officials even considered disconnecting the rail bridge altogether, because it is very expensive to maintain. Pamban Bridge stands in a highly corrosive environment and is termed the world’s most dangerous railway stretch due to the winds and wave action.

The Pamban Bridge stands in a highly corrosive environment and is termed the world’s most dangerous railway stretch due to the winds and wave action.

During the centenary celebration, railway officials recalled how Kalam, then President of India, had requested the railway ministry to continue the train services to his birthplace. Rameswaram is also an important tourist and pilgrim centre attracting lakhs of visitors every year. The piers were still strong enough to adapt to broad gauge railway lines but a speed limit was imposed for safety reasons.

Considering the age of the bridge, Indian Railways finally proposed a new bridge later. A new and stronger bridge can help the railways operate more trains and at a better speed, they said. The Scherzer rolling type bridge allowing the ships and boats to pass through is going to be replaced with a vertical lift bridge, parallel to the dock.

Rail Vikas Nigam Limited, which is undertaking the construction works, is likely to complete it within the next six months. The works began in 2019 with the initial estimated date of completion being within two years.

The Scherzer rolling type bridge allowing the ships and boats to pass through is going to be replaced with a vertical lift bridge, parallel to the dock. Rail Vikas Nigam Limited, which is undertaking the construction works, is likely to complete it within the next six months.

In all probability, the old bridge is likely to be dismantled. But plans are underway to keep a portion of it for display at Mandapam railway station premises as a heritage piece, sources say. “It will be a tough task to dismantle that old structure completely,” says Patrick. He anticipates that the rails and the Scherzer portion could be dismantled but the pillars are pretty strong and won’t be easy to take down.

Patrick is not enthusiastic about the new bridge. “We don’t feel a connection to it like we did with the old rail bridge. It stands alienated from us,” he says, considering that the local residents have no role to play in its construction this time.

Rail users feel that the old Pamban Rail bridge seen here could be turned into a tourism attraction. A portion of it can be preserved, and tourists can be taken by ferry for a fee to see the 105-year-old engineering marvel.

Rail user associations feel that the old bridge could be turned into a tourism attraction. “If not the entire thing, at least a portion of it can be retained in the sea for tourists to see. Ferries could be arranged for a fee,” says P Edward Jeni of the Kanyakumari District Rail Users Association. “It is hailed as an engineering marvel of those days. We can preserve it for future generations.”


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