The Bridge across the river Saryu

by Rajeev Shrivastava

I joined Indian Railways and after two years of training got posted in N. Railway. The track was crossed by a number of rivers flowing down the hills into the terai region. One such river was Saryu.

The single line bridge across the Saryu River was a multi-span through-girder bridge. The Sectional Permanent Way Engineer (PWI) was one Mr. Khan who was a chronic bachelor, 41 yrs of age and was a workaholic. I was a bachelor too (all of 23 yrs of age) and had great respect for this man who was very competent and was very soft spoken and tactful too. I did not have a govt. vehicle but had bought a black Yamaha RX-100. The National Highway hugged the railway alignment, crisscrossing it several times. I loved biking and used to ride my bike while going for inspections as much as I could. Mr. Khan had a sprawling bungalow and I used to park my bike at his house, whenever inspecting in that area.

During my initial inspections, Mr. Khan drew my attention to the bad condition of the timbers on the Saryu Bridge and we decided to plan through replacement. This work is called BTR (Bridge Timber Renewal) and necessitates speed restrictions. The work involved is typically as below:

  1. The pathway sheets pinned to the sleepers in between the guard rails are removed.
  2. The guard rails are removed.
  3. Alternate rail screws are removed and the remaining are loosened over stretches to be tackled on that particular day.
  4. The new timbers are 'notched' on the bottom to accommodate the rivet heads on the top of the girders. For this, marking is taken in advance and individual rivet heads are notched for.
  5. The old timbers are removed from track by rotating these and taking these out from between the rails and inserting new ones. This rotation is required as the timbers can not be taken out laterally due to lack of working space on the sides.
  6. The new timbers are sprinkled with hot bitumen and then with sand, to make these fire resistant to some extent.
  7. The pathway sheets and guard rails are re-fixed.

Somehow, we could not get a speed restriction sanctioned for this work due to other ongoing works which were consuming more than the permitted engineering recovery time. We got desperate as time passed and finally decided to take the things in our own hands.

A speed restriction of Stop Dead + 10 kmph was imposed one morning, ostensibly due to rail fracture, in approach of the bridge. Mr. Khan started the work of BTR in right earnest. Fifty gang-men and three carpenters were deputed on the job. However, our plans to carry out the work undetected were thwarted one day when the Traffic Inspector of the section noticed the work going on and reported this to the Sr. Divisional Operations Manager (Sr. DOM). The Sr. DOM got annoyed as the speed restriction was not got sanctioned through him and instead an emergent SR had been imposed to carry out a planned renewal. He got on to the Control phone and fired Mr. Khan who was present in the ASM's room for the daily evening engineering conference. Mr. Khan got so peeved at this that on the next day he got a board erected at the bridge site which read 'Saryu Halt'! As it was, all the trains were stopping due to the SR and it was an amusing scene to find gang-men getting down/ boarding trains at the bridge where the unofficial halt had been opened! Some enterprising daily passengers also started using the unofficial halt and when I next went to check the work after 5 days, I found a regular Halt in operation at the bridge!

The matter went up to the DRM who called me and asked about it. On explaining the situation, he took a pragmatic view and asked us to complete the work in another 7 days instead of the 10 days we had planned for. The timbers were replaced and the speed restriction was removed urgently as now the DRM was monitoring it. However, the pathway sheet could not be fixed properly before the SR was removed and this work was still in progress. On the next day I was foot-plating by a super fast train. This train passed the site after work-hours and as it negotiated the bridge, few pathway sheets got entangled with the undercarriage and got rolled into thrashing rolls with sharp edges below the moving train. This resulted in breakage of several angle cocks and disconnection of the air brake pipes in 7-8 coaches. The train stopped with half the coaches over the bridge. This created a piquant situation as it was not possible to go under the train over the bridge to try and isolate the coaches. The driver and assistant initially refused to even try. The guard was stuck in his coach which was on the bridge.

Finally the assistant and yours truly went under the bridge, on the fresh tarred timbers, spoiling our trousers beyond salvage. With no pathway sheet to obstruct the view of the dry bed 10-12 m below, it was a really scary crawl. The coaches could be isolated with great difficulty and after one and a half hours, we could move to the next station at restricted speed. The S/F Express lost punctuality and there was a furor in HQs. It was suspected that a hanging part may have uprooted the pathway sheets which were not properly fixed in any case and this may have caused the entanglement. I was asked by the Chief Engineer to investigate personally and report on the next day, which was a Sunday.

Mr. Khan had taken the day off and so I rode my bike to the bridge site. Construction of a second bridge was in progress, over the river, for doubling of the route. I parked my bike at the site office and climbed the bank to look for tell tale signs of the hit marks of any dangling parts on the approach of the bridge. I walked into the bridge gingerly as the tarred timbers got slippery under the hot sun. As I went almost to the middle of the bridge an Express Train cruised into the bridge without a sound. The driver saw me and gave a blast of both horns. I got the shock of my life and as I furtively looked for the trolley refuge, I could sense that I would not make it to safety of that refuge in time. I ran away from the approaching train taking two timbers at a time. All the time that I was running I could sense the approaching train closing in fast. I reached an intermediate pier (which did not have a trolley refuge) and just in the nick of time, could lower myself between the timbers, onto the pier. The train passed through over my head as I sat on the pier, shivering in fear. My legs trembled so much that I could not get up for 5-10 minutes after the train passed. The site supervisors and workers from the construction site rushed up the bank and on to the bridge, heaving a sigh of relief on finding me safe. I got the scolding of my life from a 50-odd year old work-mistry for putting my life in danger. I could muster enough courage to ride back home only after an hour or so. Needless to say, my CE never got the report he wanted.

The Bridge across the river Saryu almost had me that day. Remembering the instance still sends a tingle down my spine.