The Pamban Bridge is a basically a cantilever bridge on the Palk straits which connects the holy, pilgrim town of Rameswaram to mainland India. It spans a 2 km-strait between mainland and island and is the only surface transport link between the two.
A cantilever bridge is basically a bridge built using cantilevers – i.e. structures that project horizontally into space, supported only on one end. The steel truss cantilever bridge was a major engineering breakthrough when first put into practice, as it can span distances of over 1,500 feet (460 m), and can be more easily constructed at difficult crossings.
The Pamban Bridge is 6,776 ft (2,065 m) and was opened for traffic in 1914. It has a double leaf section midway, which can be raised to let ships and barges pass through. The railway bridge historically carried metre gauge trains on it, but it was upgraded to carry broad-gauge trains in August, 2007.
Until recently, the two leaves of the bridge were opened manually using levers by workers. About 10 ships — cargo carriers, coast guard ships, fishing vessels and oil tankers — pass through the bridge every month. From the elevated two-lane road bridge, adjoining islands and the parallel rail bridge below can be viewed.
This bridge, constructed hundred years ago, is still in good condition and is a marvel of engineering. Until recently, the bridge formed Pamban island's only link with the Indian mainland. Thousands of Hindu pilgrims on pilgrimage to the holy Hindu shrine of Rameswaram cross the bridge every day.
According to various experts the bridge is located at the "world's second highly corrosive environment", next to Miami, US, making the construction a challenging job. The location is also a cyclone-prone high wind velocity zone.
GP Warrier, who was Director, Civil Engineering in 1965 (and later retired as Railway Board Chairman), writes in his auto biography entitled “Time, Tide and My Railway Days” about the Pamban bridge thus:
“The unprecedented tidal wave in February, 1965, 14 feet high, washed off a passenger train running between Rameswaram and Dhnushkoti at 10.00 pm. There were no survivors. The tidal wave also cut off all connections between the main land and the Rameswaram Island by putting the Pamban bridge out of use. On this long railway bridge all the 144 steel girders were washed off… Sreedharan, one of our outstanding engineers, was in charge of the (restoration) work and it goes to his credit that he completed this very difficult task in just a short period of four months.”
On 13 January 2013 the bridge suffered minor damages when a naval barge that went adrift close to the Pamban Rail Bridge collided with the century old structure.
The ship that was towing a naval barge from Kolkata to a port near Mumbai first went aground hitting rocks on the January 10 following bad weather. Disaster followed as the vessel remained stuck just 50 metres away from the rail bridge. The barge that was afloat around 100 metres away hit the Pamban Rail Bridge.
The Railways have requested IIT, Madras to assess the strength of the century old Pamban Bridge and analyse options. It has been asked to consider whether it was necessary to build a new one adjacent to the present structure. The options included building a new bridge with a split span for navigation, further strengthening the existing one or building a higher level structure like a road bridge.
Veena Dhanammal and Pamban bridge
There is a story connecting the legendary Veena Dhanammal, one of the pioneering ladies in the firmament of Carnatic music, with the Pamban Bridge. She used to scold students who sang songs at a high tempo asking them whether they were going to catch the Boat train or even trying to overtake it! The then famous boat train (boat mail) ran, during the period 1915 to 1964, from Madras Egmore up to Dhanushkodi. From that point passengers were ferried to Talaimannar in Ceylon – what is now known as Sri Lanka! However, the metre gauge branch line from Pamban Junction to Dhanushkodi was abandoned after it was destroyed in the 1965 tidal wave incident.
(Author is Assistant Director, PIB at Madurai)