Unveiling Arnold Dix: Australia’s tunnel saviour in India

By Indira Laisram
Arnold Dix // Pic supplied

Australian tunnel expert Arnold Dix had just landed in Germany last November when he received a call from India’s top engineer, Rahul Gupta, saying that 41 men were trapped. They were caught when a section of the Silkyara Bend–Barkot tunnel, intended to connect National Highway 134 in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand, North India, collapsed during construction.

Soon, Dix found himself back on a plane, travelling a long way from Ljubljana to Dubai, then to Mumbai, Delhi, and finally to Dehradun. From there, he boarded a helicopter to the Himalayas, where the accident took place. After a 17-day operation, with all 41 men successfully rescued, Dix became the toast of India and the world.

Chased for selfies and thronged by hundreds of media personnel, Dix, who had never experienced being under the glare of the public eye despite his very specialised and high-profile work, says this was “all very new”.

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Over Zoom from his Melbourne home, Dix tells The Indian Sun that he realised he had become famous when he arrived in Delhi after the rescue mission and couldn’t walk out on the streets or even stay at his hotel. “I was like a star or something; I’ve never suffered that before. It was a really big surprise,” he says with a straight face.

“Maybe I just became the face of the rescue,” says Dix modestly. “It’s not like I did it all by myself.”

Nonetheless, he calls this operation one of his career highlights, lamenting, “I don’t know what to do now.”

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But Dix makes a vivid point.

“Normally, when we have an underground operation, everyone dies. It is pretty straightforward. Normally, my job is figuring out how we can learn from it to ensure it does not happen again, but this was different because no one was dead. We were faced with a huge challenge because we also knew that at any moment, there could be further collapse.”

Knowing this, he emphasises how important it was for him to convey that sense of purpose and confidence because every day brought newer challenges in the entire rescue operation. In the end, it worked.

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Dix describes himself as unusual “because my background is odd.” A scientist and geologist with postgraduate work in mining, he also studied law.

But the one event that changed his life was when 9/11 happened and the twin towers collapsed in the US. He was immediately sent to look at the tunnels under the twin towers.

“I was struck by what a great job the tunnels had done under the 9/11 towers to evacuate thousands of people across the Hudson. And I thought I’ll devote my life to helping people in a way that no one need know. Ever since then, helping people underground safe—that’s like being safe in Delhi Metro or the high-speed rail.”

Pic supplied

Before the Indian tunnel rescue operation, Dix had no public profile, but he reflects, “I feel content… good about knowing that tomorrow the world will be a little safer for everybody than it was today.”

Dix is one of the authors of NFPA 130, the Standard for Fixed Guideway Transit and Passenger Rail Systems applied throughout the world. The standards of NFPA 130 were applied in the Delhi Metro project. That means a billion people are traveling around the world on underground systems every morning and “in some small way”, Dix has made it safer.

Dix’s connection with India dates back approximately 15 years when he was engaged in the Tehri Hydro project in the same Himalayan region. He fondly reminisces about a humorous incident where his Brahmin friends would playfully toss him into the river and offer blessings. Moreover, in 2023, he participated in a conference on tunnel safety held in Dehradun.

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Currently, he is working on underground standards, “some new regulatory arrangements for the underground, just generally for the world,” as he modestly puts it. “We are looking at how the new vehicles change the risk of being injured underground things like battery fires, hydrogen engines. I am thinking a lot about those.”

In India, Dix is assisting the government with the reforms for the building of underground tunnels in the Himalayas. “The Indian Cabinet is being briefed and there are a range of things that are going to change, and I am involved with that—still as a volunteer,” he reveals.

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Altogether, by his count, Dix’s relationship with India is not going to be over soon. He shares the news that his second son is getting married to a girl from Pune in November. He is going to learn the Naatu Naatu dance.

For the moment, Dix is content. But looking back, he felt he was at a very special place. The whole rescue saga distils into a different tone when he reveals his love for the Himalayas and his value for human life.

He shares how he knelt before the shrine at the site of the tunnel, as is always the ritual in the world of underground digging worldwide. “Because we know that even though we are engineers equipped with the latest advancements in technology, we are always at risk of danger.”

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Dix adds, “There is something incredibly special about the Himalayas, the area in which the tunnels are being built. Part of that is just the feeling that I get when I am there. It is hard to describe but it feels like a really special place…

“I had a bit of a think. I know it sounds odd given I am a scientist. I felt like I was meant to be in the Himalayas. It feels like a cliché but I felt like it was my destiny to be there. Maybe I had to tell a story at a time when the world is full of news of horrible things.”

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