Jammu and Kashmir, the northernmost state of India, the paradise on earth has seen its share of conflict in its recent history. Facing the never ending threats from foreign and foreign backed internal forces has made essentials like governance, business, logistics take a backseat adding to the woes of both the residents and the Government of India. Because of the conflict and geographic isolation of the Kashmir Valley with the rest of the country there is little movement of people from other parts of India to Kashmir and of Kashmiris to other parts of India. This isolation further adds to the disconnect and alienation of Kashmir. Tourism in Kashmir Valley which consistently fell during the 90’s has only recently picked up a little after 2010. In 2016, over a million tourists visited the valley. While the numbers are encouraging, they are still very low considering its potential as a tourist destination. This geographical isolation also makes it harder from the movement of goods to and from the valley. In this series I will examine the role Indian Railways can play to reverse this trend.
History of Railways in Jammu and Kashmir
Before Independence, Jammu was connected to the rest of India via Jammu-Sialkot route. However, after the partition in 1947 the line was discontinued. One can still see some traces of this line and abandoned station buildings in the bordering villages of Jammu. It was only in 1972 that connectivity to Jammu was resumed through
the Pathankot-Jammu line.
Connecting the picturesque Kashmir valley through railways was a completely different story. The idea was first explored by Maharaja Pratap Singh in 1886 when the Maharaja met Lord Dufferin to initiate the construction of a railway line to Kashmir. After many surveys and exploring alternatives, it was thought that laying a track from Jammu to Srinagar via Reasi was feasible since it bypassed the snowed areas. However, the project never saw the light of the day and after two more efforts in 1928 and 1937 the project fell off the priorities.
In post- independence era, surveys were done in 1962, 1964, 1971 and 1972. It was only in 1983 that a final survey was done and the Government of India planned to undertake the most ambition rail project in India’s history to connect Jammu and Kashmir to the rest of the country. It was officially called as the Jammu-Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail Link.
More than a decade passed after this but the project still seemed unrealistic and unattainable. It was only in 2002 that the NDA government declared it as a National Project (A Project declared as National Project receives entire funding from the Government of India. This was significant because the Ministry of Railways did not have enough funds to finance the project).
In 2005, Leg 0 of the line is completed, which is the 53 Km long Jammu-Udhampur line. The line has 158 major and minor bridges and 20 major tunnels.
In 2008, the 66 km long section from Anantnag to Manzhama was inaugurated which was extended to Baramulla in February, 2009 and a year later from Anantnag to Qazigund (Leg 3). This started the train operations within Kashmir (From Qazigund to Baramulla) even though it remained separated from the rest of Indian Railway network.
In 2011, a breakthrough was achieved when the longest railway tunnel of India, the Pir Panjal Tunnel was opened which connected the southernmost district of Kashmir Valley- Qazigund to the North-easternmost district of Jammu- Banihal. The tunnel is 11.215 Km long going through the Pir Panjal range and was constructed by IRCON (more on this in future articles).
The Udhampur- Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Katra line was officially inaugurated in July, 2014 which completed leg 1 of the project.
As it stands today, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi is the northernmost point upto which main line trains go. Local DEMU passenger trains operate in the Banihal- Baramulla section for intra-kashmir valley transport. To connect Kashmir valley to the rest of India Katra-Banihal section must be completed and opened for operation.
Challenges in construction
The line is one of the most challenging railway projects ever taken in India’s railway history. It passes through the Himalayan mountains which are very young and therefore, full of geological instabilities. The extreme cold weather, high wind velocity and snowfall in most of the region creates many problems both in construction of the line and its operation. For instance, during snowfall in the valley the snow gets accumulated between the points of the tracks (Points are provided to change the direction of the train) which leads to failure of these points and switches. Snow has to be manually removed from between these points to make them operational again. Also, cold temperatures also lead to contraction of the rails which may lead to rail fractures. Similarly, bridges must be designed to resist high wind speeds.
Because of the hilly terrain, the section is full of bridges, tunnels and viaducts. Infact, 85% of the Katra-Banihal section is through tunnels and bridges.
The biggest challenge is constructing the Chenab bridge between Bakkal and Kauri crossing the Chenab river at a height of 359 metre making it the world’s highest rail bridge.
Once completed, the line would not only bring Kashmir closer to the rest of the country, it will bring huge economic benefits to the local population in the form of jobs, better movement of local produce out of Kashmir, transport of bulk goods to Kashmir in a cheaper and more efficient manner. It also has stragetic significance as it may provide an alternative for faster and unhindered troop movement in the region.
In the next part of this series, we will explore the possibilities of passenger and freight services in Jammu and Kashmir and how it can bring about transformation in the lives of the people.
(The author is a Civil Servant belonging to the Indian Railway Traffic Service. Views expressed are personal)