NEW DELHI: India’s Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, who recently visited J&K, announced that the train would reach Kashmir by 2024. He also assured that Jammu-Poonch railway link would be completed after addressing viability issues of the area.
The foundation stone of the railway project to connect Kashmir with the rest of the country was laid by the then Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda in 1997 and since then it has missed many deadlines.
The idea of bringing organised transport to Kashmir was first floated in 1898 and was followed in 1902 and 1905 by the then British government. It intended to reach the region by rail, including a 2 feet or 2 feet 6 inch gauge electric railway climbing to 11,000 feet over the Pir Panjal Mountain Range. None of these were built.
Further proposals emerged in the mid-20th century, but it wasn’t until 1994 that then Railway Minister C.K. Jaffer Sharief made headway in building a line to Baramulla and the Kashmir Valley.
In 2001, the Kashmir Railway received National Project Status from the Centre and has seen unlimited funds provided to it.
The Indian Railways’ ambitious Kashmir Railway Project is one of its most important and difficult projects as it aimed to build a railroad connection through the Himalayan foothills. The main objective of this project is to provide an alternative and more reliable mode of transportation system to the people of Kashmir than the existing mode of travel by road as the 270-km Jammu-Srinagar National Highway has remained the most unreliable highway across the country due to landslides blocking it all throughout the year.
During the winter season, it remains closed for days together.
Officially, this railway track was named as Udhampur-Katra-Qazigund-Baramulla link (USBRL). The unique features of this line were the presence of a major earthquake zone, extreme environmental conditions in terms of temperature, and the most extreme geological profile throughout the entire terrain.
Experts have lauded the Indian Railway’s initiatives and how it has overcome some of the challenges associated with the project and said that once accomplished it would be an engineering miracle.
For the past 24 years, the Indian Railways have been working on the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail Link project, worth Rs 21,653 crore. It has many firsts, including world’s highest rail bridge, which soars 359 metres above the Chenab river bed and the longest railway tunnel with 12.75 km length. It comes under the jurisdiction of the Firozpur railway division of Indian Railways’ Northern zone.
Of the 272-km-long USBRL project, 161 km length was commissioned in phases. The 118-km-long Qazigund-Baramulla section was commissioned in October 2009, followed by the Banihal-Qazigund section of 18 km in June 2013, and the 25-km-long Udhampur-Katra section in July 2014. The 111-km-long Katra-Banihal section is under construction.
Out of 97.64 km, 84.39 km stands completed on the main tunnels. The track comprises 26 major and 10 minor bridges of which 12 major bridges have been completed, and work on 14 more is in progress, while 10 minor bridges are complete.
So far, construction of more than 205 km network access roads stands completed.
Three agencies — IRCON, KRCL, and Northern Railway are involved in this project. Many international agencies and premier Indian institutes like IIT Roorkee, IIT Delhi, DRDO and Geological Survey of India are providing expertise in planning and implementation.
The entire area of Jammu and Kashmir is mountainous except Jammu and Kathua districts. It has a geographical spread of 2,22,236 square kms and 19.95 per cent of the total geographical area is under forest. This valley has an average height of 1,850 metres (6,070 feet) above sea level, but the surrounding Pir Panjal range has an average elevation of 10,000 feet (3,000 m). Total population as per 2011 census is 1.25 crore which is 1.04 per cent of the total population of the country. The Railway network in J&K is the highest altitude network in India.