Train To Valley Chugs, But On Slow Track

Train To Valley Chugs, But On Slow Track

26 June 2013
The Telegraph (Kolkata)
Muzaffar Raina

Banihal: The train to Kashmir, chugging through India’s longest rail tunnel, has rolled at last but not from as far as it should have. The Valley today got railway connectivity but only from Banihal, a small Jammu town, with Manmohan Singh flagging off an eight-bogey train carrying schoolchildren and officials to Qazigund in Kashmir. The track - split into three sections - to link Kashmir with the rest of the country will take another four years to be laid, officially. Privately, the authorities say it could take many more. Independence Day 2007 was the deadline announced in 2002 when the Kashmir rail line was declared a national project by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. But Prime Minister Singh struck a note of optimism today. “I am happy to announce this project is heading towards completion,” Singh, accompanied by Sonia Gandhi, said after inaugurating the stretch that includes the 11.2km tunnel, India’s longest. The tunnel, almost 62 per cent of the 18km Banihal-Qazigund stretch, has been drilled through the treacherous Pir Panjal range of the Himalaya. The New Austrian Tunnelling Method, which taps geological stress from surrounding rocks to stabilise the cavern, has been used for the first time in India, officials said. It has reduced the distance between Banihal and Qazigund by over half and travel time by a third to 25 minutes. But overall, the project is just halfway through, with only 145km of the full 292km track (Udhampur-Baramulla) finished or nearing completion. “The railway track is divided into three sections, Udhampur-Katra, Katra-Qazigund and Qazigund-Srinagar-Baramulla. The 25km Udhampur-Katra link is almost complete. The 118km Qazigund-Baramulla link (in the Valley) has been operational for four years,” an official said. The problem lies in the middle stretch that includes the portion opened today. “What remains is the toughest part with 80 per cent of the route comprising tunnels and bridges that take long to build,” said another official. The Prime Minister admitted the task ahead was challenging. “Work on the Katra-Udhampur section will be completed in a few months. Only the Udhampur-Banihal line will remain. It is a challenging task. It consists of a 359-metre-high rail bridge, the world’s highest.” Singh also outlined the project’s history and the early challenges. “Maharaja Pratap Singh (former Dogra ruler) had dreamt of this project in 1898. After Independence, Jammu got connected with the rest of India through rail. Indira Gandhi started work on the difficult Chenab section (Udhampur-Qazigund) in 1983.” What Singh didn’t say is that this was his fourth project-related inauguration. He opened the Jammu-Udhampur (54km) stretch in 2005, Anantnag-Mazhama (66km) in 2008 and Anantnag-Qazigund (18km) in 2009. Sonia, too, had opened a 35km stretch in 2009. Before Singh, Indira, Rajiv Gandhi, Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral and Vajpayee presided over ceremonies related to the track. Pak firing Pakistani troops fired on Indian posts today, the second ceasefire violation in 24 hours coinciding with the Prime Minister’s visit to Kashmir, while suspected militants killed a Sopore businessman who had contested the 2008 Assembly elections. Today’s firing occurred in the Poonch and Rajouri sectors of Jammu, when a group of armed terrorists tried to cross the LoC, according to a defence spokesman who said the Indian troops fired back. A search is on for the militants. Yesterday’s violation had occurred in Poonch, hours after Prime Minister talked tough against militants. The Pak firing comes two days after eight army jawans were killed in a militant strike in Srinagar.