June 27,9 am. A nameless,eight-coach mountain train has set off from Baramulla in north Kashmir with an onerous,diplomatic task: of being that little hyphen that links Jammu and Kashmir,a symbolic handshake between two regions that have often struggled to find their way around the ampersand that separates them.
About 50 km away from Baramulla,at the Nowgam railway station in Srinagar,people are waiting for their turn at the ticket counter. Most of them are here for a joy ride. Today,Qazigund wont be the last station. Instead,the train will continue its journey and cross the mighty Pir Panjal range,through Indias longest rail tunnel,into Jammus Banihal town.
The ticket counter finally opens at 9.30 am and there is mild jostling. Arshad Hussein is the first in the queue and he gets his ticket to Banihal. I am first, he says,holding up his ticket for others in the queue to see. Occasions such as these dont call for sobriety.
Hussein,a 45-year-old engineer from north Kashmirs Bandipore town,works as a chief manager with the Power Grid Corporation and is posted at Batatoe in Jammu. He plans to get off at Banihal and take a taxi to Batatoe,a two-hour ride away. Hussein stays in Batatoe but hopes to come home to Bandipore more often now. I have been eagerly waiting to board this train. Since I travel frequently between Jammu and Kashmir,I know how tough the journey is. The national highway is always choked and in winters,it gets cut off due to snow. This railway link has made our lives fast and easy, he says.
The public announcement system crackles to life: the train is 30 minutes late. Nothing new about that,but today,with the crowd waiting impatiently,that wait seems longer. Finally,at 10.30 am,the train pulls in. By then,there are at least a thousand people waiting on the platform. The crowd crams into the eight bogies and the train starts moving.
The Valley got its first rail network five years ago,on October 11,2008,when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated a 66-km stretch from Anantnag in south Kashmir to Mazhama in central Kashmir,part of the Qazigund-Baramulla stretch. Four months later,the 34-km stretch from Mazhama in central Kashmir to Baramulla in north Kashmir got linked. On October 28,2009,an 18-km stretch from Anantnag to Qazigund in south Kashmir was thrown open and last Tuesday,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the 17.68-km stretch between Qazigund and Banihal.
The story of the train to Kashmir,called the Jammu-Udhampur-Katra-Qazigund-Baramulla link (JUSBRL),is one of inordinate delays and several piecemeal inaugurations (Singh himself has done four). But it is also one of the most difficult projects undertaken by the Railways and its different agencies.
The rail line passes through the Himalayan ranges that are known to spring geological surprises. The Katra-Banihal part,the only missing link now,is the most challenging. The line passes through territory where little habitation,or road or tracking path,exists. Once ready,this line will have the worlds highest rail bridge. At a height of 359 m above the Chenab,the arch-shaped bridge will run for 1.3 km in Reasi district. The just-inaugurated Banihal-Qazigund section is one small part of the Katra-Qazigund leg and threw up its own set of engineering challenges. To begin with,the mighty Pir Panjal had to be tamed with a 11-km tunnel that would run underneath the Jawahar Road tunnel. Besides,engineers working on the Banihal-Qazigund encountered other surprises: unexpected bursting of rocks during excavation,even the presence of villages over the alignment of the tunnel.
Inside the air-conditioned coach,with paddy fields and apple orchards rushing past the wide windows,these operational challenges now seem distant. The reclining seats are all taken,but today,no ones complaining. There is a happy chatter inside the coach. A group of young students from downtown Srinagar plays loud music on their cellphones. Again,nobody complains.
We have come for a picnic on the train, says Abrar,a Class XI student. I have been on this train earlier,but today,my friends and I want to see Indias longest tunnel. Fifteen minutes later,the train reaches Pampore,a historical town known for its saffron fields.
As the train starts moving and picks speed,RPF personnel frisk a few passengers before moving to another bogey. Even the frisking is forgiven today.
I boarded the train at Sopore and took a ticket to Banihal. I want to see how the train crosses the Pir Panjal, says Bashir Ahmad Bhat from Seer Jagir village near Sopore town.
Thirty minutes later,the train reaches the historical town of Awantipore,known for its monuments built by King Awanti Varman (AD 855-883),who chose the site as his capital. Here too dozens of villagers board the train. This train has connected some of the remotest villages of Kashmir. Its also good that the ride is cheap, says 60-year-old Asha Begum,who is travelling with her 12-year-old daughter. She gets off at the next station,Kakapora in south Kashmirs Pulwama district.
Here,a few labourers get in. They look around for empty seats and settle down on the floor in one corner of the compartment. We thought we would get seats. After all,we have valid tickets. But no,we wont lodge a complaint. Its the first time that we are taking a train to get home to Banihal, says Mohammad Iqbal Khedi,who works as a mason in south Kashmirs Pulwama district. Its good that we can travel for Rs 20.
After chugging through the willow village of Panzgam and the apple orchards of Khanabal,the brick kilns of Mirbazar appear,spewing smoke,with the majestic Pir Panjal as the backdrop.
At 11.10 am,the train reaches Qazigund. More people board the train,even as a few squeeze their way out. I am going to Banihal to see my sister, says Altaf Ahmad of Verinag town. It used to take me one-and-a-half hours to reach Banihal by road. But the train has reduced the distance by half. And I only have to pay Rs 5, he says.
After Qazigund got connected to the rail network in October 2009,the landscape of this small town changed with people from different parts of Kashmir making this their transit point before taking the road to get to Jammu.
The rail service has brought employment as well as business to this town, says Hamid Gania,a government official who is a frequent traveller on the train. I cant believe that the train has crossed Pir Panjal. Earlier,many people believed that the train would only run in the Valley. The dream to link it to Jammu has been finally realised, he says.
Metres away from T-80,the tunnel through the Pir Panjal,the train halts at Hilar village where hundreds of people wait just to catch a glimpse of the train. Some click pictures on their phones. This station wasnt part of the blueprint. But officials had to announce a brief halt here after villagers launched an agitation.
The train moves and there is a loud buzz in the compartment in anticipation of the tunnel,T-80. The lights come on inside the train and the passengers break into a frenzycheering and clapping wildly. Of the 17.68-km stretch between Banihal and Qazigund,T-80 makes for a bulk of the distance11.215 km. This is a rail tunnel unlike any in the country. Built at a cost of Rs 1,6291 crore,it has reduced the distance between Qazigund and Banihal by halffrom 35 km by road to 17.68 km by train. Inside the tunnel,a 3-metre-wide road runs parallel to the rail line,to be used for the movement of small vehicles in case of an emergency. The tunnel is fitted with sophisticated jet fans to keep it free of pollutants and to control smoke in case of fire. The tunnel is also equipped with CCTVs,sensors for detection of gases,linear fire alarm systems,a tunnel radio system,public address system,smoke detectors,escape route signages and emergency telephone systemsall of which are monitored at a centralised supervisory control and data acquisition centre in Banihal station.
Several curious faces look out of the window as the train completes its 10-minute ride through the tunnel,their noses glued to the glass panes. This is a historic moment, says Amir Parray,a student from Srinagar who records the stretch inside the tunnel on his phone.
The train approaches the end of the tunnel and passengers let out a collective gasp. The train will soon get to its final destination,Banihal,a small hilly town on the foothills of Pir Panjal.
At 11.30 am,the train pulls into the station and there is a scramble to get out. The train will now make the return journey to Baramulla.
As passengers heading to Baramulla start boarding,chief locomotive engineer Narinder Singh and his co-drivers sit back to chat. When we drove the train through Pir Panjal,we knew we were witnessing history being created. Now my dream is to drive the train that connects Banihal to Katra, says Singh.
Story of a train
1898 The then ruler of Kashmir,Maharaja Pratap Singh,was the first to propose a railway line in Kashmir.
1902 Britain proposed a rail link between Srinagar and Rawalpindi along Jhelum river. The project failed to take off. In 1905,Maharaja Pratap Singh approved an electric-powered rail line between Jammu and Srinagar. The project didnt take off as it would have been a slow train,operational only during summer months.
1947 A rail link between Pathankot and Jammu was proposed,with the line being extended to Srinagar. Put on hold because of high cost.
1983 Indira Gandhi launched a project to connect Udhampur to Jammu. Set aside a budget of Rs 50 crore and set a time frame of five years to complete the project.
1996 PM P V Narasimha Rao announced Rs 2,600 crore for Kashmirs rail link.
1997 PM H D Deve Gowda laid the foundation stone of the 290-km Udhampur-Baramulla railway link. The same year,PM I K Gujral laid the foundation stone for the Udhampur-Baramulla railway link at Baramulla.
2002 The Vajpayee government declared the rail link to Kashmir a national project at an estimated cost of Rs 6,000 crore and set August 15,2007,as the deadline.
2005 PM Manmohan Singh inaugurated the 55-km Jammu-Udhampur stretch after more than two decades of construction. Cost escalated from Rs 50 crore to Rs 515 crore.
2008 PM Manmohan Singh inaugurated the first phase
66-km stretch from Anantnag to Mazhama.
2009 An 18-km stretch from Anantnag to Qazigund in south Kashmir got connected.
2013 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the 17.68-km stretch between Qazigund and Banihal.
Jammu-Udhampur-Katra-Qazigund-Baramulla link (JUSBRL),linking Kashmir Valley with the Indian Railways network: This is the only mountain railway in India to be built on Broad Gauge,making it easier to connect it with the remaining Indian Railway network
Jammu to Udhampur
Called Leg 0. Jammu-Udhampur: 53 km,10 km length of tunnels,36 major bridges and 122 minor bridges. Commissioned in April 2005. Cost: Rs 522 cr
Udhampur to Katra
Leg 1. 25 km long and involves about 10.9 km of tunnelling. Nine major and 29 minor bridges.
Cost: Rs 640 cr
Leg 2. The most difficult stretch. The line will pass through territory with almost no habitation,road or tracking path. The just-inaugurated Banihal-Qazigund line is part of this stretch and it has reduced the distance between Banihal and Qazigund by halffrom 35 km by road to 17.68 km by train
Qazigund to Baramulla
Leg 3. 119 km long,became operational in October 2009. So far,it is an island railway,not yet connected to the Indian Railway network.
The rolling stock
Three trains,powered by diesel electrical multiple unit engines,run between Baramulla and Banihal everyday,making 14 trips. The air-conditioned coaches have wide windows for a panoramic view,anti-skid flooring,sliding doorways,heaters,an attractive colour scheme and executive class reclining seats. A cattle guard has been attached at the driving end of the train to clear snow from the tracks during winters. This speed limit of these DEMUs is 90-100 kmph.