Two Regions and a Mountain Trainhttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/print/two-regions-and-a-mountain-train/

Two Regions and a Mountain Train

Last month,deep below the Pir Panjal mountains,engineers worked to connect the regions of Jammu and Kashmir through the Banihal-Qazigund rail tunnel. Arun Sharma tells the story of the tunnel that promises to take people from Jammu to Kashmir in six minutes

October 14,1:15 pm. Inside the Jawahar tunnel,the only road link between Jammu region and Kashmir Valley in the Pir Panjal mountains,cars and trucks went by in a neat file. Some 400 metres below them,engineers stood by for that final blast. A deafening sound and the two regions of Jammu and Kashmir came closer once again,with a 11-km tunnel that will be part of the 17.5-km railway line between Banihal in Jammu and Qazigund in Kashmir.

The Banihal-Qazigund line is part of the larger project of linking Kashmir Valley with the country’s rail network. Though it won’t be before 2017 that the first train from Baramulla travels downhill to the plains of Jammu,the Banihal-Qazigund line is a key step towards that larger dream—the 345-km-long Jammu-Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla railway line.

More than 200 engineers and nearly 2,000 workers of Hindustan Construction Company (HCC),apart from several other private contractors,are working round the clock—laying concrete and tracks inside the new tunnel and levelling the ground at Banihal railway station—as the Railways has fixed December 2012 as the deadline to run the train between Qazigund and Banihal. Once the tunnel is ready,a passenger train can cross it in a mere six minutes,a symbolic straddling of two regions.

There is much more to be done: another four-km-long tunnel has to be drilled between Chamalwas and Banihal,tracks have to be laid along the rest of the section and quarters are to be built for General Railway Police (GRP).

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In August 2005,HCC won the bid to construct the Pir Panjal railway tunnel from both the north (Qazigund) and South (Banihal) sections.

“We will complete concreting work inside the Qazigund-Banihal tunnel,including the construction of a three-metre-wide road along the railway track,in the next couple of months,” says HCC’s project manager Sharanappa Jalal,adding that thereafter,the track laying,electrification and other projects would be taken up by other agencies.

Story of a tunnel

The 11-km tunnel,India’s longest and the second-longest transport tunnel in Asia after the 20-km-long Wushaoling tunnel in Gansu,China,was constructed at a cost of Rs 1,100 crore. Besides cutting down the travel time between Qazigund and Banihal from 35 km to 11 km,the tunnel has many other firsts.

It has the highest ‘over-burden’ of 1,140 metres (the mountain strata above the tunnel) and deepest drill holes for geotechnical investigations,measuring 640 metres. It boasts of the first large-scale use of New Austrian Tunnelling Method in India. When ready,it will be the first railway tunnel to have automatic ventilation and tunnel lighting. Besides,a three-metre-wide road will run along the entire railway track for use in case of emergency.

Since 2005,as engineers worked on the project,the Pir Panjal mountains and the surrounding areas presented their own set of challenges. They had to often work in areas with no habitation,road or tracking path. Besides,there were changes in geological conditions—engineers would anticipate a certain class of rock only to be encountered by another—unexpected bursting of rocks during excavation,even the presence of villages over the alignment of the tunnel.

Jalal of HCC says that while the first 650 metres of the tunnel were through soft ground,road headers equipped with cutting heads were mounted at the end of a boom to tunnel through rocks. For the toughest rocks,they had to use the drill-and-blast method.

Inder Kumar,an engineer working on the project,says,“We came across many surprises. After excavating hardly 250 meters,we discovered a thickly populated village,Cheril,only 20 metres above the tunnel. We could even hear sounds from the village inside the tunnel,so we brought in special excavators to avoid vibrations during excavation. We also avoided blasting inside the tunnel until we crossed the village.”

As they proceeded further,there were more problems. “Water seeped in from all sides at the rate of 180 litres a second—more than double the maximum seepage of 70 litres a second projected in hydrological and geotechnical studies provided by IRCON. We had to use boats to carry out protective works and drain out water,” says Kumar.

The larger line

With the tunnel between Qazigund and Banihal ready,the first train between Kashmir Valley and Jammu region will roll out by December 2012. But it will continue to be a standalone railway as it will take many more years—at least till 2017—before it gets connected with the country’s railway network.

Senior engineers of the Indian Railways,who are supervising work that has been subcontracted to various agencies—IRCON,Konkan Railways,HCC and others—describe it as the biggest project undertaken by the Railways since Independence.

The Jammu-Udhampur line,funded and executed by the Railways,was commissioned in April 2005. To expedite work on the remaining line from Udhampur to Baramulla,the Centre declared it a national project and divided it into three stretches: Udhampur to Katra,Katra to Qazigund and Qazigund to Baramulla.

Of these,trains are already running on the 119-km-long Qazigund-Baramulla stretch and the 53-km-long Jammu-Udhampur sections (see box). Efforts are on to complete the Udhampur-Katra stretch and the Qazigund-Banihal section by December 2012,says Railway Board member A P Mishra.

That leaves the 111.5-km-long Katra-Banihal section. As it passes through deep gorges,this is seen as the toughest stretch of the project with 31 tunnels and 62 bridges. This line will witness another engineering marvel: a bridge over the Chenab river at a height of 359 metres, the highest railway structure of its kind in the world,35 metres higher than the tip of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and five times the height of Qutab Minar. Once ready by 2017,this will prove to be a decisive link in Kashmir’s rail dream.

Track II

The proposed railway line has led to socio-economic changes in areas around it. Villages got connected as engineers constructed approach roads to reach sites of the proposed railway track. Till a few months ago,people in Kanthan and Kouri,two villages in Reasi district in Jammu,had to walk up to Mahore to catch a bus. But now,a 15-km gleaming road comes all the way to Kanthan and Kouri and so does the bus.

Similarly,people in Bakal,a village in Reasi district,are said to marry among themselves since they are cut off from nearby villages in the absence of a road link. As Konkan Railway engineers constructed a 15-km-long approach road and a 500-metre-long tunnel to carry men,materials and machinery to a proposed railway alignment site,the village automatically got a road link.

Banihal,once a hotbed of militancy and where jobs are scarce,also witnessed a spurt in construction after work on the railway line began in 2003.

“After our arrival here,people got jobs and accordingly,their economic condition improved,’’ says Naseer Masoodi,HCC’s manager administration,who hails from Baramulla. “When we came to Banihal,there were hardly any good schools. Today,the town has nearly half-a-dozen good private English-medium schools,’’ he says.

One line,4 phases
1. Jammu-Udhampur

Constructed at a cost of Rs 522 crore,the railway line was dedicated to the nation by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on April 13,2005.

It passes through a sub-mountainous region. It has 10 km length of tunnels and 36 major and 122 minor bridges.

2. Udhampur-Katra

This 25-km-long track passes through 10 tunnels and 38 bridges. The longest tunnel on this stretch is 3.15 km long and together,the tunnels total 10.90 km. The highest bridge on this stretch is 85 meters and the longest span of a bridge is 154 meters over Jhajjar river. Except for a little work inside a tunnel,the entire stretch is complete and is expected to be ready by December 2012.

3. Katra-Qazigund

Of the 129-km track,work on 17.5 km between Banihal and Qazigund is almost complete.

i) Banihal-Katra: The deadline for this 111.5-km-long line—the toughest section with 31 tunnels and 62 bridges—is fixed for 2017. It will have one 10-km-long tunnel between Dharam and Purnihal,besides a 359-metre-high bridge over the river Chenab,the world’s highest railway structure. The track crosses deep gorges of Chenab near the Salal dam.

ii) Banihal-Qazigund: The track is 17.5 km long and passes through the country’s longest transport tunnel—11 km—which is constructed 440 metres below the existing Jawahar road tunnel. It also has four other tunnels and eight bridges. Except for concreting work at T-80,the other works are complete and a train is expected to pull into Banihal station by December 2012.

4. Qazigund-Srinagar-Baramulla

This 119-km-long section that falls in Kashmir Valley,a natural bowl surrounded by mountain ranges,was completed in October 2009. Though there are no tunnels,more than 800 bridges were built to cross rivers,canals and roads. This leg of the railway line was built at a cost of Rs 3,250 crore with 15 stations and 63 major and 748 minor bridges.

Looking Back

The then prime minister Indira Gandhi inaugurated the project in 1983,but work started in 2002 after the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government declared it a national project. But the idea to connect the regions of Jammu and Srinagar goes back much further in history.

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It was first conceived in 1889 by the state’s Dogra ruler Maharaja Pratap Singh,who invited suggestions from experts. The British proposed a railway line between Srinagar and Rawalpindi in 1902 and then again in 1905. However,as much of the state’s population travelled between Jammu and the Valley,the Maharaja decided in favour of a railway line between Jammu and Srinagar via Reasi. Work started on the project and an office of the chief engineer was established at Reasi,but it was later put on hold in view of disturbances across the country. The initial deadline for the project was August 2007,but it’s now set at 2017.