Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw announced on Saturday (March 25) that the much-anticipated railway link connecting Kashmir Valley with the rest of the country will likely be completed by this year-end. Once the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail Link Project (USBRL) becomes fully operational, special Vande Bharat trains will chug into the Valley in December this year or by January-February next year.
Addressing a press conference in Srinagar, Vaishnaw said the Udhampur-Banihal track, connecting Jammu with Srinagar, will be completed by December this year, or early next year. With that, the massive Himalayan project connecting Udhampur, Srinagar, and Baramulla will be completed.
What is this project?
The Udhampur-Banihal track is part of the 272-km Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail Link (USBRL) project. It aims to connect Kashmir Valley with the rest of the country by a broad-gauge railway line.
The project of laying a railway line to Kashmir was first announced in the 1990s, by then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. The date of approval was March 1995 with an estimated cost of Rs 2500 crore. In 2002, his successor Atal Bihari Vajpayee termed it a “national project”.
There are four sections of this project: Udhampur-Katra, Katra-Banihal, Banihal-Qazigund, and Qazigund-Baramulla. The 118-km Qazigund-Baramulla section was commissioned in October 2009. The 18-km Banihal-Qazigund section was started in June 2013, while the 25-km Udhampur-Katra section was commissioned in July 2014. All three sections have been completed.
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Cost and status of the project
The Railway Ministry had tweeted in January this year that project is 90% complete. The most arduous, treacherous, and costliest section of the project is the 111-km Katra-Banihal stretch, which is still ongoing.
The total project cost has now gone up to Rs 35,000 crore. The construction cost of the Qazigund-Baramulla section is around Rs 3,493 crore, Banihal to Qazigund Rs 1,692 crore, Udhampur to Katra Rs 1,111 crore, and Katra-Banihal section Rs 21,653 crore.
The Railway Ministry had tweeted in January that the Katra-Banihal section’s 162.6 km of tunnel mining and 31.3 km of track laying have been done. As many as 21 of the 26 main bridges and 11 minor bridges have been completed.
Train services are already available in the Jammu-Udhampur-Katra and the Baramulla-Banihal sections.
Why the delay
Vaishnaw said funding was a major problem for a project of this magnitude. According to him, the project used to get Rs 700-800 crore per year before the Narendra Modi government came to power and doubled it. According to Vaishnaw, he later tripled the allocation, while now, the funding has gone up to six times of what it was.
He said Rs 6,000 crore has been allotted for the railway project in the Budget this year.
Vaishnaw said there were technical reasons for the delay as well. “The Himalayas are the young (fold) mountains, which means they are soft and tunnelling work is very difficult,” he explained.
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Two of the bridges on the section are truly engineering marvels. One is the Chenab railway bridge — one of the highest in the world and the highest railway bridge in the country. The other is the Anji Khad bridge.
The Chenab bridge “is higher than the Eiffel Tower,” said Vaishnaw. “All the tests have been done and all have been successful. High-velocity winds, extreme temperature, earthquake-prone area, hydrological impact — everything has been studied in detail. Now, the bridge is ready for operation, ready for commissioning. The track-laying work is on. This is the greatest thing for J-K,” he added.
The bridge, between Bakal and Kuri in Reasi district, has been built for around Rs 1,400 crore. According to the Railways, area is categorised as a Seismic Zone IV. Therefore, the bridge has been designed so that it can withstand earthquakes of magnitude 8 as well as high-intensity explosions, given its terror-prone location.
The construction of the 1.3-km bridge started way back in 2002. Around 300 engineers and 1,300 workers reportedly toiled over the years to build the bridge. It is made of 28,660 metric tonnes of steel. Its life is stated to be around 120 years.
Another amazing piece in the puzzle is the 473-metre Anji Khad bridge, also in Reasi. It is touted to be the Railways’ first cable-stayed bridge, with 24 sets of cables and 47 segments. Vaishnaw said 41 of the 47 segments have been completed and that the whole project is very complex. He added that the Anji bridge will be also completed by August.
Even the Vande Bharat train that will run on this route has been specially designed keeping factors like temperature and snow in mind, Vaishnaw said.
Tunnelling work on the route is no less feat. The Railways has already completed what is being touted as India’s longest escape tunnel, a 12.89-km long tunnel on the Banihal-Katra section.
The Banihal-Katra route has three other escape tunnels. Another comes close, at 12.75 km, which was completed in January. These escape tunnels have been built to help with rescue work in case of an emergency.
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Stations and other details
Some of the stations along the route are Banihal, Halar Shahabad, Qazigund, Sidhura, Anantnag, Bijbahara, Panzgam, Awantipora, Kakapura, Pampore, Srinagar, Budgam, Mazhama, Patan, Humire, Sopore, and Baramulla.
Vaishnaw said they have received demands for connecting three more areas — Sopore-Kupwara, Awantipora-Shopian, and Bijbehara-Pahalgam. He added that the Railways will discuss it.
The minister said the railways and the postal department have started a parcel-booking facility in Srinagar. He added that he had directed railway officials to develop three or four Gati-Shakti cargo terminals on the Banihal-Baramulla line as well.
(With agency inputs)