Aging Mahtab Jan (75) has never seen train except on television. Jan along with other hundreds of villagers of Hiller Shahabad village in south Kashmir's Qazigund area on Thursday squatted on the railway tracks, though to stop the first trial run to the country's longest dream tunnel project, which connects the Kashmir valley with the rest of the country.
The 11 km-railway track, which cuts through the foothills of the Pir Panchal mountain, has not only bridged the two passes of the mountain but infused a sense of hope of prosperity and development among the villagers along the tracks, who are for the first time witnessing a running train.
"We have provided land from the rich and famous rice bowl of our area. We will not allow trial run to happen till we will get a station for local villages of Hiller Shahabad," said Jan, who joined the chorus of slogans "Narai takhbeer, Allah Akbar, train ko wapas karoo (God is great, return the train).
The excited and impatient villagers stopped the first trial run for hours together, demanding a halting point for a local village.
Indian Railways senior official AP Mishra failed to convince the protesting people and decided to call off the run. "We have to see the feasibility first," said Mishra.
Known for apples, walnuts and strawberry, Qazigund residents see themselves closer to the markets of Punjab and Delhi now.
"Our goods will need not to take any detour now. The train will end cumbersome loading and unloading of our goods from one mandi to another. We will connect to Punjab and Delhi markets directly when the railway project is finalised," said Javeed Shah, a government employee.
Far off villages like Kapran, which is more than 100 km from Srinagar, dreams of sending their daughters to Srinagar colleges. "It will definitely reduce the cost of travel and save time. We can even send daughters to Srinagar for higher education," said Jan.
The tunnel accomplishes a dream project of former prime minister I.K Gujral, who laid the foundation stone in 1990s, and of former prime minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee, who declared it a national project, the tunnel is an engineering marvel. "This outstanding tunnel is 100% waterproof and equipped with fire fighting system throughout the entire length of tunnel.
"The methodology adopted for construction of this tunnel is by New Australian Tunneling Method (NATM) where the geological stress from the surrounding rock is used to stabilize the tunnel hole. It is one of the challenging and marvelous projects in Indian civil engineering history," said Indian Railways officials in Srinagar.
The Rs 1300-crore tunnel is bound to be a major tourist attraction after the 2.75 km Jawahar tunnel on Srinagar-Jammu highway. The new tunnel is second longest in Asia after Chinese one. The tunnel passes 440 metres below the existing Jawahar Tunnel. With the speed of 100 km per hour, it will take around seven minutes to cross the tunnel.
Earlier, prime minister Manmohan Singh flagged off Qazigund-Baramulla railway track within the valley. But the tunnel through the Pir Panjal will finally connect the valley with the plains in Jammu and the rest of the country. The tunnel is likely to be inaugurated next year.
"The Pir Panjal Tunnel is a major part of Udhampur - Srinagar - Baramulla Broad rail line project. It connects the Bichleri valley at the south side with the Kashmir valley on the north side. The nearest town in south and north side is Banihal and Qazigund respectively," said railway officials.
The entire project between Dharam, across the Jawahar tunnel, and Qazigund in the valley is 56.54 km, which comprises of 14 tunnels of total length of 44.50 km and 48 numbers of major and minor bridges.