When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday flagged off a train bedecked with flowers on the 18-km stretch between Qazigund and Anantnag in the Kashmir Valley, he actualised a dream that Jammu and Kashmir's Dogra rulers had seen more than a century ago.
Maharaja Pratap Singh first explored the possibility of a railway line connecting Jammu with Srinagar in 1898 but the idea was put on hold because of complications involved in laying the track over a hilly terrain.
However, in 1905, the maharaja approved a railway line between Jammu and Srinagar via Reasi through the historic Mughal Road. Involving a 763 mm gauge railway climbing through the Mughal Road at 11,000 feet on the Pir Panjal Range, this would have been a spectacular low gauge. But an elevated pass would have meant it was not all weather which made it impractical.
With partition in 1947, the state was disconnected from the Indian rail grid and a new line from Pathankot to Jammu had to be laid.
Manmohan Singh Wednesday became the sixth Indian prime minister - after Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv Gandhi, I K Gujral, Deve Gowda and Atal Bihari Vajpayee - to inaugurate railway projects and trains in Jammu and Kashmir.
In 1983, Indira Gandhi laid the foundation for the 54-km Jammu-Udhampur stretch. The railways later promised that a rail link would be extended by 290 km to Baramulla in the Kashmir Valley. But nothing was done till 1996, when then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao sanctioned Rs.2,600 crore for the extension of the rail link from Udhampur to Baramulla, covering 290 km.
After that, there was no headway in the project for many years. But then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared it as a national project in 2003.
The project has been divided into three parts - 41 km long Udhampur to Katra, 130 km long Katra to Qazigund and the 119 km Qazigund to Baramulla, which was thrown open Wednesday.
The 66 km section of Qazigund-Baramulla - from Anantnag to Mazhama - was inaugurated by Manmohan Singh in October last year, Sonia Gandhi later did the honours of inaugurating the 35 km section from Mazhom to Baramulla earlier this year.
But the railway link from Udhampur to Qazigund- that will connect Kashmir with the rest of India - remains incomplete, which is said to be the most difficult project in the subcontinent.
The terrain passes through the Himalayas. The alignment presents one of the greatest engineering challenges. What makes the route even more complex is a pass through the Himalayan foothills and the Pir Panjal range, with most peaks exceeding 15,000 feet in height.