Why railway connectivity in Jammu and Kashmir is such a challenge
The biggest challenges of the Jammu and Kashmir railway project are geographical. The alignment passes through major geological thrust zones in the region Reasi and Muree, and one major fault Sangaldan.Updated: Oct 10, 2019 12:20 IST
Union railways minister Piyush Goyal had announced the NDA government’s plans of providing rail connectivity from Kashmir to Kanyakumari by 2022 at the inauguration of the Vande Bharat Express.
Vande Bharat, the train from New Delhi to Katra, is the Centre’s first big infrastructure project in Jammu and Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370.
The government plan involves a 272-km long rail line from Udhampur to Baramulla joining the Kashmir valley with the railways network under Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail Link project (USBRL). The 111-km-long railway stretch between Katra and Banihal, currently under construction, will connect the Kashmir Valley with the rest of the country.
Train services have been operational between Banihal and Baramulla in the Valley since 2013. Services on this line connecting Kashmir to Jammu have been suspended since August 5, according to senior railway ministry officials.
“The railway line from Delhi right now goes up only to Katra. After that we have a railway line from Banihal to Baramulla. Between Katra to Banihal work is going on and it is the railways’ most challenging project undertaken post-Independence. The alignment of USBRL involves construction of a large number of tunnels and bridges in highly rugged and mountainous terrain with most difficult and complex Himalayan geology,” Rajesh Agrawal, Divisional Railway Manager (DRM) Firozpur said.
The Katra- Banihal section includes 38 tunnels of 163 km (97 km main tunnels and 66 km of escape tunnels), 927 bridges and 203 km of access roads. The total approved cost of the project is Rs 27,949 crore, of this the sanctioned cost of Katra-Banihal section is Rs 21,653 crore. According to the railways ministry, the cumulative expenditure on this section up to September is Rs 13,285 crore (i.e. 61%).
Work on the Katra-Banihal railway line is being undertaken by two Indian Railways public sector undertakings (PSUs)— Konkan Railway Corporation Limited (KRCL) and IRCON— under the supervision of the Northern Railways zone.
Of the total length of 272 km, work has been completed on 161km stretch. Ministry officials said almost 60% work has been finished in the Katra-Banihal section.
The section includes eight stations out of which five lie in Reasi district (Reasi, Salal, Dugga and Basindadhar) and three in Ramban district (Sangaldan, Sumber and Arpinchala).
This challenging project runs across the deep gorge of the Chenab river near Salal hydropower dam. The 359 meter high and 1315 meter long Chenab bridge is being constructed here in the Seismic Zone V. Upon completion it will be the bridge in the world. Currently the world’s tallest rail bridge is located over France’s Tarn river.
The project due to its geological challenges was sub-divided in three phases— Quazigund-Baramulla (118 km) and Banihal-Quazigund (18 km) which was commissioned in June 2013, Udhampur to Katra (25 km) commissioned in July 2014 and Katra to Banihal scheduled to be completed in March 2021.
At the inauguration of the Vande Bharat Express, home minister Amit Shah said Jammu and Kashmir will lead the country in terms of development over the next decade.
The task of completing Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail link Project (USBRL), however, has many challenges.
The biggest challenges of the project are geographical. The alignment passes through major geological thrust zones in the region Reasi and Muree, and one major fault Sangaldan.
A fault is a crack in the Earth’s crust. Typically, faults are associated with, or form, the boundaries between tectonic plates and are more susceptible to earthquakes.
The geological strata vary from loose conglomerate, clay, silt stones, crushed and faulted sand stones and dolomites.
“Geology changes very frequently along the alignment and it is very difficult to access the complete geology in advance. Hence, as the work progresses adjustments in design have to be made. Construction of longer tunnels and wider cross section for station yards is a difficult task. Extensive engineering works are required to be done for tunnel portals, deep cuttings, bridges and approach roads,” a senior official involved with the project said on condition of anonymity.
The tunnel portals along the route fall on the steep, inaccessible and challenging hilly terrain. “Most of the sites are inaccessible, we have constructed a 200 km approach road. Another problem is extreme weather conditions, the area is prone to heavy rainfall and snowfall,” the official added.
More than 200 km of approach roads have been constructed in so far, including a tunnel, 320 bridges (25 Bailey bridges and one road bridge) to reach the working sites.
Construction of wide network of access roads has provided connectivity to far flung areas, according to officials.
“The approach roads connect surrounding villages. Earlier, the access to these villages was through footpaths or by boats. These roads are facilitating the development works by other government departments,” the official added.
Railways has maintained a close liaison with the state government. “Law and order problems of J&K have impacted the project. We have had to suspend operations many times. Repeated PILs in the high court have also affected the project adversely from 2008 to 2016,” the official added.
At present, services from Banihal to Baramulla have been suspended since the repeal of Article 370.
“We have evacuated nearly 60,000 people, mostly students from National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, Jammu and Udhampur in the initial days. People have to come to Katra by state transport buses and then move to other parts of the country. We are ready to resume services anytime but it is subject to clearances,” DRM, Ferozepur, Rajeev Aggarwal added.
The existing stations in the operational Banihal-Baramula section are Banihal, Shahabad Halt, Qazigund, Sadura, Anantnag, Bijbehara, Panjgam, Awantipora, Kakapora, Pampore, Srinagar, Budgam, Mazhom, Pattan, Hamre, Sopore and Baramulla.
15 pairs of diesel–electric multiple unit (DEMU) services ply on this section providing all-weather connectivity. “Additional DEMUs were introduced in July 2015 and later fast DEMUs for convenience of office-goers and students were put into service in May 2016 between Banihal-Baramula and Baramula-Budgam,” the official said.
The railways have decided to deploy a special unit—Commando for Railway Security (CORAS)—across sensitive stations along the Jammu-Pathankot line for the commercial run of the Vande Bharat Express.
Current project status
Tunneling has been complete in 114 km. The tunnels will be equipped with modern state of art ventilation and public address system.
“Provision has been made for a parallel escape tunnel as per international standards, connecting with the main tunnel with cross passages at regular intervals to facilitate rescue in case of emergency,” the official quoted above said.
Railways has earlier constructed the 11.21 km-long ‘Tunnel T-80’ in this region which is the longest transportation tunnel in Asia. Another tunnel is being constructed on Katra-Banihal section T-49 (12.75 km) which will be even longer than T-80.
Out of the 37 bridges on the Katra-Banihal section, 19 have been completed.
“Bridge 39 is an engineering marvel with high, rectangular, tapered hollow piers, spanning about 490 metres and Reasi station yard located over it. About 7000 million tonnes of reinforcement steel and 6700 million tonnes of structural steel has been used. This iconic bridge will stand 38 metres taller than the Qutub Minar,” the official quoted above said.
The project required a total of 1845 hectares of land of which 1808 hectares have been acquired. “The remaining 37 hectares are primarily required for muck dumping, additional land near some of the tunnel portals and approach roads. Main project work is not getting affected on this account,” the official added.
The project also required diversion of 532 hectares of forest land which the Northern Railways has completed.