When writer Khushwant Singh wrote his famous novel Train to Pakistan, he may not have thought of what is nestled close – the jewel in India’s crown, Kashmir.
The good news is that this jewel is now closer at hand.
Kashmir’s dream of rail connectivity with Jammu is now a chugging real train passing through scenes from paradise. The inauguration of the Banihal-Qazigund railway link connects Jammu with the valley, and not a day too soon.
The Banihal-Qazigund section also links the already operational 118-km-long route between Qazigund and Baramulla to the rest of the country.
To give this dream form and shape has not been easy, though. The highlight is the engineering feat of an 11.2 km tunnel, dug in the heart of the Pir Panjal mountains, constructed at a cost of Rs 1,691 crore. It is India’s longest rail tunnel, and the third longest rail tunnel in all of Asia, after the Taihang Tunnel (28 km) and Wushaoling Tunnel (21 km) in China. It is one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by the Indian Railways to date and employs the New Australian Tunneling Method (NATM) for the first time on such a vast scale in India.
But look what gains accompany the pain: this tunnel, connecting Qazigund with Banihal, reduces the distance between the two places by half, from 35 km by road to 17.5 km by train. The rail link is an all-weather guarantee that is not hostage to the frequent upturns in weather conditions in the region, and which frequently leads to closure of roads and highways, causing unexpected break in communication and transportation.
The Kashmir valley boasts of snow-capped winters, and the 2012 winter was an unusually harsh one. The valley was virtually in a siege due to lack of movement though the one-way vehicular movement was possible on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway. The highway remained closed from December to March due to heavy snowing. The Jawahar Tunnel, vulnerable at all times, was equally impassable and stayed snowed in.
The eight-coach train provides relief and will be in regular operation from Banihal to Baramulla, after its inaugural run on June 26 this year.
“… problems will be reduced to a large extent by running of train services between Banihal and Qazigund,” a Northern Railway official said, adding that “it will be a cheaper, faster and a dependable mode of transport for the people”.
In an era when communication is a given, regardless of the vagaries of weather, when road-networks and railways link the most impassable frontiers, the facilitation of this physical connection hardly seems worthy of a national boast. But perhaps, it is, considering the treacherous political and physical terrain we are talking of!
A train to Kashmir is no longer a dream of paradise; it has been scripted in reality, for real!
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