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India is undertaking one of its most formidable railway projects by establishing a rail-link with the Kashmir Valley from the Himalayan Foothills. The Kashmir Railway Project (KRP) is being developed to provide alternative and reliable connectivity between Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India. The official project is called the Jammu-Udhampur-Katra-Quazigund-Baramulla link (JUSBRL). KRP is the only railway line in India’s high mountain ranges that are being laid out in broad gauge. The 345 km extension of the Indian Railway network will allow a 900 km direct train journey from Delhi to Srinagar. So far the Kashmir Valley is connected to the rest of India only by road and air. The route crosses earthquake-prone zones and areas beset by extreme temperatures of cold and heat and features challenging topography.
The idea of bringing a new transport system to Kashmir is not new. The project is said to have been mooted in 1898 by the British to the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. It was floated again in 1902 and 1905 but didn’t take off. It was in 1994 that the then Indian Railway Minister Sh. Jaffer Sharief decided to lay a rail link to Kashmir. And in 2001, the KRP assumed the status of a national project. The KRP line links the winter capital Jammu to the summer capital Srinagar There will be 30 stations, probably served by 10 to 12 trains daily.
The configuration for the Kashmir Railway represents one of the most significant railway engineering challenges ever encountered, with the only competition coming from the China-Tibet rail route, which crosses permanently frozen ground and climbs to more than 5,000m above sea level, whereas the temperatures of the Kashmir Valley are not as severe as Tibet’s but the region still experiences extreme winters with heavy snowfalls. However, making the route even more complex requires passing through the Himalayan foothills. The route comprises numerous bridges, viaducts and tunnels. It is being built as per the Indian standard gauge of 1,676 mm, laid on concrete sleepers with continuous welded rail and a minimum curve radius of 676m. The maximum line speed is 100km/h (60mph).
The KRP has by now used more than 90% of its sanctioned cost of $4.4bn for the works. It is approaching completion: Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and Railway Minister Shri Ashwini Vaishnaw are personally monitoring this project. The Indian Railways is moving closer each day to connect the Kashmir Valley to the rest of the national network.
The erstwhile state of J&K is the northernmost part of our country, inhabiting a strategic space with its borders touching Pakistan, Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and China. The whole area is mountainous, with the exception of the Jammu and Kathua districts. It has a geographical spread of 2,22,236 sq. Kms and 19.95% of the total geographical area are under forest. The Kashmir Valley lies at an average height of 1,850 meters (6,070 ft) above sea level, but the adjacent Pir Panjal range has an average elevation of 3,000 m (10,000 ft). The railway network in J&K is the highest network in India
After completion, this line will be an all-weather, convenient and cost-effective mass transportation system. It will act as a catalyst for the overall development of the northernmost alpine region of the country. This project has great significance for security and socio-economic development. It can play an essential role in fast industrialisation, movement of raw materials and finished products from and to J&K and encourage trade and tourism apart from providing employment opportunities. Similarly, it will be a boon for developing agriculture, horticulture and floriculture in this area.
Until then, only one treacherous road i.e. National Highway 44, connects the Kashmir Valley. The railway link is considered a game-changer that will bring economic prosperity to the region. It will have round-the-year overland access to parts of Kashmir, Ladakh and the border region beyond it, which otherwise remain cut off in the winter. Due to a lack of a dependable land transport system, passage through the rough terrain of Kashmir and Ladakh in winter was daunting for people. Soldiers have also faced many difficulties in their deployment, as severe weather conditions caused landslides. Furthermore, opening a rail link would reduce the government’s expenditures, as transporting logistics would be much more economical than the aerial route, the only option available in winter.
The project is bringing benefits to the residents of the region. The less developed districts of Reasi and Ramban have significantly benefited from this project. Earlier, such hinterland areas which could only be reached by foot, or by boat now have road links. Medical, educational, market, and business activities have become more accessible.
The Railways have also constructed approach roads for the project in this region. Over 1,800 hectares of land were acquired. More than 205 kilometers of access roads have been built, including one tunnel and 320 bridges. New road connectivity to 73 villages in far-flung areas has benefited around 1.5 lakh people. Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana roads are now taking off from these approach roads. In addition, close to 800 eligible land givers have been given jobs. Employment has also been provided through contractors to 14,069 locals. Over 500 lakh man-days of work have been generated so far.
We live in an energy-driven world, which is more evident when we look at the Railway map of India. Railway tracks link our country’s remote, hitherto almost inaccessible areas with the national mainstream. This new infrastructure is opening up a new era of socio-economic development and helping realise the Directive Principles enumerated in the Indian Constitution. Kashmir Rail Link is one such project. Two parts of this project Udhampur-Katra and Banihal-Baramulla, are already operational.
PM Gati Shakti and the corresponding changes in the Railways Land Management policy to enable integrated infrastructure development will further promote the development of cargo terminals and other cargo-related facilities like warehouses, silos, etc, in this region. As per the new policy, the land uses have been specified, thus removing uncertainty. In addition to the above transportation benefit, another significant outcome of this project will be to bridge the cultural divide between the two regions.
Lastly, this project will facilitate the interaction of the youth from Kashmir and Ladakh with the rest of the country. This will help eliminate the distrust towards outsiders they developed over decades. It will also bring jobs and educational opportunities by fostering the growth of trade and industry. It will also boost the tourism sector, especially eco-tourism. It is hoped that tourists from all nooks and corners of India will be able to enjoy the beauty of Kashmir and Ladakh. It is a fact that the construction of a vast network of access roads has provided connectivity to hitherto remote and isolated villages.