The making of India’s railway marvel

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Completed in April 2021, this arch, weighing 10,619 metric tonnes, will support the bridge being currently built over it. Once the tracks are laid, it will connect the Kashmir valley for the first time by rail to the rest of the country. At 1,760 metres above sea level, it will also be the highest railway bridge in the world.

The Chenab Bridge has been designed to withstand winds up to 266 km per hour and remain unaffected by grenade blasts

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The Chenab Bridge has been designed to withstand winds up to 266 km per hour and remain unaffected by grenade blasts

Most of the time, at that height, there are clouds not only above, but also below the arch; the winds are strong, with temperatures in winter frequently falling below freezing point. Engineers and workmen have to travel by cable cars running on metal ropeways over the yawning abyss every day to reach the incomplete portions.

When finished, the 1.32 km long bridge will have used up 28,660 metric tonnes of fabricated steel, 1 million cubic metres of earthwork and 66,000 cubic metres of concrete.

Expected to be ready by September 2022, it has been designed to withstand winds of up to 266 km per hour, and remain unaffected even by grenade blasts.

But the Chenab Bridge is only one of many engineering feats Indian Railways will have achieved once the 272-km long Udhampur to Baramulla railway line, or the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Railway (USBRL) project, as it is called, is complete.

The entire length of this route, which will be part of the Northern Railways network, covers mountainous, inaccessible and earthquake-prone terrain, and called for extraordinary engineering skill in laying the tracks.

The plan

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The plan

On a global scale, only the 2,000 km Qinghai-Lhasa railway line in China, from the mainland into the Tibet Autonomous Region, which rises to a height of 5,000 metres, can compare with it. “To my knowledge, this is the most strenuous rail project we have ever handled,” said Sanjay Kumar, deputy chief engineer, Indian Railways, who has been closely associated with the effort.

The project was earlier expected to cost 27,949 crore, but, according to the February 2022 status report of Northern Railways, it has already spent 26,964 crore with 81% of the work complete; the fresh cost estimate is now 37,012 crore.

Entirely funded by the Central government, the railway line has been in the making since 2002, when it was declared a ‘national project’.

But following delays for a variety of reasons–feasibility objections, land acquisition problems (1,900 hectares had to be acquired), tussles with Jammu and Kashmir’s forest department, and more–it is nearing its end now, with its inauguration tentatively set for April 2023.

Three ‘legs’

At independence, Jammu and Kashmir had just one railway link, from Sialkot to Jammu, which, too, was closed following the Partition.

Only 28 years later, in 1975, did the region join the Indian railway map again, with a line being completed from Pathankot in Punjab to Jammu. For another 30 years there was nothing beyond, till the Jammu line was extended to Udhampur, 53 km northeast, in 2005, cutting through the Shivalik Hills in the southern part of the union territory.

The Srinagar railway station.

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The Srinagar railway station.

With the USBRL, the national rail network will reach deep into the heart of the Kashmir valley.

The project comprises three ‘legs’– a 25 km length going northwest from Udhampur to Katra in Reasi district, the site of the renowned Vaishno Devi temple, a 111 km track rising northeast from Katra to Banihal in Ramban district, and finally, a 136 km stretch from Banihal to Baramulla, going north and then northwest, with Anantnag and Srinagar along the way.

Of the three, it is the second leg, or the Katra-Banihal route, that presented the most formidable natural obstacles and is still being worked upon. The other two legs have been long completed.

The third leg was the first to become operational being concluded in phases by June 2013, but remains cut off from the rest of the country’s train services as long as the second leg is a work in progress. The first leg has had trains on it running from July 2014.

Stupendous odds

Other engineering feats, apart from the Chenab Bridge, include the Anji Khad Bridge, also part of the second leg, being built over the Anji river–a tributary of the Chenab–between Katra and Reasi, 7km south of the Chenab Bridge. Unlike the former, which is an arch bridge, the Anji Bridge will be India’s first cable stayed bridge, with its weight supported by steel cables attached to giant pylons (towers) rising well above the bridge from the bed of the river beneath.

At a height of 196 metres above the river, and spanning 473 metres, this bridge too required– due to the nature of the soil and rock in the region–immense engineering enterprise.

There is also Tunnel 80, part of the third leg of the project, which cuts through the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas between Banihal and Qazigand. Completed in June 2013, at a length of 11.22 km, it is the longest rail tunnel in the country. But it is set to soon lose this status with the ‘breakthrough’ or full tunnelling, of Tunnel 49, part of the second leg, being completed last month. Once the tracks are laid, Tunnel 49, rising from Sumber, at a height of 1,400 metres to Arpinchala at 1,600 metres, a distance of 12.76 km, will become the longest. Not far behind too is Tunnel 47, near Sangaldan town, just short of Banihal, also part of the second leg, which was completed in 2020, and which runs for 7.1 km. The second leg is particularly tunnel-heavy–of the 38 tunnels along the entire 272 km track, taking up a total of 119 km, 27 are in the second leg. The excavation work for 21 of these is complete. This leg will also have eight parallel, ‘escape’ tunnels, with cross-passages to the main tunnels after every 375 metres, for emergency use by passengers and rescue staff in the event of a train breakdown.

The tunnels are all being built using the latest ‘design-as-you-go’ approach, or the New Austrian Tunnelling Method (NATM), which employs sophisticated monitoring at every stage to determine the wall reinforcement technique to be used, based on the kind of rock encountered. It thereby harnesses the inherent geological strength of the surrounding rock to stabilise the tunnel rather than reinforcing the entire length, and is thus also more economical. For further safety, the tunnels also include ‘adits’ (T49 has three of them) which are adjoining excavated areas to allow for better ventilation and water removal.

“It is not only the sections that have been highlighted in the media, like the Chenab Bridge or the Pir Panjal tunnel, that were difficult to construct,” said Sanjay Kumar. “The entire Himalayas are geologically challenging, full of tectonic faults and thrusts. Even constructing an approach road demanded skill and immense endeavour,” he added.

As for the bridges, the full stretch will have 927 of them.

Afcons Infrastructure Ltd, a construction and engineering company, is one company involved in building several bridges. It mentioned on its website: “Herculean efforts have gone into excavating deep foundations, cutting through hills at 70-degree slopes and casting of RCC (reinforced cement concrete) grid beams. Drilling holes for rock bolts in collapsible strata for Reasi and Salal yard, execution of cable anchors for foundation protection through unstable and unpredictable nature of highly fractured dolomite rock have been mammoth tasks”.

Approach roads of nearly 200 km had to be built as a preliminary to starting work on actual tracks. A spinoff from the railway line is that it has improved road communication too, with 266 km of such roads, connecting 73 villages, being built.

“Some of the areas in Katra, Reasi and elsewhere, where tunnels have been bored, were near-inaccessible,” said an official of the Konkan Railway Corporation, which has been inducted by Northern Railways as the executing agency of the second leg, given its experience of building the Konkan Railway in somewhat similar terrain. Konkan Railway, in turn, has roped in a host of civil engineering companies from both the private and the public sector.

Apart from Afcons, other companies working on the stretch include Hindustan Construction Company Ltd (HCC), IRCON International Ltd, and RailTel.

“Another major problem was the weather, with rain and snow often disrupting our work,” the official noted.

Great Expectations

While Northern Railways has not provided any estimate of how long the Udhampur-Baramulla rail journey will take, Kashmiris widely expect travel time between the two main urban centres of Srinagar and Jammu to reduce drastically compared to the current road transport, which takes over five hours, once the entire track is commissioned. With snow cutting machines already in use when needed on the completed legs, they also look forward to all weather connectivity by rail, in striking contrast to the present, when every year the Jammu-Srinagar highway gets blocked for hours (or even days) by heavy snowfall in winter or landslides during the rains. With faster transportation also cutting costs, they hope the region’s economy, much dependent on tourism and horticulture– especially the sale of fruits such as apples–will get a turbo boost as well. About 70% of India’s apples come from J&K.

“Rail connectivity will give new life to the horticulture sector and save apple growers crores of rupees,” said Muhammad Yousuf Dar, president of the J&K Fruit Growers Association. “Currently, transporting apples to Delhi by truck costs us about 100 per box. Once the rail route starts, I expect the cost to fall to 30 per box, which will be a game changer for the business.”

Similarly, retailers and wholesalers in the Kashmir Valley selling goods brought in from the rest of the country expect their prices to drop following lowered transport costs, boosting local sales.

“I expect substantial savings once train services start,” said Mushtaq Ahmed, a hardware dealer in Srinagar. “So often my factory workers have to sit idle because we have run out of raw material and replenishment is delayed due to the Srinagar-Jammu highway being closed,” added Arshid Ahmed, a Srinagar-based industrialist. “The train service will make a world of difference to us.”

Similarly, those in the tourism business expect many more visitors from the rest of the country. “Lakhs of people from the middle and lower middle classes, who cannot afford to fly but also find bus travel too strenuous, will start coming to Kashmir once rail travel becomes possible,” hoped Ghulam Rasool Siah, president, Kashmir Houseboats Owners Association. Already, the extension of the railway line from Jammu to Katra has seen an increased influx of pilgrims to the Vaishno Devi temple.

Once the USBRL project is complete, many extensions of the line are also expected, further improving connectivity in the union territory. For a start, the Centre has already approved taking the main line another 39 km further north from Baramulla to Kupwara. An aerial survey has been completed and the costs of building it estimated. An ambitious 434 km line going east from Srinagar to Leh in Ladakh, touching Kargil and Drass along the way, was also announced as a national project about a decade back, but little headway on it has been made since then.

It will take much expertise and expenditure to widen the rail network in the region, but doing so is imperative to integrate it better with the rest of the country.

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