It's a project that's been a century in the making - a train from Udhampur in Jammu to Baramulla in Kashmir, through mountains and across valleys, for close to 300 kilometres. It is a train whose makers hope it will reduce conflict, create jobs, and finally connect Kashmir to the rest of India. In the next 30 minutes, CNN-IBN will you take you on a journey cutting across the Pir Panjal range right into the heart of the Valley. A journey of difficult terrains, chronic deadlocks and of a dream trying to triumph it all. It is a journey on the Train to Kashmir. Read on...
Reasi District: Sudhir Singh Slathia has his work cut out. The stretch from Katra to Qazigund is the most difficult section of the Kashmir rail link and as construction engineer, Slathia has one of the most challenging jobs. He has to bore Rail Tunnel Number 5 through part of the mighty Pir Panjal range.
The darkness there hides many perils like fragile soil, seeping waters and an unpredictable mountain.
The strata is loose. The water seepage strata is young and we have a lot of difficulty. There are also more challenges like all the workers getting wet. We can't drill through properly," says Slathia.
Three-quarters of the line from Katra to Qazigund will pass through tunnels. The Kashmir rail link has been under construction since 1994, but work started in earnest only in 2001, when it was declared a National Priority Project, to be funded by the Centre.
When architects like Executive Director Konkan Railways, Vinod Kumar arrived in 2004, they faced hostile mountains, and inaccessible tunnel sites. That's when they realised that before there could be a track, there had to be a road.
Kumar says, "It's a difficult task but not impossible. It is a fight against nature, but were ready to do this. It ust needs some time."
Two-hundred-and-ninety-six kilometres of link roads are to be laid for the railway line. Before a road can be built, special road construction machines, each weighing over 10 tons, have to be pulled up steep dirt tracks to the point where the road ends. And when those points are completely inaccessible, the machines are even airdropped.
"The road has been constructed in an unconvential way by building machines, through a nallah (gutter), taking up through temporary paths and then starting the face of the roads from two more sides. This has been done in order to save time," says Kumar.
And as if building road tunnels isn't difficult enuough, the planners have to deal with events that are completely unplanned – like landslides.
Vinod Kumar says, "There are a lot of landslides. There was an accident during the 2005 earthquake. A worker died and it took us eight hours to dig out his body. But then, a road has to be built. We have to take calculated risks."
The Pir Panjals are relatively young mountains with a weak geological structure, prone to large tectonic movements. Some tunnels have collapsed, while others were abandoned after their dangers became clear.
Jammu University's Professor G M Bhatt says, "The area is highly earthquake prone. It is quake zone V and the rock structure is all dolomite and limestone which is fractured and is the main cause of landslides and tunnel collapses."
Despite all the precautions, working 700 metres below the ground is still extremely dangerous. There are instances when labourers have almost severed body parts because of the dangerous excavating machines they work with.
Whenever such an incident takes place, panic reigns at the work site, which slowly gives way to an uneasy calm. Blood stains and a fading cry are reminders of the dangers that lie ahead.
Slathia concedes that risk is a part of the job, but the work must go on.
Setting A Tall Standard
There are accidents, but there are milestones too. The Kashmir rail link will have 855 bridges and 74 tunnels, including the 10.96 kilometre long T-80 or Pir Panjal Tunnel, India's longest rail tunnel. The link will also have a bridge like no other.
The Indian Railways is trying to set a tall standard by constructing the world's highest bridge, 359 meters high over River Chenab. Constructing something like this is no less than a marvel.
Konkan Railways' Deputy Chief Engineer, Ishwar Chand says, "The bridge is about six times the height of the Qutab Minar."
The bridge will cost over Rs 550 crore to build and will need over 25,000 tons of fabricated steel. And since that's too much to transport all the way here, the engineers are making the fabricated steel on location.
Chand says, "We have set up steel fabrication units at the site of the construction itself."
He adds that the main part is the erection of the arch which is to be built in an ingenious new way, using cable cranes and ropeways.
"The cable crane and the ropeway will have a capacity of 40 metric tonnes and then that segment can be connected to all segments. That is how the arch is going to be built," says Chand.
Over 1,000 skilled labourers will have to work on the bridge before it's finished. For men like Nazakat Ali, from the Khour village nearby, the railway line is a bridge to a better life.
He says that he used to be a shepherd earlier but now he is employed and that is the way to a better life.
The cost of the rail project has risen from Rs 1,127 crore to over Rs 4,300 crore. And with further delays likely, costs are estimated to touch Rs 15,000 crore. For the men who are working at making the rail link, Rs 15,000 crore is but a small price to pay for making history.