Handshake Under Pir Panchal

As Railways blasts through the Pir Panchal mountain range to create India’s longest tunnel, Banihal will be accessible to Baramulla in less than 90 minutes by next year. Ikhlaq Qadri reports as he travelled through the tunnel.

With the blasting of 3.5 meter barrier of mountain that stood in between, Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) achieved a break through in day-lighting the Pir Panchal Railway Tunnel. At a height of 2900 meters from sea level, the 11Km long tunnel piercing through the Pir Panchal range is India’s first and Asia’s second longest transport tunnel.

Soon after the bang of the blast, the Pir Panchal Railway Tunnel which runs 440 meters below the existing 2.50 Km Jawahar Tunnel, kicked the 6.5 km Konkan Railway tunnel owned Karbude tunnel to No 2 position. It also achieved the distinction of being second the longest such tunnel in Asia after the 20 km tunnel at Wushaoling  in China’s Gansu region.

This fete took HCC six years to complete the tunnel connecting Banihal with Qazigund. Drilled through the rugged mountains, the tunnel reduces the 35 Km distance between Qazigund and Banihal to less than one third- 11Kms. At the expected speed of 100 Kmph, it will take a train just seven minutes.

The project started in August 2005 with the timeframe of 44 months. It missed the deadline by 30 months and according to officials needs seven to eight months morefor concretization.  The cost overruns also mountedby 500 crore – from 500 crore to 1100 which meantRs 100 crore for every Kilometer.The tunnel will be operational by December 2012.

“We had presumed that we will be having good rock inside but that was not the case. The difficulties were many and we tried our best to overcome them. This is the reason the deadline was not met,” Sharanappa Yalal Project Manager HCC told reporters. “HCC is the first company to enter Jammu & Kashmir in 2003 when the situation as you know was not good.

We kept our foot firm and here you have the longest tunnel of India.” Considered to be an engineering marvel and among the world’s modern tunnels, itis equipped with inbuilt fire fighting system throughout its length.Running parallel to the railway track is 3 meters concrete motorable road which is meant for access in case of emergencies and maintenance.

The tunnel is aligned straight from North to South for its entire length. The methodology adopted for its construction is by New Australian Tunnelling Method (NATM). The technology, used for the first time in India, employs geological stress from surrounding rock to stabilise the tunnel hole. To meet the challenges of this different geological requirement, three excavation techniques were adopted by HCC  which includes excavation by tunnel excavator, road header and by drill and blast methods.

“We excavated 1.1 million cubic meters of rocks, soil and boulders that makes it almost a mountain in itself,” said PRO of HCC, Vikram Singh Tanwar.  The tunnel day-lighting function was presided over by A P Mishra, member Railway Board. “So here we have successful handshake under the Pir Panchal,” said Mishra.

The difficulty of terrain has made the process cumbersome for the working agency. Giving details about the problems faced Mishra said, “We had to lay approach road of 235 Kms as there was no alternative.” The road will be handed over to the state government after the project is completed. “The road of 235 Kms will be Gift of railway to the people of Jammu & Kashmir,”Mishra said.

The tunnel, besides being a part of the ambitious Udhampur – Srinagar- Baramulla rail link project, has also been a source of employment for many locals. “Around 160 people are employed by the HCC in only Banihal,” said a civil foreman.

The officials are hopeful of hitting the  December 2017 target of  making the entire track of 326 Km from Jammu to Baramulla operational. “We can never anticipate the exact time as it depends on the geological condition but we are hopeful of December 2017,” said Vinod Kumar, Deputy Chief

Engineer,Construction,Northern Railways. Inside the tunnel, at many places the flow of water leaking from the all sides is strong and feels like waterfalls. The officials are hopeful that they will successfully plug the holes, but are not sure of the source the gushes.

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