By: Khursheed Wani
The latest mode of transport in Kashmir – train service between Banihal and Baramulla – is unique in many attributes. The throttle handle that the driver uses for traction is much like the internet switch that the authorities hold to keep the people ex-communicated quite often.
It is the lone railway network that operates from dawn to dusk on an unpredictable schedule. The law and order situation in the valley, often on the edge, compels the authorities to stop the train services. It disrupts the entire system and adds to the chaos. The stand-alone railway line has stopped for a record period of five months during the 2016 public uprising after the killing of Burhan Wani.
Railway officials tell you that running a train between Banihal and Baramulla is not an easy job. On a routine day, it becomes unmanageable to handle the huge rush of commuters. Some of them even attempt to travel on the rooftop or cling to the doors. Suddenly, on the next day, the train comes to a grinding halt. The dance of death and destruction perpetrated on the streets of Kashmir; invariably become the cause for halting the train service.
Despite all the impediments, the government is investing immensely to keep the train chugging and realizing the target of connecting the Kashmir railway line with the vast network of the Indian Railways. On a routine day, the Kashmir train earns Rs 2.5 lacs as passenger fare but it spends Rs 8 lacs on fuel to shuttle these passengers. This is just one aspect. The investments on upkeep of the coaches are colossal. Each coach is transported to Chennai once in 18 months for an overall check-up and this requires transporting them on special platform trucks capable of carrying load between 9 and 25 metric tons. The trucks carry the bogeys from Budgam to Udhampur before putting them on rails towards Chennai.
I was not pretty sure that the train network would go beyond Banihal despite having witnessed all milestones the railway network has achieved so far. The treacherous mountain range south of Banihal seemed insurmountable. Kashmiris have bitter memories of this mountain range. It has killed hundreds of people and blocked supplies at times often creating shortage of essentials in the Valley. The lofty mountains seemed unlikely to pave way for the railway line to pass through. And the fact that some tunnels caved in, in some of the stretches and alignment was changed to flush hundreds of crores of rupees down the drain, it looked the most treacherous part between Banihal and Katra won’t be connected. The fact that the deadline for the completion of the project has been extended umpteen times also paved way for cynicism.
However, last month I had an opportunity to visit the railway’s construction sites beyond Banihal station. It was amazing to see that the construction work is continuing at a steady pace. Every day, dozens of engineers, workers, and geologists, working on each site add meters to the length of tunnels and carve out heaps of muck to spread outside the mountains. While traveling on Srinagar-Jammu highway along the banks of Sirachi rivulet, the transformation of these tall mountains may not be fathomable but under the surface of the mountains, the network of tunnels, escape tunnels and pathways are telling a different story. More than 80 percent of the railway track would be passing through these tunnels. They call it a breakthrough when a regulated explosive blast dismantles the last impediment of stiff rocks and joins the excavators coming from opposite ends for handshakes. There have been many breakthroughs and time is not far away when the final breakthrough of actually connecting Kashmir would be achieved.
I was quite fascinated to see the Arpinchala village where first railway station beyond Banihal is coming up. Arpinchala is actually a junction of mountains overlooking Mahomangat rivulet. The massive work undergoing at Arpinchala is fast moulding the place into an engineering marvel. Imagine a train rumbling out of a long tunnel and immediately climbing on a long OWG steel bridge (BR 121) that connects it with the slope of a mountain almost in the middle. The train honks and slightly arches on the mountain surface and quickly enters into the biggest arch of any tunnel on USBRL project. Here it halts and the passengers embark and disembark on the platform. Arpinchala station would be part inside the tunnel and part on the flattened mountain slope. This is the reason that the mountain at Arpinchala has been cut to biggest diameter. The effort employed has been unique and extra strenuous.
The train connectivity has its pros and cons. It has not triggered an intellectual debate in Kashmir on the import of train in Kashmir. The newspapers in the Valley are mostly ignorant about the massive development. There have been issues confronting the people who have been touched by the railway networking but these issues have remained under wraps. The politicians selectively raise the issues often under vote bank compulsions rather than understanding and addressing the larger picture. It is important to appreciate the arrival of a train but it is equally important to encompass all its diverse aspects. The people of Kashmir must have equal right to the ownership of the incoming train.