Kashmir Rail Project – an Engineering, Political, Economic, Diplomatic and Strategic feat

Photographs of Sonia Gandhi and the prime minister sitting in a railway carriage as it zoomed through the newly made Banihal Tunnel linking the Kashmir Valley to the rest of the nation last week brought back vivid memories.

I had seen the tunnel under construction in 2009 while writing a book called Linking Paradise on the new line from Anantnag to Baramulla. Every turn of the 120 km long broad guage line brought delightful surprises.

Rolling green rice fields — just like my native Bengal so far away — golden mustard blooms, magnificent chinar trees, proud poplars marching into the blue yonder, apple and walnut orchards, quaint villages and the Pir Panjal and Zanskar ranges standing guard over this delicate, beauteous vale.

The new tunnel was then but a hole in the Pir Panjal range beyond a station called Qazigund, but it held such promise. For it would finally link the rest of India’s venerable railway system — that began back in 1853, a mere half century after the first public railway opened in Britain — to the Kashmir Valley’s very first line, over 150 years later. A lot has been said about the Konkan Railway, which winds its way through the scenic Western Ghats, beside the Arabian Sea.

It is truly a great feat of engineering. As indeed is the new Banihal Tunnel, which, at 11.2km is India’s longest railway tunnel — about 9km longer than the 56-year-old and mostly snow-bound Jawahar road tunnel, 440m above it. But making the Kashmir Railway meant much more. For it entailed building lines and bridges not only in the Valley but also to its people.

It was thus not only an engineering achievement but a political, economic and diplomatic one too. The men who built it didn’t merely have to deal with the terrain but also negotiate issues that still confound political leaderships. As a fan of great engineering projects I marvelled at the 811 bridges fording the very scenic brooks and dales that had so enchanted Emperor Jehangir centuries ago. Practically every section of the line also demonstrated the great sensitivity on the part of the railway teams who could have just retreated behind their professional hardhats.

But they didn’t. They swapped it ever so often for the bareheaded empathy and adaptability of social workers. The amazing Veith Bridge over the Jhelum is a case in point for it incorporated a specially-made 45.7 metre steel span instead of only standard 30 metre ones, just so that its pylons would not disturb a small cemetery revered by local residents.

Indeed, the sentiments of the Valley folk had to be considered at all times so the indefatigable engineers of the Indian Railways had to use not only their technical skills but also their EQ to plan and execute this project. No canals could be converged to save on culverts, no chinar trees could be cut or orchards razed to make the shortest track alignment, and so on.

I remember musing that the track embankments — made with reinforced material, as the local soil is very soft — were the most bewitching in India if not the world, for they were covered with wildflowers, rather than the usual ordure. And the stations were modern but designed to incorporate features of the Valley’s traditional architecture. The waiting hall of the Srinagar station, in fact, has got to be the most magnificent in the world.

Much of the building’s interiors, including the waiting hall’s stunning triple-height ceiling, is covered with the intricately carved woodwork called khatambandh, a speciality of the Srinagar area. The city’s people can truly look upon it as a showcase of their talent.

There was more. Though the government poured money unstintingly into this project, ingenuity was needed too. Moving equipment was expensive and often logistically impossible so impromptu alternatives had to be devised. Trucks retrofitted with railway wheels towing ballast machines to sweep snow instead of gravel were double innovations! The transport of the sleek train coaches needed even more quick thinking.