Soon after gaining Independence and the trauma of Partition that followed, Assam urgently needed a new rail link as the existing Bengal Assam Railway was through the newly created East Pakistan and was by now firmly closed.
Equally important was a rail link to Pathankot, which provided a vital road connection into Kashmir as after its accession to India the normal rail route to the valley via Jammu, Sialkot to major cities such as Lahore and Karachi was also cut off.
Indian Railways rose to the occasion, and work on a 227-km-long Assam metre gauge rail link into the Northeast, connecting Siliguri to Fakiragram of the old Bengal Assam Railway was started in January 1948 and completed within two years, the line being inaugurated on January 26, 1950.
Sardar Patel, the Iron Man of India, had reportedly summoned Karnail Singh, the engineer-in-chief of the project, and on being told that hundreds of bridges were required to be built, advised him, build them of gold if need be, but complete the line fast.
Simultaneously a 44-km rail line was built from Punjabs Mukerian to Pathankota station on the erstwhile North Western Railwayand formally opened to traffic on April 7, 1952, providing an invaluable rail head for Jammu & Kashmir.
In order to replace Karachi, which had also served major parts of North India, a brand new port was built at Kandla in 1950 to provide an alternative route, shorter than that to Mumbai, on the Western seaboard.
The Railways once again pitched in with a brand new 274-km-long metre gauge line from Deesa to Kandla, work on which was started in January 1950 and completed on a war footing in October 1952. In due course all these three alignments have been converted to broad gauge.
However, the Kashmir Railway was a different kettle of fish; unlike the flood plains of Brahmaputra in the Northeast or the desert flats from Deesa to Kandla, it involves cutting a passage through the mighty Pir Panjal mountain rangewith its treacherous geological formationand the fast flowing Chenab, besides the hazards of executing such mega construction in a hostile environment open to terrorist attacks.
Though the Jammu-Udhampur project had an optimistic schedule of five years and a budget of R50 crore, as set by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1983, it took Prime Minister Vajpayee to revive the project in 2002, when he declared an expanded Jammu-Baramula line as a National Project.
April 2005 saw the opening of the first leg of 53 km from Jammu to Udhampur, having 20 major tunnels and 158 bridges. This part, even with the longest tunnel at 2.5 km and the highest bridge at 77 metres, was relatively easy since it was done in the Shivalik hills. Crossing the Pir Panjal range would be a totally different ball game.
Understandably, the recently completed 11-km-long Banihal-Qazigund tunnel took five long years to bore through some of the most difficult and treacherous geological strata. It has a 3-metre wide access road running right through it for maintenance and emergency rescue and relief.
An equally daunting challenge is a 1.3-km-long and 359-metre-high bridge being constructed across the river Chenab which would be the worlds tallest railway bridge.
Though the 53-km Jammu-Udhampur section was opened in 2005, the 119-km Qazigund-Baramulla route could be made operational only in 2009. The last remaining two sections viz. 25 km from Udhampur to Banihal may be opened by March 2013, and the 148 km from Katra to Qazigund by 2017-18.
The 345-km-long JUSBRL (Jammu-Udhampur-Katra-Qazigund-Baramulla Railway Line), the biggest mountain railway construction project taken up by the Indian Railways since Independence has so far cost about R7,500 crore, and may end up finally with a bill of almost R20,000 crore.
However on completion, it will enable a 900-km-long journey, by an overnight Rajdhani Express, direct from Delhi to Srinagar, and end up connecting Baramula on the northern most tip of Kashmir to Kanyakumari, 3,828 km away on the southern tip of Indian coast line, firmly integrating the Kashmir Valley with the rest of India, once and for all.
The author is former member (mechanical), Railway Board