By Dr. F.A. Wingler, June 2020 with Update September 2022
ith the partition of 1947 India has lost the direct access to the Kashmir Region.
1994, the Railway Minister declared the need for a rail line to Baramulla, well beyond even Srinagar.
This Jammu–Baramulla Railway Line had been planned to connect the Kashmir Valley in the Indian union territory of Jammu and Kashmir with Jammu railway station and hence to the rest of India`s rail grid. The 356 km rail route, once fully completed, will start from Jammu and will end at Baramulla in the Kashmir Valley.
The Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail Link (USBRL) is the biggest project undertaken by the Indian Railways in the Himalayan Region since Independence. In 2002 it had been declared as a national project, funded entirely by the Central Government. The Government stated that an unbroken rail link is imperative.
In 2005, the 53 km long Jammu-Udhampur section finally opened, 21 years after its beginning. The line, which cuts through the Shivalik Hills, has 20 major tunnels and 158 bridges. Its longest tunnel is 2.5 km in length and its highest bridge is 77 m (253 ft).
The isolated 119 km Kashmir Valley Railway became completely operational in October 2009. It connects Baramulla in the western part of the valley via Srinagar to Qazigund at the other end.
In June 2013, the rail service commenced through the longest Indian Railway Tunnel of that time, the Pir Panjal Summit Tunnel at 1670 m above sea level between Banihal and Quazigund. The 8.4 m wide tunnel is also of military strategic importance, since it can be used as military road for army vehicles when needed in a military conflict.
In July 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off the much-awaited 25 km Udhampur Katra train service, that will benefit millions of devotees, who visit the Vaishno Devi Shrine every year. The devotees will directly be able to travel to Katra in 8 hours by a luxury semi-high speed train to reach the base camp of the Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine.
Katra-Banihal is the only missing rail link between Jammu and Baramulla, which passes through the Reasi District, the most challenging stretch of geologically unstable and unpredictable terrain with poor infrastructure and access besides the harshest and steepest Himalayan faces.
On this challenging route, two deep river gorges have to be crossed in an earthquake prone zone:
- With the Anji Khad Bridge at a height of 189 m above the river and with an a span of 265 m
- and with the Chenab River Bridge at a height of 359 m above the river and with an arch span of 467 m and with an overall length of 1.3 km.
The present alignment of the route from Udhampur via Katra to Quazigund goes back to a survey of Mr. J.S. Mundrey and his company “Consultants Combine Private Limited” in the years between 1994 and 1996; see J.S. Mundery (Rail Consult India) et Navin Chandra: “A TOUGH ROUTE CHOICE PROVEN RIGHT”, RAIL BUSINESS Vol. 10, January 2019. RITES had proposed a shorter direct route from Udhampur to Banihal, however with steeper ruling gradients of 1 in 40 and tight curvatures up to 6 Degree. J.S. Mundrey, who had personal experience in building the scenic mountainous Visakhapatnam – Koraput Line, opted for a more easy to operate railroad via Katra with curvatures not tighter than 2.75 Degree and ruling gradients not steeper than 1 in 100.
111 km of the Katra – Banihal rail track will have to pass 27 tunnels of a summarised length of 97 km, the longest becoming the Sumber Tunnel T-49 with 12.75 km, longer than the 11.21 km long Pir Panjal summit tunnel between Banihal and Quazigund.
Once it had been envisaged to open the Katra- Banihal section in August 2007. The difficulties and imponderability’s to carve a railroad through this hostile terrain under Indian specific conditions had been underestimated and own strength overestimated.
Between Dream and Reality there had and there is still a big gap. The almost insurmountable gap 359 m above the Chenab River between the two bridge steel arch elements got closed April 2021 and the deck closed August 2022.
The longer chosen alignment route for less steeper ruling gradients via Katra and through the Reasi District had to be threaded through the Chenab River Bridge and Anji Khad Bridge needle eyes.
There had been also a hurdle about the Anji Khad Bridge, which had delayed the the works. It had been decided only recently to bridge the gorge by a cable stayed suspension bridge, the first kind of this in India. The bridge will be supported by a single 193m tall reinforced concrete pylon, latter had been completed in January 2022. The two gorge slopes are geolocigally too instable to carry an arch bridge. The cantilevered assembly of the roadway elements by a Derick like crane is in progress. 96 cables have to get fixed. To complete the bridge will need about another two years.
The worksite of the Chenab River Bridge is in a remote area with only poor road access, without infrastructure, electricity and water, and in a seismological fragile zone. No longer steel elements than 12 m could be transported over the poor supply roads, since the rail link to Katra had been not ready with the Anji Khad Gorge not bridged. The steel girder, box and desk bridge elements had to be engineered at site in 4 workshops.
Legal cases, strikes and financial disputes between the main contractor Konkan Railway Corporation (KRCL) and the bridge engineering formed CBPU with AFCONS, and then the COVID-19 crisis, have prevented, that this steel arch bridge, to be screwed together with high tension bolts out of shorter elements free pending over the gorge as originally planned for 2009.
The Chenab River Bridge has become a marvel and landmark in India comparable with the Gustave Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Not only there is a height relation, there is also a structural steel design and engineering relation with Gustave Eiffel of the 19th century, who engineered in 1882 – 1886 the steel arch Garabit Railway Bridge in the Massif Central of France in an earthquake prone zone. This bridge has become the grandmother of many steel arch deck bridges around the globe.
As Mr. J.S. Mundrey reports in his book BULLOK CART TO BULLET TRAIN, Chapter 27, Mr. Birdsall of the well known Bridge Design Consultants “Steinman Boynton Gronquist & Birdsall” suggested for the Chenab River gorge a fixed Steel Arch Bridge; similar to the 1977 constructed New River Gorge Bridge, West Virginia, Appalachian Mountains, USA, latter with a Central Arch Span of 518 m, which also goes back to the structural steel elements of the Gustave Eiffel 1884 Garabit Railway Bridge in France. The German Bridge Engineering Consultant LEONHARDT, ANDRÄ and PARTNER had prepared the structural engineering design for the Chenab River Bridge.
Update 2022: On April 04th 2021 the last segment could be launched to close the arch of the Chenab Bridge. After the arch closure the supporting cables could be removed and the concreting of the 8 m long chambers of the arch started. The concrete will give the arch additional stability. The Chenab Bridge will achieved its final stability after pushing the decks from both side ends over the arch construction. This could be successfully achieved on August 14th 2022 with the “Golden Joint Ceremony”.
Still there is a lot of work for the other major 37 bridges, 97.57 km main tunnels and 66.4 km of escape tunnels (no. of tunnels: 38), 7 railway stations, the track alignment (111km) and infrastructure. The recent successful closure over the Chenab Gorge has produced a certain amount of politically motivated euphoria and “bright weather reports” as if trains could run end of the year 2023 from Katra to Banihal. The scope and difficulties of the challenging works ahead tells us that at least another 3 years will be needed to close the railroad transport gap in the missing rail link to Kashmir.
Chenab Bridge, September 2022
Anji Khad Bridge, August 2022