World’s highest railway bridge to open in Kashmir soon | Infrastructure News

Amidst the mighty Himalayas in Indian administered Kashmir sits the highest railway bridge in the world.

The Chenab River Bridge, 1,315 meters long (4,314 feet) and 359 meters high (1,177 feet) from the river bed, will link the remote region with India’s vast rail network by providing all-weather connectivity.

At the height of winter, a large part of the disputed region is cut off from the rest of India.

The bridge, taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris, is located between the villages of Bakkal and Kauri in the Reasi district in the southern Jammu area of ​​Kashmir.

Built at a cost of $168 million, the bridge is part of the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail Link (USBRL) project, which will connect the main city of the Srinagar region with mainland India via rail networks on which it began to work in 1999.

engineering marvel

The arch bridge, built with 28,000 tons of steel, is considered an engineering marvel as it is built in an area prone to major seismic activity. The rough and uneven terrain also sees frequent landslides and severe weather conditions.

The 119 km long (73 mi) rail project comprises 38 tunnels and 931 bridges with a combined length of 13 km (8 mi) to make the rail link possible.

Before its construction, engineers had to cut a 26 km (19 mi) access road and a 400-meter-long (1,300 ft) tunnel to reach the bridge site.

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The bridge under construction over the Chenab River (File: Prakash Singh/AFP)

While inspecting the completion of the bridge last month, Ashwini Vaishnaw, India’s railway minister, admitted that it was the most difficult engineering challenge for the department.

“This bridge and the other tunnels were difficult because this whole area is highly prone to earthquakes. To strengthen it from any seismic activity, special strengthening technology has been used,” the minister said.

Doubts over the long-delayed project were addressed when the minister said that rail connectivity to Srinagar will be completed by December this year or January next.

The bridge, the official documents say, has been built to withstand strong winds and large earthquakes.

It took two decades for thousands of workers and hundreds of engineers to complete the feat.

“This project has been the most daunting job undertaken by the Indian Railways since independence,” an engineer working on the project told Al Jazeera.

He did not reveal his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“The completion of the bridge also shows a breakthrough in Indian engineering technology,” he added.

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A 2015 photo showing the construction of the railway bridge (File: Channi Anand/AP Photo)

long-awaited connectivity

There is no direct rail link between the Kashmir Valley and mainland India.

The current railway line running through the valley carries local passengers from the region’s Baramulla district in the north to Banihal in the Jammu area’s Ramban district.

The new railway bridge will connect the Kashmir valley with Katra in Jammu, cutting the journey time from five to six hours from Katra to Srinagar.

Therefore, it is a crucial part of the Indian Railways project to connect the valley with the rest of India, which until now depends on road networks.

The Srinagar-Jammu highway, which is the only road connection between Kashmir and mainland India, is often blocked due to heavy snowfall during winters, landslides and avalanches. Traffic on the route is clogged for days, making people and businesses suffer.

The treacherous accident-prone highway has also claimed many lives. Last year, there were at least 648 traffic accidents on the highway, resulting in 93 deaths, according to data from the federal Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.

Local residents say that people from different parts of India visit the site to see the bridge.

“This bridge gave employment to many locals who worked there for years. It has become a tourist spot,” Gulzar Khan, 36, a resident of Khurru village in Reasi, told Al Jazeera.

Javed Ahmad Tenga, director of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI), a union of merchants in the region, told Al Jazeera that rail connectivity will boost trade in the region.

“Merchandise transport charges will be reduced. This will benefit the business community. By road, it takes a long time for things to get here. It will also strengthen the fruit business,” Tenga said.

local fears

However, many Kashmiris fear that rail connectivity would further assimilate the disputed region into mainland India. They fear that the project affect demographics from India’s only Muslim-majority region.

The fears come from 2019 repeal of Kashmir’s limited autonomy by the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and place it under the direct control of New Delhi.

Among the many changes the move brought was allowing non-Kashmiris to settle permanently in the region and start businesses.

“This railway will facilitate connectivity, but we are also concerned that there will be a rush of non-local people into the region. Anyone who wants to come here will board the train,” said Khursheed Ahmad, a Srinagar resident.

Last month, the government told parliament that 185 non-locals had bought land in Kashmir while 1,559 companies had invested in the region.

In 2020, only one non-local had bought land in the region, according to government data.

As one of the most militarized regions in the world, improved rail connectivity will also transform the security landscape with easy mobilization of supplies, troops and equipment.

“The train will help bring logistics and stocks for the army to Kashmir,” DS Hooda, a former commander of the North Indian Army, told Al Jazeera.

Kashmiri academic and political analyst Siddiq Wahid said rail connectivity would mean more control over the region.

“This will help financially without a doubt. Certainly, ecologically the trains are better than the roads. Connectivity will be of great help to New Delhi in terms of control. I think that is his ambition,” he told Al Jazeera.

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