Facing challenges and life threatening hazards posed by rough terrain and geological thrust zones, engineers and workers are toiling overtime to meet the last extended deadline set for 2021 for completion of the world's highest railway bridge connecting Kashmir with the rest of the country.
The UdhampurSrinagar-Baramulla Rail Link Project, which is the most challenging railway infrastructure project being undertaken post-independence, has missed several deadlines amid huge cost escalations since 1997, when the then Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda laid its foundation at Udhampur.
"A fresh deadline of December, 2021 was given to us during a recent review meeting by the Railway Minister. It is the most challenging task. All efforts would be made to complete the project by that time," Chairman and Managing Director of Kokan Railways, Sanjay Gupta, told PTI.
Gupta said since the work is being undertaken at a fast pace and maximum work of building the arch of the 359-metre high bridge has been completed, it is likely that they will meet the deadline.
Interestingly, the arch of the bridge is 35 metres taller than the famous Eiffel Tower in Paris.
The project, which was declared a national project in 2002 with full central funding to speed up the work,missed several deadlines in 2007, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019. It was halted in 2008 after concerns were raised about its safety and alignment.
It is being built at a cost of Rs 12,000 crore.
Chief Engineer, Coordination, Konkan Railways R K Hegde said construction of the bridge and tunnels was a tough task involving life threatening hazards.
"But our men and machines are facing such situations bravely and undeterred to provide to the nation one of the best technological and engineering marvels of the world," he told PTI.
"The construction of the bridge is the most challenging part of the Kashmir rail link project and once completed, it will be an engineering marvel," Hegde said.
A 4,000-strong force of engineers, technical staff and labourers armed with high tech machines and innovative technologies have faced grave situations like landslides, high speed storms, collapse of tunnels, mudslides, flooding and sand erosion during the construction.
Though it was touted as a signature bridge, a committee led by retired IRSE officer E Sreedharan, better known as 'Metro Man', gave reasons for the bridge's inadequate safety factor and underscored the dangers posed to it by earthquakes, landslides and the proximity to the line of control.
Following his suggestions, the entire design was changed and work was restarted in 2016.
The alignment of this project passes through three major geological thrust zones namely Reasi, Murree and Pir Panjal thrust. The geological strata vary from loose conglomerate, clay, silt stones, crushed and faulted sand stones and dolomites.
"Geology changes very frequently due to natural challenges which includes major earthquake zones, extreme temperatures and inhospitable terrain making it very difficult to access the complete geology in advance," Hegde said.
Considering the varying geological conditions, adjustments in design have to be made as the work progresses, he added.
"Construction of longer tunnels with wider cross section for station yards is a difficult task for which proper methodologies are being roped in with requisite machinery. Extensive engineering works are required to be done for tunnel portals, deep cuttings, bridges & approach roads," he said.
Giving details, Gupta said that a part of this project from Katra-Dharam, totalling to about or 53.66 km, has been assigned to the Konkan Railways for execution. It comprises of 46.1 km of the route in tunnels, 4.6 km on bridges and the remaining route in cuttings and embankments.
In addition, Konkan Railways constructed 160 kms of project roads including road tunnels and many temporary Bailey bridges to gain access to the Katra-Dharam section. "Seventy percent of work has been completed", Gupta said.
The Chairman of Konkan Railways said the project will give a boost to tourism as it will provide all-weather and reliable connectivity to J&K with the rest of the country via the railway network.
It will also provide connectivity by rail to far flung areas of J&K which will result in overall economic development of the state, especially due to additional construction of 160-km of access roads, he added.
Considering that the region is prone to terrorism, Indian Railways and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) are working to make sure that the bridge can withstand any major blast.
Thus, the bridge is being built with 63 mm-thick special blast-proof steel, officials said.
A rail link to Kashmir was first thought of in 1898 by the then Dogra rulers, but they could take it only till Jammu. But even this got de-linked from the country's rail grid because of Partition and could only be re-connected in 1970 via Pathankot in Punjab.
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