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Page last updated at 08:14 GMT, Friday, 10 October 2008 09:14 UK

Kashmir set for its first train service

The train at its trial run in Kashmir (Photo: Nissar Ahmad)
Officials say the train will transform the region (Photos: Nissar Ahmad)

The first ever train service is due to open on Saturday in the disputed territory of Kashmir, claimed by both India and Pakistan. The line is in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir and could have a dramatic impact on people's lives. The BBC's Geeta Pandey has been to see the work in progress.

Finishing touches are being given at this spanking new railway station in Ompura town in Indian-administered Kashmir.

The granite on the walls is being brightened and the floor is being polished.

As you enter the station, you see the gleaming new platform and the railway tracks. Behind the station, parked in the shed, is the brand new train.

A dozen gun-toting personnel of the paramilitary Railway Protection Force keep a watch.

Ompura, in Budgam district, is a station on the soon-to-be-opened railway line in Indian-administered Kashmir.

The rail link will connect Baramullah town in the north with Qazigund in the south - a distance of 73 miles (117km).

Trial run

Railway officials say the line would be ready by the summer of 2009, but a 44-mile (72km) stretch from Anantnag to Rajwansher via Srinagar is ready and the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is due to inaugurate it on 11 October.

"A trial run with the speed of 110km (68 miles) has been completed and we are ready to go," said a senior official of the Indian Railways Construction Company (Ircon) which is running the project.

The project was first announced in 2,000 and has been eight years in the making.

Map

Constructed at the cost of $466m (20bn rupees), it is the first railway project to join the dots between the various parts of Kashmir Valley.

Ircon officials say the project "will transform the region", bringing development to some of the remotest areas of Indian-administered Kashmir.

"At the moment, it takes three hours to travel by road from Qazigund to Srinagar. The train will do the same distance in 45 minutes," a senior official said.

"It will be useful for students who will be able to travel to Srinagar easily. It will also be a boon to those who need to get to the hospital in the capital city in a medical emergency," he said.

Residents of villages and towns along the track agree.

"Once it becomes operational, the train will definitely help us a lot," said Mohammad Yaseen who lives in Baramullah.

Most ambitious

"It will hugely cut down on our travel time and the authorities have said the fares will be kept low, so it will be good for us," he said.

The railway project is one of the most ambitious undertaken by Indian railways.

More than 5,000 workers, headed by hundreds of civil engineers, toiled for years to lay the tracks, build 900 bridges - including 100 major ones - and construct dozens of platforms.

A worker giving finishing touches at the railway station in Ompura in Indian-administered Kashmir (Photo: Nissar Ahmad)
Finishing touches are being given at the railway station in Ompura

But the biggest challenge, officials say, was building the network through some of the areas worst affected by the last two decades of insurgency by militants trying to end Indian rule in Kashmir.

Tight security was provided at the work sites with the police and paramilitary troops deployed in large numbers, but the security cordon was still breached on more than one occasion.

"One of our engineers was kidnapped in 2005 along with his brother and they were killed," a senior Ircon official said.

"Our workers were attacked many times by militants. And every time the labourers were attacked, they would all run away, making it difficult for the work to go on."

Kashmir's inhospitable terrain and harsh winters also posed problems for the project.

Symbolic

"Kashmir's winters are too harsh for the outdoor work, which meant in a year effectively the work could go on only for five months," the official said.

However, some in Kashmir say the railway link is more symbolic and will not have much impact on how people live and commute here.

Railway Minister Laloo Yadav at the trial run of the train in Kashmir (Photo: Nissar Ahmad)
The train has had a successful trial run

"It is most probably a train for tourists. The coaches have big glass windows from where tourists can have a good unrestricted view of Kashmir's beautiful landscape," says Mubeen Shah, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Says the state's former deputy chief minister Muzaffar Hussain Baig, "The train will provide a degree of comfort. But it will not be as dramatic as a railway link with the rest of the country."

That, say Ircon officials, is part two of the project which will connect the track at Qazigund with Udhampur in the south. And the rest of India.

But that stretch is many more years in the making.




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