LEH: At Upshi, 50 km south of Leh, a tiny hillock poses a big challenge to a team of railway survey men. A 16-member squad, comprising experienced railway engineers, geologists, bridge specialists and avalanche experts, tosses various options to negotiate the roadblock —from engineering a deep vertical cut to pushing the track towards the existing motor road. A senior geologist in the team is blunt: there’s no way we can have a tunnel below this heap of withered granite. There’s one more problem, points out another expert. The hillock is too short for a tunnel. So, what’s the way out? After some discord, a consensus is arrived at: let the project consultant RITES, whose survey experts did six recces of the terrain in the past, come up with two alternative solutions and freeze the matter, for good. If... more...
the Government of India has its way, a railway line up to Leh — a district in Ladakh sandwiched between Pakistan occupied Kashmir in the west and China in the north and east — will be a reality in the next few years. The survey for a 498-km-long strategic railway line from Bilaspur (Himachal Pradesh) to Manali (HP) to Leh ( J&K) began in September last year. The Ministry of Defence has earmarked Rs 158 crore to the Indian Railways for the survey, with Rs 40 crore released in 2016-17. Depending on the gradients and the alignment, the route length could go up to 650 km, almost the same as the distance by road. But the big picture is this: strategically important Leh — just 250 km from the China border — will finally be connected to Delhi by an all-weather, 1,100-km-long rail route. Though defence requirements are the basic rationale for conceiving a railway line passing through a difficult terrain and high passes — 17,480-ft-high Taglang La is one of the four passes on the way .. The cost? The survey men are tight-lipped; a tentative cost will be known by the end of next year when the second phase of the three-phase survey is completed. “Don’t be surprised if the project cost is Rs 1 lakh crore,” exclaims one of the survey men, with a disclaimer that he does not have all the requisite statistics — route length, total size of the tunnels and bridges and the like to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Last week ET Magazine joined this team of survey men for a stretch of 70 km from Leh to Lato, both in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir. Strategic Line The entire survey is expected to take at least two more years. When it’s time for the government to take a call on its implementation, the recent tensions with China and the eventuality of future skirmishes may well determine whether it’s executed or not. After all, the Bilaspur-Manali-Leh line will go Last week ET Magazine joined this team of up to 250 km from the India-China border. It will also be the most challenging project the Railways has ever embarked upon since it involves constructions in huge mountains and avalanche-prone sections. And it’s not the only line that’s planned near this critical India-China boundary. Final location surveys are also being conducted on the eastern front for three other stretches — a 378-km Missamari (Assam)-Tenga (Arunachal Pradesh)-Tawang (Arunachal) track, a 227-km-long track from Pasighat (Arunachal) to Tezu (Arunachal) to Rupai (Assam) and a 249-km route from North Lakhimpur (Assam) to Bame (in Along, Arunachal) to Silapathar (Assam). This information was in a written reply by MoS for Railways Rajen Gohain to Parliament in November last year. He added that Rs 345 crore was earmarked for surveys for the four lines, with the ministry of defence releasing Rs 87.18 crore for 2016-17. These blueprints are on the drawing board at a time when China is aggressively pushing its railway network deep into Tibet; the Indian government was jolted in 2006 when the 1,142-km-long Qinghai-Tibet Railway (QTR) became operational, bringing the railway track up to Lhasa, some 1,500 km from India. The Lhasa-Shigatse railway line was subsequently constructed, and will soon be extended to Dromo near Sikkim and Nyingtri (Nyingchi in Chinese) in north Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian state often claimed by China as its own. In fact, Dromo is close to Doklam, where India and China have just managed to end a 73-day-long standoff triggered by the intrusion of Chinese soldiers into Bhutanese territory for constructing a road project (Bhutan is a protected state of India). Despite mounting pressure from China, India did manage to hold its ground till both the countries agreed that its troops would step back by 150 m on each side. On Thursday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a press conference in Beijing said that while the Doklam standoff with India had “not derailed” ties, they were “damaged and affected” during those 73 days. While addressing a gathering at a seminar organised by Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi on Wednesday, the general cited how China “flexes its muscles” to take over “territory in a very gradual manner”. On the same day, two of India’s former foreign secretaries — Shivshankar Menon and Shyam Saran — had an hour-long conversation at a book launch. Both diplomats spent some quality time to address one question: Why is China in a tearing hurry to exert its military influence in the region? They suspect it to be the fallout of China’s perception that the US under Donald Trump is on the decline, thereby giving a window of opportunity for China to gain more power. Clearly, there’s little room for India to slack off and if China is making tracks into Tibet, and towards the border, India too should be getting its act together to create similar infrastructure in the region. It won’t be easy, though. Toughest Track Railway officers point out that if the track to Leh gets the green signal, it will be more ambitious and grandiose than the engineering marvel that is the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla rail link, with 11.2-km-long Pir Panjal railway tunnel. Only a part of that project is operational now. “The Bilaspur-Leh line will pass through four high passes, the most challenging being Taglang La (17,480 ft). The temperature variation from minus 30 degree Celsius to plus 30 degree Celsius is a big challenge. Then, there are avalanche-prone areas on the way. The proposed line falls in Seismic Zones 4 and 5. In fact, 11% of our proposed track falls in Zone 5 (the most vulnerable to earthquakes)” says Desh Ratan Gupta, the chief engineer in-charge of construction and survey for Northern Railways. “Also, the sub-zero conditions of this magnitude do not exist in the Udhampur-Baramulla project.” Sunil Bharadwaj from the Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) pinpoints the challenges. “Between Kothi and Sissu (both in Himachal Pradesh), the line will pass through some of the most avalanche-prone pockets. That 70-km stretch will be a big challenge,” he says. SASE is a laboratory under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) that forecasts avalanches, apart from undertaking their mitigation measures —both temporary (like artificial triggering) and permanent (like constructing snow galleries). For New Delhi, junking the Bilaspur-Manali-Leh project because of the rough terrain may not be an option. From 1947, the Railways has been shying away from constructing new hill rail tracks — the toy trains of Darjeeling, Shimla and Ooty were built in the British era. The only headway made in the recent past has been the construction of rail tracks to connect seven capital cities of the northeastern states (barring Sikkim) and then the Udhampur-Baramulla rail line in Kashmir; both are incomplete. In Leh, people are not perturbed by the recent military standoff between India and China in Doklam near Sikkim and in Pangong in Ladakh. Sonam Angchuk, 61, a personal assistant to Shey monastery’s chief monk, is hopeful that the rail line to Ladakh will become a reality. “Can you imagine that a dozen bananas cost Rs 100 in Leh? It’s all because of transportation costs. Many commodities are bought either from Srinagar or Himachal Pradesh. The rail line will be a game-changer,” he says. Skal Zang Dolma, a former school teacher, spells out the downside. If the railways come here, prices of goods will come down, but we don’t want Leh to turn into a dirty, low-budget tourist spot,” says Dolma, a resident of Stok, a village where Leh’s royal family resides.
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