KATRA: India's struggle to build a railway to troubled Kashmir has become a symbol of the infrastructure gap with neighbouring China, whose speed in building road and rail links is giving it a strategic edge on the mountainous frontier.
Nearly quarter of a century after work began on the project aimed at integrating the revolt-torn territory and bolstering the supply route for troops deployed there, barely a quarter of the 345-km Kashmir track has been laid.
Tunnels collapsed, funds dried up and, faced with the challenge of laying tracks over the 11,000 foot Pir Panjal range, railway officials and geologists bickered over the route, with some saying it was just too risky.
The proposed train, which will run not far from the heavily militarised border with Pakistan, has also faced threats from militants fighting Indian rule in the disputed region, with engineers kidnapped in the early days of the project.
China's rail system has been plagued by scandal. A bullet train crash in July killed 40 people and triggered a freeze on new rail project approvals, but the country managed to build the 1,140-km Qinghai-Tibet line, which crosses permanently frozen ground and climbs to more than 5,000 metres above sea level, in five years flat.
It has also built bitumen roads throughout its side of the frontier, making it easier for Chinese troops to move around, and mass there, if confrontation ever escalates.
Indians have long fretted about the economic advantages that China gains from its infrastructure expertise. But the tale of India's hardships in building the railway line also shows how China's mastery of infrastructure could matter in the territorial disputes that still dog relations.
Both train networks, China's running far to the north and India's hundreds of miles away in the southern reaches of the Himalayas, reflect the desire to tighten political and economic links with their two restive regions - the Tibet Autonomous region in China's case and Kashmir for India.
But they would also form a key element of military plans to move men and armour in the forbidding region in a time of conflict.
Should India-China relations ever deteriorate to the verge of military confrontation and if riots in Tibet erupt, the People's Liberation Army's mountain brigades can rapidly deploy to the region. Railway and road construction have been China's Himalayan strategy for decades.
"China outstrips India in at least three respects: the ability to execute large and complex projects; rapid implementation; and - importantly - the foresight to embark upon these projects for economic and strategic purposes," said Shashank Joshi, at London's Royal United Services Institute, who has written extensively on India-China ties.
He also said China was also more proficient at concealing its failures because of its closed political system and excellent information management.
On the other hand, India hasn't yet determined its priorities in the region, which shares borders with both Pakistan and China.
"India has to decide what it wants to be. If integrating Kashmir is a top national priority, then the project should have moved on a war footing long ago," said one visibly exasperated military commander in Kashmir.
Signs of struggle
Here in the lower stretch of the line, workers are struggling to build tunnels through soft mountains to bring the track from the railhead in Udhampur, 25 km away.
Of the seven they built over the past four years, one has collapsed and the other is seeping water. Now engineers have gone back to the drawing board to figure out an alternative route.
"That is the way the project has been undertaken. You tunnel and then you find it is not holding. You then try and skirt around it like a bypass surgery," said Chehat Ram, chief administrative officer of Northern Railway.
This is only the first of the tough stretches of the network that will run through some of the world's most spectacular mountains and gorges, offering an alternative to the single highway that connects Kashmir and is vulnerable to bad weather.
Bigger challenges lie further down the track, including building the world's tallest single-span bridge over the river Chenab at an elevation of 387 metres, higher than the Eiffel Tower at 324 metres.
Across the valley floor are signs of the struggle to build a network that even the country's former British rulers gave up on after briefly considering it in 1898 because of the forbidding and often uninhabitable terrain.
A tunnel built into a cliff edge has been abandoned near Tikri in the lower section, at another place work has been stopped after workers found that the section in the hills they had blasted and drilled through had become waterlogged.
The train station built at Katra in anticipation of the line is looking worn out, with paint peeling off and moss growing on the building, two years after it was completed.
Local herdsmen leave their ponies to graze in the grounds around the eerily empty building.
"People have lost their land, there are no jobs and there is no train," said Lal Chand, a herdsman.
The deadline for completion of the project was August 2007, but it has been pushed back to 2017, and even that is seen as an optimistic assessment. Cost estimates have jumped, from Rs45.5 billion ($1.0 billion) in 2002 to Rs195.6 billion today.
China, meanwhile, began work last year to build a rail spur that will connect the Tibetan capital of Lhasa with Shigatse, the monastery town that is the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second-most powerful figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
Joshi said China was in a position to bring far greater resources to public sector investment than India. For instance, Indian investment in railways in 2010 was about $9-10 billion. In China, it was $118 billion.
"If the Chinese had to build the Kashmir track, they'd do it faster and better than the Indians - but it might still fail, and they'd plough much more into it.
For the hard-hatted men tasked with building the railway line, comparisons with China don't sit easily.
"These mountains are full of surprises. Normally you would survey one to two kilometres and then, based on the results, extrapolate the geological pattern for the rest of the stretch, but here it changes every 50 metres," said chief engineer L. Prakash.
Most of the line runs either through tunnels totalling 109 km, the longest of which is 11.4 km, or across more than 780 bridges, many of which span deep gorges.
"The comparison with the Tibet railway is overstated. The Tibet line is largely flat, only 10 percent passes through mountainous terrain and the rest is through plateau," said Northern Railway's Ram.
"It is not to belittle the challenges they faced. To build a network at that altitude and with those kind of weather conditions is creditable. But the comparison doesn't stand. They had to do a lot less tunnelling, far fewer bridges."
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Journey of thousand miles begins with first step.
Building a railway line and keeping them in service is a monumental task, whether it is for India or china. Compared to the railway networks of the US, china and India are far better.
As always priority of each nation is determined by internal atmosphere. Compare and contrast is unnecessary here considering the history of the region. More people are living in NE states of India where new railway networks are desperately needed than in Kashmir.
That said, the question in the end is, so what? Let china and India build their infrastructure to suit their own destiny at their own pace. What is the hurry?
Perhaps Pakistan railway wants to build the railway line in Kashmir instead? Just kidding Indians.
Good to see this article here. We never find such worthwhile articles in Indian newspapers. Indian newspapers should be full of where China is in terms of infrastructure, economy etc so we can get inspired ourselves. But our newspapers are full of useless claptrap about Hindi movies and TV soaps!
we never find a comparison between pakistan and china in indian newspapers ....
Guess you missed the news on July 23. Let me help you out, China's railways ministry has acknowledged flaws in the construction of its high-speed rail links, state media reported Tuesday, in another blow to its credibility after a deadly train crash.
Chinese infrastructure is excellent and better than many Western countries. India is no match on that front and chances of catching up are zero. Taking decisions and expediting projects is a cakewalk for any Dictatorship, Democracy will definitely slow down the process but the gains will be durable. Chinese expertise in this field is far superior.
Though I am an Indian, but in a perverse way I am happy to see India being inferior to China in some respect. Simply because it makes Pakistanis happier.
As usual, this thread shows the lack of macro awareness of what is happening INSIDE China. Their HSR (High Speed Rail) system development has been suspended in light of the recent accident. China built that system two years ahead of schedule, however, it did so, deliberately ... to make it a prize display (a stupid notion that the Communists love); because of the Chinese Communist Party's 90th birthday. Dead passengers be damned. The result is for all to see. Also, China has now pulled 48 trains from the tracks. They believe the technology is unsafe. So, there goes the 'progress'. Trains are running at only a third of their passenger capacity, and no amount of promotion, is increasing the ridership. So, there goes the 'convenience'. A material is a material. Concrete takes time to become strong. If it is required that a block of concrete foundation must 'rest' for eighteen hours to become strong ... then you had better wait for those 18 hours. But nooo! This is CHCHIINAA! They built their tracks with cheaper quality fly ash and slashed the necessary 'wait' times, to half. That is not efficiency, that is just hogwash. So, there you are ... a so-called HSR system that has thousands of tracks, and very few trains to run on it, with nobody convinced of its safety and usability. In India, we call it A WHITE ELEPHANT.
@ CAUTIOUS May be mucho love for making you little dizzy and u cant see what going on around i think first india need to give its peoples bread,cloths,houses and then talk something else and for for kashmir train india is better off with donkey carts i hope.
I doubt that railroads to Kashmir is a legitimate test to compare infrastructure -- but airports are -- and with all due respect to India -- any businessman who travels to both India and China knows that China is far ahead of India when in comes to infrastructure.
Indian Railway/Chinese Railway
Conventional Route Length - 63000/78000 Km
Freight Carried - 750/3300 Billion Metric Tons/year
Annual # of Passengers - 6..2/1.4 Billion
Annual Budget - $8 Billion/$38 Billion
It should also be mentioned that in Hi-speed railway, China is miles ahead of any country in the world with a dedicated track length of ~ 10,000 Km.
That should give an overview. Having shown that, it is important to juxtapose the geography of India and China. China is three times the size of India; so, it will need long track length. They have extensive in laying tracks in mountains because roughly 1/3 of China is a rugged mountain terrain. When India wanted to lay the Kashmir line, it assigned the task to the Konkan railways which has an experience of laying tracks in the western ghats which has an average heights of 1200 Km; whereas in the Kashmir ranges, the average height is 4000-5000 Km. This technical difficulty coupled with the inefficiency of the system is leading to the inordinate delay.
Another FACT: The Chenab Bridge being constructed by the Indian Railways in Kashmir will be the world's tallest railway bridge, yet.
whatever credentials that indian railway hasn't earned yet but it is the life line of crores of people in india. I can't imagine the economy of india what it is today without contribution of railway. indian railway is common man's railway. i have been to china,there trains are spectacularbut they can't provide services at the rate of indian railway's services. common people in china don't go thorugh train that often as much as indians do, because prize is so high. In india the fare always matter because most of here are lower middle class and indian railway provides cheapest and bestest service possible at that rate.I agree that we do need more sheedharans, but i would not for even one second will put indian railway to any lower to her chinese counterpart. What indian railway should focus on now is cargo transport which will give them and country double profit. which ultimately can sustain or lower the price of tickets for general passengers.
@Fareed: hello Mr. Fareed, do you know Indian railway provides cheapest travel in India. to travel 150 Km., it takes only 24 Rs. in passangers train and 51Rs. in express. so do not compare, that here
if Indian railway starts behaving like corporates then the whole Indian transport system on rail will be much more modarate.
Actually as an India I happy with this article.
Simply as India is now compared/competed with China by Reuters.
For a long time India's difficulty was that it got tied down with comparision with Pakistan.
I have nothing against Pakistan. Just that I believe it was an unfair comparision for both - India and Pakistan - as India is 7/8 times bigger then Pakistan. India's rightful comparision should always be with China.
India's is not a command economy; it is a democracy. Fascisms have always been efficient but are not particularly known for longevity as witness Mussolini's Italy when the trains ran on time or Indira Ghandy's Emergency when everything ran like clockwork. Both are history now, unmourned, unlamented. We don't give much thought to how fast China is going because, be assured, it will crash eventually as its high speed trains did. And, India, like the tortoise in Aesop's fable, will be merrily chugging along! India measures Time in "yugas"(aeons)!
@Fareed: agree, today's India's implementation speed is much slower compared to that of china's. we need a fast acting, strong desired, corruption free govt. policies and systems... still we are using old-british model trains, without much change. all this is not because of our in-capabilities, but due to the lacks of strong policies, decision power and strong govt.
This one of the acceptable drawbacks of Democracy. China, has done an excellent job. But, at what cost?
It can build highways and demolish entire villages and it doesn't need anyone's permission. India, being a Democracy, cannot do that. It has to think of its people first, the people who build it, and the people who are affected by it.
The projects might be delayed but if you are a Democracy this happens. Better than being a Democracy than not being one.
Hi Guys ! any competetion with Pakistan? We have the best railways in the whole world. Owner's pride and neighbour's envy !!!
Pakistan Zindabad !!
Sorry mate, I am afraid to tell you, this is 'Reuters' article got published here.
This is so ridiculous ............ pakistan's news paper talking about india behind some dictatorial regime in laying railways in the world's most difficult zone to build infrastructure. I think pakistan and it's news portals should consider running a wide story of how the pakistan railways went broke rather than criticizing indian railways............... JUVENILE Reporting........... Indian Railways may not be the best but then it's up and running....
“The comparison with the Tibet railway is overstated. The Tibet line is largely flat, only 10 percent passes through mountainous terrain and the rest is through plateau,” .
Absolutely true.Leave this this daunting task of railway in kashmir .Rest of India is a plane land.Indian railway still lacks that competativeness. As the country grows,India will do the rest,I think.