THE so-called Udhampur Srinagar Baramulla Rail Link (USBRL) is a difficult project with a route length of 292.5km involving the construction of 911 bridges with a combined length of 13km, 46 tunnels totalling 115.9km, and 29 stations. When it is completed in December 2017, the line will be India's first broad-gauge mountain railway providing an all-weather link between the insurgency-ridden Kashmir valley and the rest of the 64,000km Indian rail network.

Three sections of the railway have been completed so far, starting with the southern 54.8km link from the railhead at Jammu to Udhampur in 2005, followed by the 119.7km northern stretch from Qazigund to Baramulla in 2009.

KashmirThe section which opened in June is 18.3km long and connects Qazigund with Banihal. The Rs 36.6bn ($US 616m) scheme was implemented by Indian Railways Construction Company (Ircon), and involved tunnelling through the Pir Panjal range, part of the tectonically-sensitive Himalayan range, using the New Austrian Tunnel Method (NATM) for the first time in India. NATM will also be used to construct all of the remaining tunnels, as well as 10 other projects in northeastern India.

The 11.2km Pir Panjal tunnel is India's longest. To minimise track maintenance, Rheda 2000 ballastless track has been laid. A longitudinal ventilation system has been installed comprising 25 1.49m-diameter jet fans installed in groups of five to keep the tunnel free from pollutants and control smoke in case of fire. The tunnel is also equipped with smoke and noxious gas detectors, a fire alarm system, CCTV, radio, public address, emergency telephones and escape route signage, all connected and monitored via a Scada system.

At the southern end of the new line, the 24.5km section from Udhampur to Katra will be inaugurated this month. Executed by Northern Railways at a cost of Rs 9.3bn, it entailed the construction of 10.9km of tunnels, nine viaducts and 29 bridges.

Is the completion of these four sections a concrete sign that the deadline of December 2017 will be met? Past experience is not inspiring. Conceived in the 1980s, the railway only started to make real progress when it was declared a national project in 2002, but even then it has over-shot its target completion date of 2007, inflating the cost almost four-fold in the process. Of the present estimate of Rs 195.7bn (at 2010 prices), a little more than one-third (Rs 88.9bn) has been spent so far.

Progress on the most critical part of the project from Katra to Banihal has been tardy following frequent changes to the design and alignment, while a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenging the alignment is pending in India's Supreme Court.

The project has also suffered as a result of reported inter-departmental rivalries. Last year, the sections from Km 33.09 to Km 39 including Anji Bridge and from Km 61 to Km 91 were transferred from KRCL to Ircon, both subsidiaries of Indian Railways (IR). Progress between Km 30 and Km 144 has also Kashmir-mapbeen slow on account of several failures inside tunnels and at the portals. In addition, the terrain is difficult and prone to attacks by insurgents which makes it problematic to find engineers willing to work in the area.

In a sense, it is back to the beginning for this most important stretch. In June 2008, work on this line was halted by the IR board when Swiss consultant Amberg Engineering was commissioned to suggest changes to the existing alignment. The IR board also set up an expert committee headed by retired IR chairman, Mr M Ravindra. After the committee submitted its report in June 2009, the board ordered work to re-commence, when fresh survey works, tests and studies were conducted.

The process of calling for new tenders has now been initiated, and three tunnelling contracts in the Reasi area were recently awarded. Of the approved cost of Rs 148.4bn for the stretch, just Rs 47.5bn has been spent so far.

Finally, the Katra - Banihal section envisages the construction of what is billed as the world's highest railway bridge standing 359m above the River Chenab. It will be built by KRCL through a joint venture. Geotechnical investigations, have been completed and partial design approvals have been received from IR. "Funds are not in short supply, and while there are some difficulties, we are now going full steam ahead with execution work," explains an optimistic KRCL official.