Twenty years in the making, the delayed construction of the Anji Khad bridge in Jammu’s Reasi district is a major chink in the Indian Railways’ ambitious plan to seamlessly connect Kashmir to Jammu, and the rest of India.
After missing multiple deadlines, including those in 2017 and 2022, the ₹400 crore project to build India’s first cable-stayed rail bridge is finally nearing completion. “We will launch the superstructure deck of the bridge by the first week of May. Ancillary works like fine tuning the cabling, deck casting, linking of railway tracks will then follow, which will be critical to completion of the project,” a senior official working on-site told The Hindu.
Perched precariously over the Anji Khad river that swells every monsoon season, the bridge is supported by a single pylon — a large vertical tower-like structure — soaring 1,086 feet from the river bed, similar to the height of a 77-storey building. Surrounded on both sides by mountain peaks, the construction site is subject to billowing, gusty winds.
The official, who did not wish to be named, said that the structure of the bridge itself could sustain winds blowing up to 216 kilometres per hour. “However, every time the windspeed surpasses 45 kmph, construction work, including laying casts, has to be stopped, due to the risk of machinery, like tower cranes, swaying,” the official explained. A running train, whose speed limit would be restricted to 30 kmph, can sustain a wind speed of up to 90 kmph, added the official.
After the bridge is completed, it will pave the way for a single broad gauge track for trains connecting Jammu to Baramulla via Srinagar along a 326 km railway line.
The project was commissioned by the Northern Railways and is being executed by Konkan Railway Corporation Limited (KRCL) and Hindustan Construction Company. “Konkan Railway has prior experience of executing the largest railway project of the century in Asia. It cut through ghat sections and built 96 tunnels while building a 756 km railway line connecting Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka,” said a senior KRCL official.
However, engineers at the bridge site said that the execution of the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla rail link project, pegged at over ₹37,000 crore, is more challenging due to persistent climatic issues and the treacherous nature of the difficult Himalayan terrain. Two months ago, a worker died after sustaining multiple injuries while conducting a slope stability survey on site, officials said.
‘No approach roads’
Out of the total length of 326 km, work has been completed in 215 km, including the Jammu-Udhampur-Katra stretch (79 km) on the Jammu side and the Banihal-Qazigund-Baramulla stretch (136 km) in the Kashmir Valley. The work on the intervening Katra-Banihal section of nearly 111 km is currently in progress. “It is the most difficult section of the project, what with construction of 27 tunnels in a stretch of 97 km and 37 bridges in a 7 km section. Nearly 87% of the work is that of tunnelling,” an official said.
The idea was first conceived in 2002 during the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure as Prime Minister, and was declared a ‘national project.’
“It was then realised during the survey of the stretch that there were no approach roads to start construction of the railway tunnel. Nearly 205 km of approach roads were paved between 2008 and 2016,” explained the official quoted above.
Political, environmental challenges
The construction was then mired in a bevy of litigation that questioned the alignment of the proposed bridge. In 2016, the work finally picked up pace, after all court cases were disposed of.
The nearest border area is Suchetgarh, about 92 km away from the railway bridge construction site, making it a politically sensitive project. Officials told The Hindu that after 2016, construction work was delayed for a number of reasons, including the Pulwama attack and the onset of COVID-19.
While tunnelling for the project, the construction crew also encountered natural methane gas leaks and had to cease work to analyse the health risks to the surrounding village populations. “Additionally, there was a sand mining ban in place in the region for two years which made sourcing of raw materials difficult, and then there are always weather challenges to deal with. For up to three months in the winter, it is impossible to work onsite,” they said.