The picturesque Kashmir Valley just got more accessible with the inauguration of the Rs 1,700-crore Pir Panjal tunnel, which provides an alternate surface link between the landlocked region and the rest of the country.
It will cut down the 35 km travel from Banihal in Jammu to Qazigund in Kashmir to half.
Till now, the 294-km Srinagar-Jammu national highway, which remains closed for days during winter in the wake of heavy snowfall on the Banihal sector of the highway, was the only option available. People can now take a train from the Valley to Banihal, from where they can board a bus for Udhampur, which has train service to the rest of the country. Train service is already available in Kashmir on the 118-km stretch between Qazigund and Baramulla.
The Pir Panjal tunnel was inaugurated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday.
The 11-km Banihal-Qazigund section of the ambitious mountain railway tunnel, Asia’s second biggest and India’s longest, is being described as an engineering marvel. A three-metre-wide road has also been carved inside the tunnel for maintenance and relief and rescue operations in case of an eventuality.
Trains will ply regularly from Banihal to Baramulla in north Kashmir from June 27.
The Udhampur-Katra-Banihal section, which will connect the Valley to the rest of the country’s rail network, is expected to be completed by 2017.
Addressing a huge gathering at Banihal, Singh said the start of the Banihal-Quazigund train service was a result of an “engineering marvel.” It fulfilled a 100-year-old dream of the late Maharaja Pratap Singh.
He described the project as “the dream of the nation,” whose foundation was laid in 1983 by erstwhile prime minister Indira Gandhi. “Connecting Kashmir with the rest of the country through a rail link is a part of the UPA’s agenda to bring development to the state. For execution of the 67 developmental works announced in 2004, the Central government has released Rs 7,214.59 crore and 34 of these projects have been completed,” Singh said.
Sonia Gandhi promised to support progress and development. “The UPA, during its two tenures, has liberally funded the development needs of the state, particularly in infrastructure development,” she said. “Construction of Mughal Road and tunnels on the Srinagar-Leh highway are some of the big projects undertaken during this period.”