, SRINAGAR, October 11 – Indian Kashmir’s first train service hits the tracks Saturday — the fruit of an eight-year project that had to overcome the twin challenges of tough terrain and separatist violence.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to flag off the inaugural train which carries a heavy weight of local expectation, built up by promises that the new line will help transform the volatile Kashmir Valley.
The 117-kilometre (73-mile) link will connect the town of Baramulla in the north with Qazigund in the south and, eventually, should be integrated into India’s massive national rail network.
For the moment, only a 66-kilometre stretch is ready to be used.
Singh will launch the service from Indian Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar, which witnessed clashes after prayers Friday between police and Muslim protestors opposed to Indian rule.
A large separatist organisation had called a two-day strike to coincide with the premier’s visit.
The 20 billion rupee (470 million dollar) rail project was started in 2000 and involved thousands of engineers and labourers who had to contend with tough Himalayan weather — especially in winter — and inhospitable terrain.
They also had to work under tight security, given the near-constant threat of possible attack by Muslim militants who have been waging an armed struggle against Indian rule for almost two decades.
Work was halted temporarily after an Indian railways engineer and his brother were killed by suspected militants in June 2004.
In April 2007, a policeman was killed in an attack on a group of engineers inspecting the project.
On Friday, workers were putting the finishing touches on the Srinagar railway station — a three-storeyed building with carved wooden panelling, chandeliers and landscaped gardens.
The track will have nine stations and a pair of special air-conditioned trains with large windows to provide a proper view of Kashmir’s celebrated mountain scenery.
The main beneficiaries are expected to be those in remote areas who previously faced long journeys to access larger towns and cities.
"It is a dream come true for us," said villager Mushtaq Ahmed from Baramulla. "I have never seen a train in my life. I will try to be the first from my village to board one," he said.
The trip from Qazigund to Srinagar is a three-hour bus ride, but will take just 45 minutes by train.
"It is a God-sent gift to people like me," said Idrees Ahmed, a student who makes the trip every day to a Srinagar college.
"Pregnant women and very sick patients will also gain," he said, noting that most critical cases have to be shifted to hospitals in Srinagar, which houses the valley’s lone women’s hospital.
In the second phase, the valley will be connected to the rest of India through Udhampur in the south of the state.
Kashmir has long been separated from India by a lack of suitable transport routes. Currently the only way to reach the area is by a hairpin-road journey.
Officials said fool-proof security would be provided for the trains.
"We have set-up a separate railway police force wing to guard the railway assets and passengers," said police chief Kuldeep Khuda.