Northward Ho!

by Bharat Vohra


From a railway perspective, the summer of 2006 was an extremely eventful one for me. Four trips were made in all with the first and second from last, touching the northern and southern most tips of our Railway network respectively. The other two trips took me into Eastern (Darjeeling) and Central India (Mhow). The first trip was undertaken with Mohan Bhuyan in June, with the intention of seeing, firsthand, progress on the line to Kashmir - stopping at Ferozepur and Jammu en route and then continuing north to Udhampur and Katra.

For a change I was at New Delhi (NDLS) station a lot earlier than Mohan. He took the liberty of getting there as late as possible thanks to the Metro being located right at his doorstep! Needless to say, my early arrival at NDLS served absolutely no purpose! The Punjab Mail was late, the station hopelessly crowded and the weather hot and unbearably sticky. Waiting at the platform was not even an option, so I ploughed my way through the crowds and back up to the foot over bridge (FOB), which I had confidently descended only moments ago! I found my spot on the FOB and played out the waiting game.

The 18 coach Mail eventually departed about 90 minutes late behind Ludhiana's (LDH) WDM3A 17906. Thankfully we were allotted side berths in our over crowded 3AC coach. The journey to Ferozepur (FZP), done mostly in the dark, was unremarkable save for the fact that we made up time somewhere (or maybe there was just way too much slack!) and made it to our destination only 25" late.

With electrification fast penetrating the state of Punjab, Ferozepur is one of the last bastions of non-electrified BG junctions boasting a large 25-track yard (or thereabouts) and a very generous offering of semaphores. A rarity no doubt and a delight for sure. At most other big junctions, the hour of our arrival (0600-0700) would have been a busy one but not so at FZP. With only a hand full of movements, it all seemed pretty laid back but we weren't complaining â€" just soaking in all of its charm â€" which, incidentally, is best done from the FOB near the west cabin or from the road over bridge (ROB) further up.

Moving away from the platforms and while waiting for our pick up, we admired the elegant lines of the main station building and the grand old waiting hall.

Ferozepur was my paternal grandfather's first posting after partition. He would return there many years later as Divisional Superintendent or DS (now referred to as DRM). So for me, the detour via FZP was well worth it. FZP continues to be one of NR's important divisions â€" important because of its proximity to the border. And to this day, it retains a very peaceful and charming officers colony â€" in keeping with the stories I had heard as a kid. Tree lined avenues, broad roads, colonial bungalows complete with large gardens and a sense of tranquility that is hard to come by even in military cantonments these days.

The new DRM office block â€" best described as a concrete monstrosity â€" is the only thing that reeks of new in the area and is thankfully located a little distance away from the old colony. The old DS office, on the other hand, was conveniently located right by the DS's bungalow and even though not in use today, it manages to hold its own.

If one leaves out Chandigarh from the list, Ferozepur is easily one of the cleaner, less congested and nicer towns I have seen in Punjab. From the circulating area at the station, which is relatively uncluttered, to the narrow market lanes to the wider main roads, there is a sense of sanity and order across the town. Light traffic, low height constructions and old properties that appear every now and then only add to its charm. Of course it did help matters a lot when we realized we would be spending the first few hours of our morning in an old Haveli dating back to 1906.

Our breakfast was as `healthy' as it gets in the Punjabi sense of the word. But as the saying goes, "When in Ferozpur,…" And as it is, we had a long day ahead of us, so without the slightest of guilt, we did it full justice. With breakfast and baths out of the way, we bid our gracious host goodbye and set forth to the border at Hussainiwala. The generous North Indian hospitality, which had begun as early as the Punjab Mail clocked in, would be extended to us till our departure from FZP â€" close to lunch time â€" and if that wasn't enough, another hearty home cooked meal had been packed for our onward journey!

The drive from Ferozpur town to the border was longer than we anticipated. On the outskirts were passed the army cantonment and a little while later we crossed the branch line to Fazilka by means of a manned level crossing. Closer to Hussainiwala, a railway line comes into view and runs parallel to the road till its abrupt end just short of the Sutlej River.

It led to a lot of confusion and speculation initially but with some help from Rajeev Shrivastava, many email exchanges and Google Earth studies later, not just us but possibly the entire IRFCA community was wiser from it. This track was nothing but a spur from the old alignment and was built to help in the construction of the Barrage.

The first of many checkpoints was passed at the eastern end of the bridge and thanks to our `local' driver, we got through with ease. One side (south) of the river is completely concealed by a camouflaged metal barrier and this is probably the side that Pakistan can look into. A friend of mine who grew up in Ferozpur, mentioned to me later on that when they were kids, driving over the bridge at night meant switching their headlights off! Am not sure if the same restrictions apply today although chances are civilian vehicles aren't allowed after dark anymore. On the other side (north), the river can be seen through the head works of the barrage. Surprisingly, the railway girders (for the spur) are still in place across the river but it seems highly doubtful to me if they would ever be put to use again.

Beyond a certain point, vehicles aren't allowed and access to zero point is by foot. However, there are only certain times of day when the public is actually allowed to do so and our visit there, unfortunately, did not coincide with those. So we had to make do with distant observations into the `other side' while standing perched on strategically built DCBs (Ditch cum Bund â€" a military embankment built to trap enemy tanks) - a case of so near, yet so far! The only thing of excitement worth reporting was the sound of target practice â€" we couldn't tell on which side of the border though ;-)

Hussainiwala's real attraction however, isn't so much the International Border as is the Memorial Park built adjacent to it. The park is beautifully landscaped for most part and is dedicated to the memory of Bhagat Singh and Rajguru who were cremated at this site after their execution in Lahore. A smaller memorial commemorates the fallen heroes from the Battle of Hussainiwala during the Indo Pak War of '71. The park was essentially built around the old alignment of the railway bridge across the Sutlej - the ruins of the fortified western end of this bridge forming the centrepiece.

The bridge itself was possibly a casualty of the war and all that remains today are its sturdy brick piers. Some of these could be seen through the head works we passed earlier on and three of these â€" which lead up to the fortified western end - are now a part of the Memorial Park. Unfortunately, someone with a complete lack of imagination, creativity or aesthetic sense, was given the go ahead to place a humongous and ungainly steel structure over these, no doubt, making a huge dent on the Punjab Government's exchequer.

Back at FZP station, we waited for the departure of # 9111 Somnath Exp, who's destination boards were more like an itinerary and read, "Veraval â€" Ahmedabad â€" JammuTawi â€" Ferozepur". The relatively short 13 coach train undergoes reversal at FZP and while it's WDM3 17562 from NRs Bhagat-ki-Kothi (BKGT) shed did the run around, another from the same shed attached a military car to the train's rear.

Our allotments on the day journey to Jammu were side berths in 2AC and a welcome change from the 3AC accommodation from the night before. The coach, however, was far from desirable. An `81 built coach based at WRs Bhavnagar Depot, it was marked for POH (to Ajmer) 5 months hence and going by the condition it was in, it may have been wiser marking it for condemnation. But rapid gauge conversion invariably means a shortage of rolling stock and so it's no surprise that one of IRs newer coaching depots gets one of the oldest coaches in the fleet! Interestingly, it had its old coach number (6558) stenciled alongside the new one (810548).

And while we're on that topic, I couldn't help but wonder â€" a train originating in Veraval, a locomotive homing to Jodhpur, coaches homing to Bhavnagar â€" all finding their way to the distant north in Ferozepur?! The wonders - or blunders - of project Unigauge? Depends on which side you're on ;-)

Departure from FZP was delayed by 25 minutes. For interest sake, our journey to Jammu could be divided into 3 stages. FZP-Jalandhar (JUC), JUC-Pathankot (PTK) and PTK-Jammu (JAT). The FZP-JUC stretch would be the least busy of the routes and would hopefully give us the feeling of traveling on a rural branch line. That hope was soon dispelled as just out of FZP, MACLS signaling takes over. Thankfully the stations seemed untouched and most wayside ones were just the single track with low platforms. The crossing stations were only marginally bigger â€" a through and a loop with a single platform.

Surprisingly, none of the stations en route sported a foot over bridge â€" not even the bigger and sole junction on the line, Lohian Khas! Speeds were sensibly restricted to 75 and in any case the track didn't inspire too much confidence! The only crossing en route was with a DMU at Makhu where we also noticed a goods siding for food grain loading. The other points for loading were closer to JUC and were located at Sultanpur Lodhi and Kapurthala â€" each had a BCN rake awaiting loading.

The landscape had been unremarkable so far with occasional patches of green, some land under cultivation and the odd irrigation canal. Closer to Lohian Khas Jn., we crossed the first of 3 major rivers for the day â€" the Sutlej, yet again! With a water channel spanning almost the entire length of the 600 meter long bridge, the river looked a lot healthier than it had at Hussainiwala that morning. Of course we had little inkling of the fact that it was a single deck Rail cum Road Bridge and so we confidently chose the wrong side to look out from!

Lohian Khas was next and with a name that impressive and a line branching out to Nakodar and Phillaur, one was imagining a junction in the true sense of the word but it was far from that. 3 platforms, yes, but only 5 tracks in all and not a single other piece of rolling stock in sight! It was even devoid of crowds. And to make matters worse, the branch line seemed ill-used and poorly maintained. I was disappointed!

At Hussainpur, where RCF is located (it uses Kapurthala as a matter of convenience â€" Kapurthala being a District HQ), we braved the heat once again and were back at the doors to sniff out the latest factory offerings. RCF has its exchange sidings with NR at Hussainpur and the next station, where most people alight for RCF, is nothing but a halt station. A light WDM2 (possibly from LDH) appeared to be waiting between shunting duties while 18 conventional coaches (marked for NF, NE, NW, NR, WR and SE) occupied the storage tracks in the main station yard. 3 aircon LHB coaches bearing WR markings were parked at the approach to RCF.

Jalandhar City was reached a little while later and the junction wore a busy look through the duration of our halt. The WAP7 hauled Shan-E-Punjab Exp was the only electric hauled train there while the rest of the action was in capable diesel hands. A 5 coach LDH WDM2 hauled passenger train pulled in from the Nakodar branch line, a Hoshiarpur bound DMU departed in the same direction and a Shakurbasti WDS4 busied itself with shunting duties. Meanwhile, the catenary that has recently intruded JUC, seemed a little out of place.

Soon after passing the massive DMU card shed south of the station, we took a sharp turn north, leaving behind the mainline and joining the line to Pathankot at Suchi Pind. Suchi Pind is the northern apex of the triangle that links JUC and Jalandhar Cant. Although very few trains actually halt there, it has no less than 4 platforms, 6 tracks and a few flood light masts as well! Electrification ends at Suchi Pind and my hope is that it will never progress beyond it! The recent and possibly rushed energizing of these sections had made it possible for an 8 wheeler, SR based, OHE inspection car to be working in these parts. It was coupled to a very handsome looking Phooltas Track Machine car. Of course all these detailed observations were only made possible courtesy of an unscheduled halt there. We had been waiting all along for a crossing with our opposite number, the 18-coach JAT-ADI Exp.

While electrification seems unlikely to reach areas north of JUC, doubling of the line is finally in progress. Civil works in advanced stages were noted between Suchi Pind and Bhogpur Sirwal with some stations even sporting new platforms. And further north â€" between Mukerian and Chak Kalan, doubling is complete and operational. It's no small coincidence that this was the very section where the horrendous head on collision took place some years ago. Of course, in true IR style, the doubling work ends conveniently short of the Beas River Bridge and a single line resumes thereafter to PTK.

We passed the first of many military trains at Bhogpur Sirwal â€" a tank transporter (with high speed bogies) returning empty â€" signs that we were slowly entering a high security area. Interestingly, at a lot of stations on this section, we noticed disused tracks and sidings which had loading ramps on either end â€" suggesting that they were once utilized by the military. Our wait at Bhogpur Sirwal wasn't so long this time and we were soon rewarded by a screaming LDH WDM2 hauling an excessive load of the 24-coach Swaraj Exp, thundering past with horns blaring and the customary token exchange, which Mohan captured perfectly on camera.

Signaling is a mix of LQ and MACLS on the section up to Mukerian with some stations having both types in operation â€" a rare occurrence, no doubt! The newly doubled section from Mukerian to Chak Kalan is MACLS based and north of the Beas (at Mirthal), where the line becomes single once again, LQ takes over till PTK. Line speeds are in the range of 90-95 km/h and the ride quality at those speeds was fairly reassuring.

Train running close to the accident site was anything but quick and was characterized by slow reception and dispatch at each station along the way. On account of this lethargic running and the inconvenience of piece meal doubling, the train lost a fair amount of time and closer to PTK was running as much as 90 mins behind its advertised time.

The Beas was our 2nd major river crossing of the day and unlike the Sutlej near Lohian Khas, it was bone dry. Near Kandrori, we crossed briefly into Himachal Pradhesh and this was marked by the Chakki River Khad which we traversed by means of a short girder bridge. The terrain, which had been mostly flat since our departure from FZP, changed for the better here. The lower foothills of the Shivalik range came into view for the first time and would remain with us for some more time. While the water channel at the Chakki Khad wasn't very notable, the sudden appearance of craggy rocks and low hills in the area definitely made an impression and called for some time at the door.

Chakki Bank Jn. forms the southern tip of the triangle around PTK and enables trains to bypass PTK (Tank wagon kerosene)altogether, if sent north via Bharoli Jn. Bharoli in turn, is the Junction for the branch line to Amritsar (via Gurdaspur and Batala) and the main line to the north. And that makes Pathankot a terminus, necessitating a reversal for any train calling on it, heading north or south, as the case may be. Ours was no exception and just as well cause it provided for the only activity at the otherwise laid back terminus station! This reversal was the second since FZP and I'm not sure how many this train undergoes on its long and somewhat circuitous route out of distant Veraval!

2 stations out of PTK is Madhopur Punjab - the last station in Punjab. The last of the major rivers, Ravi is crossed soon after and this marks an entry into Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The bridge across the Ravi was the longest of the 3 major rivers we had crossed that day but like the Beas, was devoid of a noteworthy water channel. Looking east, the road bridge which carries the National Highway to Jammu parallels the railway bridge and further in the distance, a barrage could be seen. After the bridge, the railway alignment continues for a while on a high embankment and offers generous views looking west. Being close to the river, the land here is extremely productive and paddy fields can be seen everywhere with farmers toiling late into the evening.

Crossing the Ravi into J&K also brought the hills much closer to us. This was marked by some dense forests with the terrain in general being rocky and undulating. Within minutes our hard working Diesel was put through its paces. With sweeping curves on both sides, a very respectable and almost consistent 1 in 150 grade and a landscape that can only be described as lush, the section between Madhopur Punjab and Budhi (love the name!) demands a viewing from the door. And more so if you're a diesel lover!

All this with good speeds to boot! A much needed crew change at PTK and some incredibly deft section control ensured that no less than 5 crossings were effected on a 12 station, 101 km section without the slightest delay to our train. On the contrary, we actually made up most of our lost time on this section and were only 10 minutes late at Jammu! And keep in mind, the VRL/ADI â€" JAT Exp is a stopping passenger on the PTK-JAT section! We hadn't witnessed train running like this in YEARS! Delhi's section controllers could easily take some cues!

LDH powers rule this section with only some representation from the other NR sheds â€" TKD and BGKT. First to be crossed was an LDH WDMx powered Jammu Mail followed by another LDH WDMx powered BTPN freight. Next was a BCN freight whose shed I couldn't determine and that was followed by a DMU. In each case, the respective trains were already there waiting for us. Remarkably efficient reception and dispatch also meant that we never halted for more than our allotted time. The only crossing we waited for was our last â€" with the TKD WDMx powered Puja Exp - the SUPER of this section! Including our arrival & departure and the crossing of the Puja, the halt lasted no more than 5 minutes!!

Evidently, traffic is fairly heavy and only expected to increase as the line to Kashmir progresses north. Yet the section remains a single line and there was only sparse evidence of earthworks and bridge works en route. Signaling is LQ semaphores throughout including the end stations â€" PTK and JAT. Most stations are made up of one, invariably, low platform with 2 loops and the through and like the FZP-JUC section, foot over bridges seem to be a rarity here! Given all this, it does come as a surprise that line speeds are in the 100 km/h range!

Notable amongst the stations is Samba (another great name!), which sports 5 tracks and some of the only military sidings we saw in use. Bali Brahma, the last station before JAT, seemed to be a satellite goods terminal for the Jammu area. With only the main and loop serving passenger trains, the other 4 tracks in the yard were used for freight with military cargo, coal (for the nearby brick kilns) and fodder being the commodities served.

Prior to this trip, I had visited Jammu on my way to the Kashmir valley in the early 80s. My recollection of the route leading up to there and the station itself were, at best, foggy. But even so, the yard seemed a lot larger than I would ever have expected. All the interesting bits are on your right as you pull into Jammu but with heavy paramilitary presence, sporting a camera at the door, might not meet with many smiling faces. The Diesel trip shed is first up where an LDH WDM2 and a TKD WDP3 waited between duties. Right behind that is a large oil storage facility and a couple of BTPN rakes could be seen in its sidings. That would also explain the heavy security presence in the yard.

The station area comprises 3 platforms with slip sidings at either end. The goods yard runs parallel to the station sandwiched between the platforms to the west and sidings (for unloading BCN rakes) to the east. North East of the station area is a carriage and wagon depot and to the North West are carriage pit lines. 2 FOBs serve the hopelessly crowded platforms and we used one of them to make a quick exit! We would be back there early the next morning, but for now, we had army hospitality to look forward to for the rest of the evening!

Mohan's cousin had very generously offered to put us up in Jammu and being the Commanding Officer of his Unit, royal treatment awaited us the moment we left the stuffy confines of Jammu railway station! Aside from tour and taxi operators for Katra bound pilgrims, the biggest occupant of the city's roads seemed to be the military. Vehicles and men were everywhere â€" Army, Air Force, BSF, CRPF(Railway Protection Force), J&K State Police, you name it! I haven't seen such a large presence of security and armed force personnel for a very long time and certainly not on my last trip to Kashmir. Admittedly, things have changed drastically since.

The city itself impressed me a fair deal â€" much more than it had on my previous visit â€" limited memory notwithstanding! With one way traffic patterns adopted on a lot of routes, traffic flow was pretty smooth. Roads were wide for the most part and the busier intersections boasted multi level flyovers with exit ramps and such. Traffic cops sporting reflective vests and waving flashing batons were everywhere and the traffic in general seemed a lot more orderly than what we had left far behind in Delhi! Someone somewhere was doing a good job in the J&K administration! Jammu's University was impressive to â€" sprawling and well maintained with landscaped lawns and aesthetically designed hostel blocks.

A rather pleasant evening was spent in the lawns of the Officers Mess tucking into piping hot kebabs, sipping on chilled beer and watching the Germany v/s Costa Rica World Cup game on the Teli. Another notable thing about Jammu â€" evenings are a lot cooler in the summer months than in Delhi. It obviously has something to do with its close proximity to the mountains, but who's to complain ;-)

The next morning we were back at the station to board the 0745 DMU service to Udhampur. The 8 car consist was already on Platform 1 when we got there â€" having arrived before its scheduled time from its originating station, PTK. On the adjacent Pf3, the incoming rake of the Shalimar Exp was seen. Made up of non aircon LHB stock with WR markings, it was a classic case of NR playing big bully!! We boarded the cab of JUC car shed's Driving Power Car (DPC) # 11046 and a leisurely 5 minutes after the lowering of the starter; we nudged forward to begin our slow march to Udhampur. I use the word `slow' for good reason â€" on a track designed for higher speeds, we never exceeded 60 and in fact remained closer to the 50 mark while cruising. There are plenty of curves, no doubt, but none dramatic enough to warrant such conservative speeds. At a foot's rise every hundred forward, even the ruling gradient didn't offer much of a challenge â€" certainly not to a multiple unit train.

We were told later on that the entire section is being designed for high-speed running, with minimal or no requirement for bankers. The JAT-UHP section with its gentle curves and tolerable gradients was just a sampler for what lay ahead. In any case, we were there to enjoy the beauty of the section and marvel at its engineering â€" not to get thrills out of high speed running!

Despite the presence of a cement sleeper plant at Manwal, on this relatively short 54 km, 4-station section, metal sleepers are still in place between JAT and the first station, Bajalta. But Mohan was quick to point out that initial efforts to push beyond Jammu had been made more than 20 years ago and Bajalta was where they had ended! That said, the track bed seemed very stable and the ride quality - even in the cab - was excellent. No semaphores to keep the metal sleepers company unfortunately â€" as soon as you pass the advance starter at JAT, MACLS territory begins and continues through to UHP.

As you head to Bajalta, the good views are all to your left. Soon after leaving Jammu, the alignment rises sharply over its surroundings. The foothills of the Himalayas, which we had left behind on our approach to Jammu the previous evening, seemed to rise out of nowhere. The dry riverbed of the Tawi follows the alignment for a while and the outskirts of Jammu can be seen across the river valley as well as the township of Nagrota. The vegetation was reasonably dense for that time of the year although the trees didn't seem to rise to any significant height.

Bajalta station is relatively non-descript with 3 tracks and 2 low platforms. That said, the real `ghat' begins soon after its station limits. There is a notable clearing on both sides as the line ascends higher and the alignment can be seen, for quite some distance ahead, snaking its way through cuttings. There are about 10 major bridges â€" mostly viaducts - on this section and the first of them, no.42 is crossed minutes out of Bajalta. We entered our first tunnel soon after, emerging through a deep cutting onto another, more impressive S curve viaduct.

Sangar is the next station and apart from having one platform less than Bajalta, it is almost identical in layout. Soon after Sangar, the longest tunnel is passed â€" 2.4 kms in length. There are almost 20 tunnels on this short route with 3 of them being over a km long. Surprisingly, most of the tunnels lacked lighting except, thankfully, the longest 3! The viaducts (the longer ones) on the other hand, sport lights at regular intervals â€" probably a first for IR! Another peculiarity on the line â€" gradient markers are invariably marked with a `C' signifying a curve ahead! The Gambhir Bridge over Ringal Khud marks the approach to Manwal and at 65 metres, it is the highest bridge of the section. It is also the only girder bridge on the line.

Manwal boasts 5 tracks in all, a sleeper plant and the most sizeable crowd we encountered en route! Soon after the station, the Tawi River was crossed and the 2+ km long viaduct that follows is the longest on the section. Even at our top speed of 60, it took almost 3 minutes to cross!

Save for a couple of LC gates (close to JAT and UHP), all road crossings are through ROB's or under passes and this would, I believe, go a long way in ensuring higher speeds and safer running for the future. Later in the day, we noticed the same practice being followed on the alignment to Katra. Almost all tunnel portals are manned by armed security â€" some housed in tents and the lucky few, in `pucca' constructions. The same goes for the major bridges on the line.

Between Manwal and Ramnagar Rd, the presence of steep and often continuous cuttings signaled the onset of some serious mountain terrain. Tunnels showed up at quick intervals and the viaducts only seemed to get higher. The Dudhar river valley came into view soon enough and with impressive rock formations and a sizeable water channel, it made for one of the most pleasing sights along the way.

Ramnagar Rd is the last station before UHP and given its close proximity to the town centre, a lot of people alighted there. With only 4 scheduled halts and no crossings, one would imagine, at the very least, an on time arrival at UHP. But low speeds coupled with 4 caution orders ensured a further `in section' delay of 10" and we finally pulled into Udhampur 15" late.

The section between Ramnagar Rd and Udhampur, although devoid of tunnels and major bridges, offers some sweeping curves on high embankments with fine views of rolling meadows and mountains all around. On our approach to UHP, a military transport plane could be seen ascending steeply through the clearing in the hills â€" having just taken off from its base close by. It also signaled our entry into heavily fortified territory!

Udhampur is a sprawling 10-track yard nestled in a clearing surrounded by low mountains. The 3 platforms and large yard seemed excessive, given that, other than our DMU, the only other railway vehicle there was an inspection car parked in the sidings. No doubt, this station has seen busier days since and will of course continue to grow in leaps and bounds as the line progresses north. On the eastern end of the station, we could see a military camp on one of the sidings, probably waiting there for a unit train to move them to another part of the country. Am not sure how much has changed since our visit, but the only traffic into UHP then, was military.

Our visit to these parts had been pre-arranged in Delhi and officers from NR's Construction Dept received us at the station. They drove us to their guest house which, surprisingly, was a fair distance away from the station. The rest of their staff colony was also at this remote location and I wondered if that would all change once the project was complete. Over tea and light snacks, they chalked out an itinerary for us. And soon we were on our way again â€" only this time, by road!

We sat in the rear of the Gypsy, our eyes peeled, hoping to catch a glimpse of the new alignment. But in the mountains, it is almost impossible to spot any semblance of a new line except when blasted hill sides and concrete retaining walls are within sight. And as we took to a dirt track, leaving the highway behind, we could finally see some of this. We had reached our first stop for the day â€" the site of Tunnel No.1 (between UHP and Katra) and at a length of 3 kms, also the longest in this section.

We donned some hard hats and gumboots, climbed aboard a JCB (earth excavating vehicle) and set out to explore the tunnel. It had been completed only recently but nature seemed to have won the first round. Excessive `heaving' had occurred in parts, which meant that forces of the earth and rock had caused the walls and floor to bulge inwards. It was, no doubt, a big setback to the engineers and to the construction timeline as a whole. Resources that should, by now, have been allocated elsewhere, would remain here till the problem was solved. The mighty Himalayas would certainly prove to be the most challenging of them all and this was only the beginning.

Chakarwaha is the only station between Udhampur and Katra and while it didn't have a hint of population near by, the railways had chosen the spot for obvious reasons. It was the only flat tract of land on the entire alignment to Katra. The station design seemed similar to what we had seen on the run up to Udhampur â€" a through, 2 loops and a platform â€" and from what we could see, it was nearing completion. The north end of Tunnel #2 leads right into the station and a train running through would make for quite a sight when viewed from the over bridge we were on.

Between T2 and T3 lay a spot fraught with controversy. A temple stood bang in the middle of the alignment and had, no doubt, held up progress on the line. The owner had already sold the plot to the railways but the locals wouldn't let go. NR ended up constructing one in lieu of the original, a little distance away, but even that generous move hadn't worked in their favour. Our escort informed us later on that it would eventually be demolished under police protection!

Tunnel #3 was one of 2 major engineering works that remained at the time of our visit. It was being bored from both ends and we walked through its south portal for almost a kilometer on foot to see drilling work, up close and personal! Only a few hundred metres remained for this 2.5 km tunnel to be complete. Workers and equipment were everywhere and it was amazing to see how they managed to work, without so much as a pause, in conditions such as those. Limited lighting, poor air quality (despite forced ventilation) thick wet soil below their feet and the uneasiness of having it all cave in on them. Yet, the pop of a camera flash or the bewildered look on a visitor's face was enough to get them smiling. It is in these very moments that you realize what a cushy existence you live and you thank your stars for that.

Tunnel work is carried out top to bottom meaning that the boring begins at the top, the walls are built and simultaneously earth is excavated from below to allow progress forward. To add some detail to that, I quote from Mohan's caption, "Long pipes are inserted into the soil forming a frame, the earth is removed and support arches inserted." The arches, which in turn would form the retaining wall, involve a fair amount of work themselves. A primary frame of steel is put into place closest to the earth, followed by a few feet worth of concrete and then another steel frame. That's how strong the walls are and yet heaving can occur!

At the core of the drilling work was a rather large and intricate Japanese built boring machine imported in from Singapore â€" having already served its time there building a recent extension to their transit system.

We drove away from the construction site and after a long, dust ridden and bumpy detour rejoined the alignment at the north portal of the very same tunnel. Tunnel 3 led right onto a viaduct followed by Tunnel 4. The bridge was ready and so were Tunnel 4 and 5 which we had the rare chance of driving through. Many months or even years after our visit, that very alignment would see passenger and freight trains on it. No doubt, it was a surreal experience.

The second last stop on our tour was Bridge No.20. When completed, it would surpass KR's Panval Nadi Viaduct by no less than 30 metres. Even so, it would not be the highest on the Kashmir line. The bridge over the Chenab, further north, would someday take that honour.

If tunnel construction was awe inspiring, bridge construction - certainly this one - was nothing short of mind boggling. Standing at the edge of what would soon become the southern landing was a chilling enough prospect for us â€" what with a sheer 90 metre plus drop below. If that didn't get you, the sheer scale and complexity of the project would. A single column, supporting 2 long decks over one hell of a drop! The decks in turn, were almost ready to be launched into position from the northern end.

Our last stop was the construction site for Katra station and yard â€" the soon to be `temporary' terminus of the Kashmir line. Once built, it would easily steal the limelight over Jammu for being the preferred rail head for Vaishnodevi bound pilgrims. Within sight of the station, in the nearby mountains, is the pathway that leads to the shrine and also a great spot to watch some chopper action (if that kind of thing interests you)! Deccan Aviation has a heliport on one of the hills and operates a rather frequent shuttle service to the shrine to those willing to pay the extra bucks. On that day at least, it seemed many did!

A large station building was being constructed, some distance away from and at a greater height than the platform area. Going by the footprint of the support pillars for the FOB, it appeared that Katra would be a 3 platform station. A staff colony, pit lines and a coaching depot were some of the other discernible construction activities in progress.

A very late lunch was had at the large but near empty NR Holiday Home which, by virtue of enjoying a great location and close proximity to the shrine, would be a popular retreat for staff, once the line is complete. Our return to Jammu was by road and a stop had been planned on the way back to coincide with one of the southbound evening departures from UHP â€" hoping to photograph it on one of many bridges en route. But that plan had to be axed since we were already running a couple of hours late by then and wanted to make it back to Jammu by nightfall.

Our return to Delhi the next day was by a Holiday Special, which had an evening departure from JAT, giving us the whole day in Jammu. No time to relax though, we still had a couple of things left on our agenda! First off was a visit to a communication centre which, expectedly, sat on one of the highest hills, surrounding Jammu. It was reputed to have one of the best views on offer and we weren't disappointed. With an almost 360 degree panorama overlooking the Tawi River Valley, Jammu, Nagrota, the highway and rail alignment, we didn't seem to mind the searing heat that much.

Next, we drove towards Udhampur in the earnest hope of finding a suitable location from where to photograph the south bound DMU from. It was far from easy to locate â€" the rail alignment playing more `hide' than we could `seek' and worse still, time was not on our side. There was every chance that the DMU would be on time (given the negligible traffic on the line) and we would end up missing it! But our perseverance did pay off eventually!

Our last stop for the day was Amar Mahal, the former palace of Raja Amar Singh of the Dogra family. The palace was built by a French architect on the lines of a French Chateau and is a real masterpiece â€" not to be missed on a first time visit to Jammu. It boasts a grand location as well, where one can look across to the Shivalik range and down into the Tawi River Valley. The palace is open to visitors and houses a library and museum.

The journey back by Holiday `Special' (I wonder what is?) was far from pleasant â€" probably the first and last time for me! Overcrowded, no pantry service and some very spotty running. Doing the honours up front was a WDP3 from TKD and the month old coach (# 06102) we were riding in was probably our only saving grace. Funnily enough, it belonged to far away NFR! The only other noteworthy occurrences on our journey were both observed at Chakki Bank. The tradition of utilizing an escort or pilot loco on this section continues and ours was seen idling on the through line as we made a slower than ever entry into one of the platforms. At least 2 DMU rakes were stabled at the station which was odd given that PTK has a rather large and seemingly underutilized yard.

We managed to cover a fair bit of ground on our trip. Looking back though, we seem to have missed a crucial link â€" the old, pre- partition railway station in Jammu! Prior to the extension of the line from Pathankot, one would have to travel through Sialkot in Pakistan to access Jammu. We were informed later that some relics of the station building and traces of the alignment still exist to this day!

Experiencing the new line and the construction first hand was an enriching experience for sure and quite unlike any other railway trip I've done so far. Today I look back at the photographs of the many spots we visited and wonder how much has transpired since - I do hope a lot. I now look forward to a day â€" hopefully not far away â€" where I can actually travel on a train through that very section!

Many thanks to Mohan Bhuyan for his invaluable inputs and of course to Samit Roy Choudhury for providing us all with such a superb atlas as ready reference!

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