Four years of labour at heights of more than 16,600 feet over a distance of 1,142 km…little wonder the Tibet railway made it to the record books. Could India’s own Rs-80,000-crore strategic railway network chalk up similar benchmarks?
As with many such projects in India, the catchwords are wait and watch. Not that the Indian project lacks in scale or engineering challenge.
The proposed Srinagar-Kargil-Leh railway line will traverse heights ranging from 6,000 feet to 13,000 feet with night time temperatures in winter going as low as -30 degrees Celsius. There are also areas prone to mudslides (passi is the local term I believe). But with so much work already done (including roads over the 13,000+ feet Rohtang Pass), the railways probably have enough expertise to attempt the Leh segment with a degree of confidence.
To the east, the Misamari to Tawang line will rise from a little over 500 feet to about 10,000 feet. Here again apart from the bitter cold, the monsoon can be expected to wreak havoc. Add to that the fragile nature of the terrain and the soft soil resulting in landslides. Presumably there are technologies out there that the railways can avail of to get around these issues.
There are other lines envisaged that will improve connectivity along the sensitive western border. But as these are in the plains, there will be little problem in getting it done (aside of course from land acquisition).
The wonder is it took so long to get moving. But if you look at India’s approach to road building in the Himalayas, the story is much the same. We woke up too late to China’s road building all along the Line of Actual Control. Now China is on to the next stage, a railway line running roughly parallel to the road. Worse, China is planning links to the Nepal border and even one that will end up opposite Tawang in Arunachal (that China claims as its own).
Senior Army officers are pessimistic about the prospects for the railway. Given the capital involved and the delays inherent in the Indian system, what should have been done 20 years ago has barely got underway. Surveys have been completed on most of the priority 10 lines identified so far (including Leh and Tawang) but it’s difficult to say when construction will begin.