Now, Vaishnodevi pilgrimage on the rails

Mohinder Verma
The holy town of Katra is all set to reverberate with the whistling and roaring of the trains as the dream of connecting this town, the base camp of cave shrine of Shri Mata Vaishnodevi, with the rest of country by train has finally become a reality. Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh is going to present this new-year gift not only to the people of Katra but to all those undertaking pilgrimage to the holy shrine situated in the Trikuta Hills, by flagging off first ever train on 25-kilometer long Udhampur-Katra Railway Line on February 2.
Unlike other inaugurations, which are done and forgotten, this inauguration would be a memorable one as on one side this section would facilitate over one crore pilgrims visiting the shrine every year in directly reaching the holy town from different parts of the country and on the other side whole the of Jammu-Udhampur-Katra-Banihal-Qazigund-Srinagar-Baramulla railway line has come closer to the logical conclusion.
The plan to connect holy town with rest of the country via train was actually mooted way back in 1998 when Railways Ministry got the survey on the project conducted but the groundwork was actually started in 1999 setting 2005 as deadline. However, due to numerous challenges on the ground along with certain internal issues of the Railways deadlines continued to be missed one after the another and this gave an impression to the people of the Katra that dream of bringing trains to the holy town would not become a reality.
Notwithstanding criticism from numerous quarters about inordinate delays, the Railways continued struggle to meet the challenges posed by the terrain and weather vagaries and finally the dream has become a reality although after a long gap of 16 years.
The major problem encountered by the engineers on this vital section was squeezing and swelling in Tunnel No.1 due to expansive soil conditions after completion of tunnel boring work and excessive seepage problem in Tunnel No.3. In one of these tunnels, even half a kilometer portion got collapsed following which alignment had to be changed by way of constructing diversion tunnel. Thereafter, New Austrian Tunneling Method (NATM), which is also used in the construction of 11-kilometer long tunnel through Pir Panjal Range was adopted for being the most advanced technology.
The unfortunate incidents of Gool and subsequent curfew besides several problems created by unprecedented rainfall last year also resulted into delay in opening of Udhampur-Katra section, which was earlier scheduled to be inaugurated in October last year. Due to law and order problems, majority of the skilled workforce left the site while as heavy rainfall created additional works for the Railway authorities.
Anyhow, all is well that ends is well. Now, the holy town of Katra is all set to reverberate with whistling and roaring of the trains, which is certainly going to give a big boost to the economy of the town.
When contacted, Chief Public Relations Officer of the Northern Railways, Neeraj Sharma said that the mandatory inspection of the 25 kilometer railway line by the Commissioner Railway Safety, R K Kardam will take place on January 27, 28 and 29 in order to minutely check the safety parameters adopted by the Construction Division of the Northern Railways. Any railway section is thrown open for the regular chugging of trains only when the Commissioner Railway Safety certifies that the project fulfills all the laid down norms.
Like Jammu-Udhampur and Banihal-Qazigund sections, this 25 kilometer section too is an example of engineering marvels as pier of the bridge on Jhajjar khad is the tallest in the Indian Railways and is even tallest than the Qutub Minar. This section involves about 11 kilometer of tunneling, nine important/major bridges, 29 minor bridges and 10 ROB/RUBs in addition to about 38.86 lakh cum of earthwork. The tallest bridge in this section is 85 meter high and the longest tunnel is 3.15 kilometer long.
The train journey to the holy town of Katra will be more comfortable, cheaper and picturesque as compared to the road option though the time saved may not be significant as the train will chug to Katra through Udhampur. The train journey between Udhampur and Katra will, in several parts, be a tunnel trip as about 11 km or 44 per cent of the Udhampur-Katra section is through tunnels.
According to the Chief PRO Northern Railways, the Central Government already has a provision of three special trains to Katra in the current year’s budget. According to the available information, a set of local trains from Jammu to Katra and from Pathankot to Katra are also likely to be introduced to cater to the rush of pilgrims.
With the opening of this section, the authorities are likely to extend Jammu Mail and Uttar Sampark Kranti to Katra. Some new trains, including Katra-Kalka (Chandigarh) Express (bi-weekly), Delhi Sarai Rohilla-Udhampur Express (fully air-conditioned) and Ahmedabad-Udhampur Express, are also set to be introduced on the route subsequently.
There are three railway stations on this section including that of Udhampur and Katra. The railway station of Katra is one of the best stations of the Northern Railways. The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Limited, a Government of India Enterprise, is running IRCTC Guest House, Food Station and Shopping Longue at First Floor of Katra Railway Station and offering their services at very reasonable rates.
The beautifully designed fully air conditioned (except two dormitories) hotel with in house shopping lounge has multi cuisine food station, double and family rooms besides dormitories. The hotel has been designed in such a way that it could cater the high end gentry on the one hand and the general public on the other. The hotel is having all the facilities of 3/4 star category hotels with full view of the magnificent Mata Vaishnodevi mountains in front with close proximity of bus stand, main market, Yatra Slip Counter and helipad.