Both Railways and local BJP MP want it to be declared as a national project.
The Bilaspur-Manali-Leh railway project will have many firsts to its credit, but what would make it more important is its strategic location from the point of view of defence. The rail route would run along the India-China border and hence, Railways wants it to be declared a national project. Even Ladakh BJP MP Thupstan Chhewang has written to Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, demanding the project to be declared as a national one.
The rail route is strategically significant because of its proximity to the India-China border and can facilitate in movement of goods and personnel to the frontier areas. “We can start construction to showcase Indian Railways’ presence in the valley. The railway line will provide relief for locals as well as Army personnel living there,” Alok Kumar, who is overseeing the project, told the media.
“The line is strategically important and will provide all-weather surface connectivity to far-flung areas of Ladakh region. Travel time will reduce by half and will boost tourist inflow. So it will also be beneficial for the local population. The project will be executed in a way that it need not close during extreme weather,” said the project’s chief engineer, Desh Ratan Gupta.
The rail line is proposed to be built at 5,360 metres above sea-level, making it the world’s highest rail line, for Rs 83,360 crore. The 465-km route will include India’s first underground railway station in Keylong and will have 74 tunnels, 124 major bridges and 396 minor bridges in all.
The Keylong railway station will be built inside a tunnelat a height of 3,000 metres. So far, only a few Metro stations in Delhi and other cities are located inside tunnels in India. Keylong happens to be the administrative centre of Lahaul and Spiti district, situated 26 km north of Manali and 120 km from the Indo-Tibetan border.
“The Keylong station, in the project, will be inside the tunnel, according to the first phase of the location survey. This will be the first such railway station in the country. As and when the final surveys are completed, there could be many such stations on the route,” he added.
The line will connect Sundernagar, Mandi, Manali, Keylong, Koksar, Darcha, Upshi, Karu and other important towns of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir en route. The route would pass through three major ranges—Shivalik, Himalaya and Zanskar, as well as four mountain passes—Rohtang La, Barlacha La, Lachung La and Tangla La.
While the railway line’s elevation will begin from Bilaspur at a height of 500 metres, it will culminate in Leh at 3,215 metres. Tanglangla Pass, the highest point on the route, will be the highest railway in the world. Around 52% of the line will be underground, with a 27-km long tunnel near Manali and some 30 railway stations would come up along the entire route. Trains can run at a speed of 75 km per hour at the most at some stretches on this route.
This railway line would be at a much higher level than China’s Qinghai-Tibet line, which is at a height of about 2,000 metres above sea-level. Railways is contemplating to take the help of the United States for satellite imagery to survey the route and also planning to use the “Lidar” method to understand the geology of the entire route.
The project is scheduled to be completed by 2022. The first phase of the survey of the rail line is over and the final location survey is currently going on. Considering the difficult terrain, it is expected to take at least 30 months to complete, after which the project will be sent for final approval.
Once finished, the line will halve the duration taken to cover the distance between Delhi and Leh—from 40 hours to 20 hours, according to Northern Railway general manager Vishwesh Chaube. “We have suggested that the project be declared a national project as once completed it will help our armed forces, as well as boost tourism and lead to the development of the region,” he added.
The advantage of a project being declared a national project is that a major chunk of the funding for the project will then be borne by the Central government. Railways has also suggested the construction of the 51-km stretch between Upshi in Himachal Pradesh and Phe in Leh to begin immediately and sought Central funding for it.
“It would be of national interest to sanction this Bilaspur-Manali-Leh line as a national project and undertake execution of its first part from Upshi to Leh may be started immediately on priority by the government after sanctioning its part estimate,” Ladakh MP Chhewang has said in his letter to the Railway Minister written early last month.