KATRA, India (Reuters) - India’s struggle to build a railway to troubled Kashmir has become a symbol of the infrastructure gap with neighboring China, whose speed in building road and rail links is giving it a strategic edge on the mountainous frontier.
Nearly quarter of a century after work began on the project aimed at integrating the revolt-torn territory and bolstering the supply route for troops deployed there, barely a quarter of the 345-km (215-mile) Kashmir track has been laid.
Tunnels collapsed, funds dried up and, faced with the challenge of laying tracks over the 11,000 foot (3,352 meter) Pir Panjal range, railway officials and geologists bickered over the route, with some saying it was just too risky.
The proposed train, which will run not far from the heavily militarized border with Pakistan, has also faced threats from militants fighting Indian rule in the disputed region, with engineers kidnapped in the early days of the project.
China’s rail system has been plagued by scandal. A bullet train crash in July killed 40 people and triggered a freeze on new rail project approvals, but the country managed to build the 1,140-km (710-mile) Qinghai-Tibet line, which crosses permanently frozen ground and climbs to more than 5,000 meters above sea level, in five years flat.
It has also built bitumen roads throughout its side of the frontier, making it easier for Chinese troops to move around -- and mass there, if confrontation ever escalates.
Indians have long fretted about the economic advantages that China gains from its infrastructure expertise. But the tale of India’s hardships in building the railway line also shows how China’s mastery of infrastructure could matter in the territorial disputes that still dog relations.
Both train networks, China’s running far to the north and India’s hundreds of miles away in the southern reaches of the Himalayas, reflect the desire to tighten political and economic links with their two restive regions - the Tibet Autonomous region in China’s case and Kashmir for India.
But they would also form a key element of military plans to move men and armor in the forbidding region in a time of conflict.
Should India-China relations ever deteriorate to the verge of military confrontation and if riots in Tibet erupt, the People’s Liberation Army’s mountain brigades can rapidly deploy to the region. Railway and road construction have been China’s Himalayan strategy for decades.
“China outstrips India in at least three respects: the ability to execute large and complex projects; rapid implementation; and - importantly - the foresight to embark upon these projects for economic and strategic purposes,” said Shashank Joshi, at London’s Royal United Services Institute, who has written extensively on India-China ties.
He also said China was also more proficient at concealing its failures because of its closed political system and excellent information management.
On the other hand, India hasn’t yet determined its priorities in the region, which shares borders with both Pakistan and China.
“India has to decide what it wants to be. If integrating Kashmir is a top national priority, then the project should have moved on a war footing long ago,” said one visibly exasperated military commander in Kashmir.
Here in the lower stretch of the line, workers are struggling to build tunnels through soft mountains to bring the track from the railhead in Udhampur, 25 km (15 miles) away.
Of the seven they built over the past four years, one has collapsed and the other is seeping water. Now engineers have gone back to the drawing board to figure out an alternative route.
“That is the way the project has been undertaken. You tunnel and then you find it is not holding. You then try and skirt around it like a bypass surgery,” said Chehat Ram, chief administrative officer of Northern Railway.
This is only the first of the tough stretches of the network that will run through some of the world’s most spectacular mountains and gorges, offering an alternative to the single highway that connects Kashmir and is vulnerable to bad weather.
Bigger challenges lie further down the track, including building the world’s tallest single-span bridge over the river Chenab at an elevation of 387 meters (1,270 feet), higher than the Eiffel Tower at 324 meters.
Across the valley floor are signs of the struggle to build a network that even the country’s former British rulers gave up on
after briefly considering it in 1898 because of the forbidding and often uninhabitable terrain.
A tunnel built into a cliff edge has been abandoned near Tikri in the lower section, at another place work has been stopped after workers found that the section in the hills they had blasted and drilled through had become waterlogged.
The train station built at Katra in anticipation of the line is looking worn out, with paint peeling off and moss growing on the building, two years after it was completed.
Local herdsmen leave their ponies to graze in the grounds around the eerily empty building.
“People have lost their land, there are no jobs and there is no train,” said Lal Chand, a herdsman.
The deadline for completion of the project was August 2007, but it has been pushed back to 2017, and even that is seen as an optimistic assessment. Cost estimates have jumped, from 45.5 billion rupees ($1.0 billion) in 2002 to 195.6 billion today.
China, meanwhile, began work last year to build a rail spur that will connect the Tibetan capital of Lhasa with Shigatse, the monastery town that is the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second-most powerful figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
Joshi said China was in a position to bring far greater resources to public sector investment than India. For instance, Indian investment in railways in 2010 was about $9-10 billion. In China, it was $118 billion.
”If the Chinese had to build the Kashmir track, they’d do it faster and better than the Indians - but it might still fail, and they’d plough much more into it.
For the hard-hatted men tasked with building the railway line, comparisons with China don’t sit easily.
“These mountains are full of surprises. Normally you would survey one to two kilometers and then, based on the results, extrapolate the geological pattern for the rest of the stretch, but here it changes every 50 meters,” said chief engineer L. Prakash.
Most of the line runs either through tunnels totaling 109 km (68 miles), the longest of which is 11.4 km (7.1 miles), or across more than 780 bridges, many of which span deep gorges.
“The comparison with the Tibet railway is overstated. The Tibet line is largely flat, only 10 percent passes through mountainous terrain and the rest is through plateau,” said Northern Railway’s Ram.
“It is not to belittle the challenges they faced. To build a network at that altitude and with those kind of weather conditions is creditable. But the comparison doesn’t stand. They had to do a lot less tunneling, far fewer bridges.”
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing and Ashok Pahalwan in Jammu; Editing by Nick Macfie