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Train link to Vaishno Devi

Srinagar, July 2: Vaishno Devi devotees have a reason to smile. The pilgrimage to the shrine, the second most visited in the country after Tirupati, promises to become easier with a train link to the base-camp at Katra.

A 25km link to Katra from Udhampur is set to be commissioned on Friday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagging off the first train on the route, considered an engineering marvel with 10 tunnels that together make up almost half the distance,

Udhampur is already connected from Jammu, 53km away, by rail. A rail link to Katra has been a long-standing demand from pilgrims, who could so far take a train till Jammu from where they had to travel to Katra by road.

Rail officials said the Katra link had missed several deadlines and cost Rs 927.61 crore. “It is an engineering marvel comprising 53 bridges. The tallest is 85 meters high,” a Northern Railway spokesperson said. The stretch will have 10 tunnels spanning 10.9km, the longest over 3km long.

The link is part of the larger 326km Jammu-Udhampur-Katra-Banihal-Srinagar-Baramulla line that would connect Kashmir with the rest of country. It is the biggest mountain railway project since Independence. One leg of the route, the 110km Katra-Banihal stretch, remains incomplete and is expected to be over by 2017.

Rakesh Wazir, senior vice-president of the Hotel & Restaurant Association in Katra, said the direct rail link would be a major boost for the local economy.

Located at 5,200ft in the Tirukta hills, the shrine draws around 10 million devotees each year. From Katra, most pilgrims trek 12km up the hills. Those who can’t walk ride ponies. Chopper services are available from Katra to Sanjichhat, 2km from the shrine.