In a major move to push tourism in the hill states and counter Chinese expansion in the Tibetan region, the Railways ministry has prepared a blueprint to set up an ambitious 480 kilometre Manali - Leh railway line link criss-crossing the treacherous mountains in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir.
The project according to experts will cost over Rs 16,000 crore (Rs 160 billion) and the ministry is already preparing a detail survey plan for the project.
A top level government meeting took place in Delhi recently to discuss the survey and other modalities of the project. The distance, according to the plan, will be traversed in around ten hours.
A senior Railway Ministry official said, "A detailed survey plan for the proposed Manali-Leh railway line has been prepared and is under the active consideration of the Railway Board. The expenditure for the survey will be shared jointly by the Himachal Pradesh government and the centre."
The plan is to lay a broad gauge railway track between Jogindernagar and Manali via Mandi and extend it 480 kilometre further to Leh via the Rohtang pass and beyond.
The security concerns are a key reason for building the train line.
"With China building the Beijing-Lhasa railway track, it is critical for India to respond and build the Manali-Leh route both from the security and tourism point of view of India," said Prem Kumar Dhumal, chief minister, Himachal Pradesh.
The proposed railway project is strategically important for India as experts opine that a railway line will be a viable transport alternative in extreme weather conditions.
At present, the main source of connectivity to the border areas is either through the road or air, which frequently gets affected during adverse weather conditions.
Manali - Leh highway which connects tribal areas of Lahaul, Udaipur, Pangi and Ladakh with the rest of the country and goes through the highest mountain passes in the world, remains closed down during the entire winter season.
A rail link will definitely serve India's defence purpose at a time the Chinese are flexing their muscles at our backyard, said an industry expert.
Apart from serving the India's defence interest, the proposed project will provide a fillip to the tourism industry that is one of the major source of revenue generation for the state of Himachal Pradesh.
"I have just returned from Leh and the response I received from the people of Ladakh has been tremendous. The private sector is already showing a keen interest in building this railway track," Dhumal said.
A senior executive of an infrastructure company undertaking railway projects said that the cost of laying a railway track at such a high altitude will be more than double the cost of laying a normal railway track.
Because of the difficult terrain, the movement of vehicles carrying raw materials and other equipment for the project will become costlier.
Moreover, a large amount of tunneling work will have to be undertaken along the proposed route.