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A decade since it started in Kashmir, the train service between Banihal and Baramulla has “transformed” the lives of many but passengers complain of rail cabins in disrepair, stinky stations and frequent shutdowns.
The railways stations along the 135 kilometers long line look like most government installations across Kashmir, surrounded by concertina razor wire as security personnel inside bullet proof bunkers peeping out at swarms of passengers who use the service.
Train service in Kashmir started in October 2008, and earlier this year coaches made of transparent material were added to woo tourists for sightseeing as the train chugs along the beautiful landscape of the Kashmir valley.
Long queues of passengers can be seen on an average day at the Srinagar station at Nowgam who praise the affordability of the train tickets but complain of absence of amenities at various stations and inside the train as well.
“It is cheap, no traffic jams, and is also time-saving,” said Parveez Ahmad Mir, a government employee and frequent traveler between Anantnag and his office in Srinagar.
“There isn’t a drinking water facility at any of the stations, while proper heating and seating arrangements haven’t been put in place for the passengers waiting at the platforms.”
Lavatories usually emit stink and garbage can be seen littered all around the platform and on the track.
But, inside the battered coaches, some with broken window panes replaced with tardy planks of wood, ‘Bharatiya Rail Aapkee Sewa Mein’ (Indian railways at your service) is vividly written in Hindi.
For Raju Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit employed in government’s agriculture department, railways in Kashmir is “revolutionary”.
“A person living in far off village in Banihal can easily move to Srinagar for a paltry amount. It has changed life of those strata of society,” Bhat said.
Gul Muhammad, who runs a grocery shop in Banihal travels to Srinagar often for purchasing supplies, something he could not even imagine doing without the railway.
“By early morning I get aboard the train in Banihal and reach Srinagar within two hours. I purchase my merchandise including vegetables, fruits and other items from mandi in Srinagar,” Muhamad said.
“By noon, I get back to Banihal along with my merchandise purchased from Srinagar.”
Similarly, artisan Ghulam Muhammad Baba from Nowshera area of Srinagar boards the train to Anantnag where he sells his embroidery work to his clientele waiting for him near the station.
“It takes me just half an hour and I hurry back to get back on train towards Srinagar. All it takes just one to two hours,” said Baba.
For many working at faraway places from home the train has meant they can visit parents at home more frequently than was possible a decade ago.
The train service has also brought people from areas along the railway closer to better quality medical treatment available in Srinagar.
“I am suffering from urinary problem ailment. There are no lavatories which is problematic for someone like me,” said one passenger.
But the most persistent complain is about the condition of disrepair of the train coaches.
“It is akin to travelling inside a truck. Look at these broken seats. Why are they (railway authorities) not repairing it? said Hilal Ahmad Bhat of Budgam area.
To why he prefers train then, he said, “it’s cheap”, with a grin on his face.