Building India’s longest and safest road tunnel along the Jammu–Srinagar highway

Inspiring awe and mystical legends, the Himalayas crown India’s northernmost state. The mystery and seclusion of this land, however, goes beyond legends: the Kashmir Valley is ringed by the Karakoram Range in the north, the Zanskar Range in the east and the Pir Panjal Range in the west and south. Extremely limited road connectivity so far has meant that, in reality too, the state’s link with the rest of the country has been slim and fragile.

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The Kashmir Valley: map © Google

Tightrope across the mountains

The lifeline of the Valley is the Jammu–Srinagar national highway. Connecting the state’s summer capital Srinagar to the winter capital Jammu and the rest of India, the road is critical to commerce and development in the state. This high-altitude highway snakes through treacherous terrain, and life comes to a near standstill each time the road is blocked — a frequent occurrence.

Each day 15,000 vehicles make their way over this highway, risking avalanches in the monsoon and snow blockages in the winter

Bad weather, and the sharp turns and steep slopes pose a constant threat of disruption along J&K’s only connection to the rest of the country. Each day 15,000 vehicles make their way over this highway, risking avalanches in the monsoon and snow blockages in the winter.

Creating safety and reliability

In 2011, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) conceived the Chenani–Nashri Tunnel — a new all-weather tunnel in the Patnitop area along the Jammu–Srinagar highway — appointing IL&FS Transportation Networks Ltd (ITNL) as the concessionaire for the project through a competitive bidding process. ITNL was to design, finance, construct, operate, and maintain this two-lane tunnel between Chenani in Udhampur district and Nashri in Ramban district in J&K.

The 9 km-long tunnel would cut through the mountain terrain to provide reliable all-weather connectivity between Jammu and Srinagar. It would slash the 41 km distance between Chenani and Nashri down to 11 km. Bringing travel time down by two hours, the tunnel would lead to fuel savings of Rs 27 lakh per day, encourage tourism, and facilitate the transport of J&K’s perishable produce like fruits and flowers to markets in the plains.

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At 9 km, this is longest tunnel in India, with a parallel escape tunnel running along the entire length

Final breakthrough

On the 13th of July 2015, the tunnel saw light as the last of the rock in the middle was bored through, after four years of meticulous excavation from both ends. In April 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Chenani–Nashri Tunnelway, dedicating it to the nation and celebrating it as a ‘giant leap for the development of Jammu & Kashmir’.

This is the longest road tunnel in India, and Asia’s longest bi-directional tunnel. An unprecedented achievement in India, the project also finds its place among the top tunnel projects in the world on account of its extraordinary standards of engineering and the safety features it incorporates.

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Inaugurating the tunnel in April 2017, PM Narendra Modi celebrated the project as a ‘giant leap for the development of Jammu & Kashmir’

India’s only ‘intelligent’ tunnel

The Chenani-Nashri Tunnelway is India’s only ‘intelligent’ tunnel, equipped with the Integrated Tunnel Control System (ITCS). The sophisticated ITCS integrates tunnel operation, safety features and electromechanical systems, so that ventilation, fire control, signals, communication and electrical systems are controlled and auto-activated by a single centralised software.

A 6m-diameter escape tunnel runs parallel to the main 13m-diameter tunnel along its entire length. The main tunnel is internally connected to the escape tunnel tube with 29 cross-passages placed at 300 metre intervals, allowing for evacuations and towing of broken down vehicles.

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The Integrated Tunnel Control System enables all the operation and safety features to be controlled by a single centrally-monitored software, while the transverse ventilation system rules out any possibility of suffocation

The tunnel is India’s first to be equipped with a transverse ventilation system, with inlets for fresh air every 8 metres and exhaust outlets every 100 metres, ensuring visibility and ruling out the possibility of suffocation. With three-tier power backup and such safety features as 135 Automatic Incident Detection cameras, 6 thermal cameras to detect overheating vehicles, 120 SOS boxes with fitted with VoIP phones and first aid kits, 9 km of heat-detection optic cable, an Evacuative Broadcast System with 210 loudspeakers and 129 fire doors, the tunnel has been designed for any eventuality. It is also built to withstand a fire equivalent to the blast from a fully loaded petroleum tanker.

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120 such SOS boxes placed along the tunnel enable commuters to alert a central control room in case of emergencies

Indian expertise moves mountains

Built at an elevation of 1200 metres, the tunnel was bored beneath 1050 metres of mountain — an overburden that creates massive pressure on the tunnel. The mixed geology of the mountain faces here meant that excavating for the tunnel required especially careful and expert blasting. Rather than using a Tunnel Boring Machine, the project used the revolutionary New Austrian Tunneling Method (NATM) of sequential excavation, which exploits the strength of the native rock mass.

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The project used the sophisticated New Austrian Tunneling Method, completing the excavation in record time

Battling the enormous challenges of weather and geology of the Lower Himalayas, a large team of engineers and technicians set a record by completing the excavation in under four years. Executing the drilling using Indian contracting expertise, the project makes for a shining example of the Make in India policy of the government.

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The tunnel slashes 30 kms and two hours of travel time off the Chenani–Nashri stretch on the Jammu–Srinagar highway

Connecting to the ground at every step

ITNL employed 2000 unskilled, semiskilled and skilled youth of the state for the project, skilling them for future employability. With 94% of the total workforce hailing from the local community, the project is yet another testament to the IL&FS Group’s constant commitment to the grassroots enrichment of every project area, as also to the government’s Skilling India objective.

From the start of the project, ITNL has been operating numerous initiatives to address identified lacunae in the lives of the local village communities: from medical care and women empowerment programmes, to providing solar power and ongoing support to farmers for sustainable agriculture.

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The project was completed with indigenous engineering expertise, and local labour, which was also skilled for future employability

Safety and speed in transport and trade

Horticulture is one of the chief contributors to the state’s economy, and one of the biggest employment generators in the state. Apples, peaches, cherries, apricots, almonds, plums and pears — and all manner of beautiful flowers — these are some of the unique products of the Kashmir Valley. Between October and January, at least 200 truckloads of apples travel each day from Kashmir to the plains. But the risk of long traffic jams and road blockages loom large over the time-sensitive transport operations. Despite the tremendous potential in the food processing industry, a severe lack of post-harvesting, processing and packaging facilities means only a tiny percentage of J&K’s food produce is commercially exploited.

The tunnel's all-weather connectivity will have massive impact on the economy of the region through tourism and transport of horticultural produce

By speeding up the movement of perishable products and bringing reliability into the transport, the Chenani–Nashri tunnel will boost the food processing and floriculture industry, enabling the state’s bounty to reach the country’s markets. The all-weather connectivity that the project provides will also have a massive impact on the economy of the region by facilitating tourism, which has a huge potential to contribute to J&K and the country.

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While the tunnel will facilitate efficient transport of J&K's horticultural produce to national markets, ITNL has also been working with marginal and women farmers to help improve their livelihoods through sustainable agri-interventions

The tunnel will also help preserve the ecology of the region by reducing the traffic and maintenance activities of the highway passing through the environmentally sensitive Patnitop ridge.

In successfully commissioning this project, ITNL has once again demonstrated the commitment, perseverance, professionalism, and resourcefulness that the IL&FS Group brings to its projects.

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