Banihal (J&K): Mohammad Sultan`s 30-year-old dream came to fruition, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flagged off the train between this highway town in Jammu region to Qazigund in Kashmir.
80-year-old Sultan, whose wrinkled face bears testimony to his hard life, was among hundreds of eager residents of Banihal who had assembled at the railway station way before the scheduled time for the first passenger train to chug towards Qazigund from here.
"The first time I heard that there is a possibility of a train coming to our town was back in 1983. I thought, if the tracks could be extended from Jammu to Udhampur, why not up to Banihal," Sultan told during his journey to Qazigund.
The Prime Minister, accompanied by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and host of other dignitaries including Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, inaugurated the 18-km long Banihal-Qazigund rail section last Wednesday. The rail link will provide an all-weather connectivity between Banihal and Qazigund.
The octogenarian said he had lost hope of ever stepping on a train, as the project was getting delayed.
"At my age, hopes are not fulfilled very often. But, I kept hoping that one day I will board a train here," he said.
It was not the first travel to Kashmir for Sultan, but as he puts it, "this is royal-class".
"Whenever we would step out of Banihal, we had to look skyward for impending weather changes. While winters are harsh due to snowfall, summers can get tricky owing to landslides triggered by rains. One was sure of leaving the town but not about the date of return," he said.
Sultan is happy that travel to Kashmir will be a lot safer now than the treacherous bus journey.
Sultan was not alone seeing his dream come true. Fatima
Bano, who claimed to be 50-years-old but looked a good 10 years older, boarded the first train just for the fun of it.
"I heard I will be in Anantnag in one hour. Just wanted to check for myself," Fatima said covering her face from shyness.
Mohammad Akram, who has just stepped out of his teens, has different reason to rejoice the arrival of train services to his town. His girlfriend lives in a village near Qazigund and he can now meet her without bothering about how he will get back home on time.
"I can take the morning train and return the same day in the evening. I don`t have to worry about getting stuck on the other side of Pir Panjal mountains," Akram giggled.
The young man feels that the train will also be a boon for couples hailing from Banihal town and surrounding areas.
"There is hardly any place where one can meet his beloved in this town. Society is still conservative and everyone knows the other. A ride on the train can allow couples to enjoy some moments of seclusion in Kashmir," he said.
Train service is expected to improve the healthcare and education in this town on Jammu-Srinagar National Highway.
"Hospitals in Kashmir Valley have better facilities and reaching them will be easier now. Even our students can now study in schools and colleges of Kashmir," Bashir Ahmad, a local Congress activist, said.