Binding India with ribbons of steel

Slowly but surely, the Northeast is getting connected to the rest of India

At the time of Independence, Northeast India was served mainly by the Assam Bengal Railway which ran through the present day Bangladesh, and by the Oudh and Tirhut Railway which served Brahmaputra’s north bank. In order to keep the costs down on the hilly terrain, metre was the preferred gauge, since it permitted sharp curves following existing land contours.

Post Independence, the trauma of large-scale migration due to the partition of the Indian subcontinent was compounded by the fact that Assam and the entire Northeast urgently needed a new rail link, as the existing one of Assam Bengal Railway through the newly-created East Pakistan was now closed.

So Indian Railways began work on a 227-km-long Assam metre-gauge rail link to the Northeast, connecting Siliguri to Fakiragram of the old Assam Bengal Railway, now in Indian territory. Started in January 1948, the alignment along the Brahmaputra was inaugurated on January 26, 1950, restoring vital rail connectivity to the far-flung areas of the Northeast.

The importance of such a connectivity was once again vividly brought out in end-February this year, with the tumultuous welcome received by the first-ever broad gauge freight train in the region, which rolled into Jirania station, 12-km from Agartala, the capital of Tripura. At Silchar—which is the gateway to Imphal, the capital of Manipur—crowds cheered as railway minister Suresh Prabhu flagged off the weekly Poorvottar Sampark Kranti Express to New Delhi.

With this significant link-up with the broad-gauge network of Indian Railways, freight and passenger trains from the farthest corners of India—Bhuj in the west, Kanyakumari in the south and Udhampur in the north—can now roll into all the three states of Barak Valley of southern Assam, viz Tripura, Manipur and Mizoram, connecting their lives and future with the rest of India forever.

Undoubtedly, it has taken a long 66 years after the first Assam rail link was established. However, given the complexity of the project with a large number of bridges and tunnels, compounded by the hostile terrain and environment, it is a significant landmark in Indian Railways’ long list of achievements in integrating the nation with ribbons of steel.

Over the years, most of the metre-gauge alignment has been converted into broad gauge—the last of the major inputs being the 437-km-long Agartala project, which is further divided into two.

The first is comprised of the 420-km-long Lumding-Badarpur-Silchar (210 km), Arunachal-Jiribam (50 km) and Badarpur-Kumarghat (118 km) projects, costing R6,300 crore, involving construction of 99 major and 701 minor bridges, and almost 11 km of tunnelling.

The second project—the 109-km-long Kumarghat-Agartala new line—costs R1,451 crore, and involves 15 major and 183 minor bridges, with about 5 km of tunnelling. A few small sections now remain, which are the 84-km-long Katakhal-Bhairabi section to be completed this month, and the 30-km-long Baraigram-Dullabcherra section and a 3.5-km-long Karimganj bypass line, both likely to be commissioned by March 2017.

A major landmark in the Northeast connectivity will be the 5-km-long bridge on the Brahmaputra at Bogibeel near Dibrugarh. With an estimated cost of R4,857 crore, it is expected to be completed by June 2017.

When all this gauge conversion is complete, all the Seven Sister state capitals will be connected with rest of India by rail. In fact, Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, already has the Naharlagun station, which is a mere 10 km by road from the city and was commissioned as a new line connecting from Harmuti (Assam) in 2014.

Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, will be brought on the broad-gauge network with a 21.5-km line from Tetelia in Assam to Byrnihat in Meghalaya by March 2018, and a 108.4-km Byrnihat-Shillong line by March 2020.

In addition, a 52-km new line from Bairabi to Sairang (both in Mizoram)—expected to be completed by March 2019—will bring Mizoram’s capital Aizawl to within 20 km of the broad-gauge network, and a 92-km new line Dimapur-Sukhovi-Zubza will bring Kohima, the capital of Nagaland, to within 18 km of the broad-gauge network by March 2020.

The author is former member, Railway Board

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