India’s northeast to be linked to Trans-Asian Railway Network

Mountainous northeast India would be connected to the railway network of neighbouring Myanmar to link up with the ambitious 81,000 km-long Trans-Asian Railway Network (TARN), an official said.

“To connect with the TARN, a 118-km railway track would be laid between (Manipur capital) Imphal and (border towns) Moreh and Tamu (the latter in western Myanmar),” Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) Chief Engineer (Construction) Harpal Singh told IANS.

“The survey work is now on and it would be completed by March next year,” Harpal Singh said.

He said that another 257-km railway route from north Tripura’s Jawahar Nagar railway station to northern Mizoram’s Kolashib and Myanmar’s Darlon has been proposed to connect with TARN.

“If Tripura and Manipur linked with the TARN, the northeastern states would be the gateway to Southeast Asian countries,” Harpal Singh explained.

“For the development of northeast India’s economy, tourism and people-to- people contacts between the region and Southeast Asian countries, the TARN would play a vital role,” he added.

The proposed TARN covers 80,900 km of rail lines, including 22,600 km in South Asia, Iran and Turkey. The southern corridor begins in Kunming in China and Bangkok in Thailand and ends in Kapikule in Bulgaria.

The length of the route between Bangkok and Kapikule is 11,460 km and provides trans-continental connectivity to China, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Iran and Turkey.

Harpal Singh said that as per the ‘Vision-2020’, prepared by the North Eastern Council, the NFR would connect all the state capitals of northeastern states by 2020. Currently, Assam’s main city Guwahati and Tripura capital Agartala are linked with the Indian Railways network.

Agartala is one of the newest stations and came on the country’s rail map in October 2008.

The NFR is one of the 16 railway zones in India. Headquartered at Maligaon in Guwahati, it is responsible for rail operations in the entire northeast and parts of West Bengal and Bihar.

Harpal Singh also said that work on a new rail link between India and Bangladesh along Tripura would start later this year.

“To ease surface transport between the hilly northeastern states and rest of India and the neighbouring country, thisline would also play a key role,” he added.

At a cost of Rs 252 crores, India will build a 15-km track linking Agartala with Bangladesh’s southeastern city of Akhaurah, which is also an important railway junction connected to Chittagong port, resource-rich Sylhet and capital Dhaka.

“Necessary survey and alignment of the railway tracks have been completed. Bangladesh would soon engage the agency for laying railway tracks on their side. We expect the work on the line would start this year,” the NFR construction chief added.

An agreement for the new railway line was signed between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Bangladeshi counterpart Sheikh Hasina during the latter’s visit to India in January 2010.

“The entire cost would jointly born by the ministry of external affairs and the ministry for development of northeastern region. The Indian Railway Construction Company (IRCON) would lay the track on the Indian side,” the official added.

A steering committee under Radhika Lokesh, an additional secretary in the external affairs ministry has also been formed to implement the new India-Bangladesh railway project, for which a memorandum of understanding was signed in Dhaka on Feb 16.

“The NFR is now extending the 135 km railway network up to (southern Tripura’s border town) Sabroom. With the establishment of the new railway link, north east India would be connected to the Chittagong port by rail,” Harpal Singh noted.

From Sabroom, Chittagong is just 72 km away.

Surface connectivity is an important factor as the landlocked north eastern states are surrounded by Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and China. The only land route to these states from within India is through Assam and West Bengal. But this route passes through over 70 percent hilly terrain with steep roads and multiple hairpin bends.

India has for long been seeking land, sea and rail access through Bangladesh for ferrying goods and heavy machinery to the northeast from abroad and other parts of the country.

Agartala, for instance, is 1,650 km from Kolkata and 2,637 km from New Delhi via Guwahati and West Bengal, whereas the distance between the Tripura capital and Kolkata through Bangladesh is just about 350 km.

NF Railway to phase out unmanned level crossings

As part of the Indian Railways effort to phase out unmanned level crossings, the Maligaon-headquartered Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) has also drawn up an ambitious plan to do away with such crossings.

NFR PRO Nripen Bhattacharya told The Assam Tribune that there are a total of 1,598 authorized level crossings in the region under its jurisdiction. Out of the total, 878 are manned level crossings while the remaining 720 are unmanned.

“For the current fiscal year of 2013-14, we have set a target for converting and upgrading 60 more unmanned level crossings into manned ones. Till April 30 this year, i.e. during the first month of the fiscal, work on converting 12 such unmanned crossings had begun and the rest would also be taken up soon,” Bhattacharya said.

He said that in addition to the conversion process, NFR has also decided to close down four such unmanned level crossings this year. “Besides, we have also set a target for constructing road under-bridges in 33 places where unmanned level crossings exist this fiscal and work has started in one such place,” the NFR PRO said.

He said that phasing out of unmanned level crossings has brought down the rate of fatal accidents. “In the first two months of this financial year (April and May), only two deaths have been reported among people crossing tracks at authorized spots. Both the deaths, including one each in Assam and West Bengal, have taken place at unmanned level crossings, while there have been no deaths in manned level crossings,” Bhattacharya said.

He added that besides unmanned level crossings, which are still authorized spots where people can cross the railway tracks, there also exist a number of totally unauthorized crossings.

“There were 385 such unauthorized crossings in the NFR region as on January 1 this year. Till April 30, we have closed down 46 such unauthorized crossings,” he said.

Bhattacharya said that the NFR has taken the issue of closing the unauthorized crossings seriously. “In unmanned level crossings, there exist proper signboards and other safety precautions. Such things are totally absent from unauthorized crossings which are totally illegal and very dangerous for people crossing them,” he said, adding that using such crossings is a punishable offence.

“Sensitizing the public about safety aspects and regarding hazards of using such unauthorized crossings is very important and we have been carrying out public campaigns in the media and through advertisements,” Bhattacharya said.

NF Rly to promote its heritage

The Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR), covering some of the most picturesque landscapes of the country, is going to promote its heritage in a major way. Steps have already been taken to showcase its historic assets while others are in the pipeline. It is likely that the new emphasis would also help attract more tourists in the days to come.

According to a senior NFR official, the new initiatives have been endorsed by Keshav Chandra, who recently took over as General Manager of NF Railway. Chandra has experience in heritage management of Kalka Shimla Himalayan Railway, a UNESCO recognized mountain railway.

Keeping with plans, a Rail Heritage Park-cum-Museum at New Tinsukia was inaugurated at the confluence of two historic railway systems of North eastern India. – Dibru Sadiya Railway (DSR) and the Assam Bengal Railway (ABR) – linked at Tinsukia city on March 1, 1903. The museum has adopted DSR and ABR as its prime themes.

Among its special features are the narrow gauge steam loco No.781, built in 1899 for DHR, AC indoor exhibition gallery modeled after the historic Lekhapani station of Dibru Sadiya Railway, Virasat – a heritage hall, which houses vintage steam and diesel locos of metre gauge era and an AC seminar hall on wheels, NFR sources revealed.

An original steam loco turntable of 1892 built in UK and bridge pillars built between 1894 to 1898 finds place in the museum today and recall the difficult task of railway pioneers of the 19 th century.

A heritage gallery was set up in Divisional Office, Tinsukia, with a view to create the interest and awareness among the railway employees about the rich heritage of the railway system operating in this region. The name plates of the builders of rolling stock used on the erstwhile Dibru Sadiya Railway (DSR) and Assam Bengal Railway (ABR), the origin of NFR, are chronologically displayed in the gallery.

Lekhapani station is the eastern-most station of Indian Railways. Constructed around 1890, it was a major coal loading terminal of metre gauge network and was used extensively for loading coal mined from the nearby Tipong collieries.

Significantly, the station marks the beginning of the famous Stillwel Road constructed up to Kunming in China through India and Burma by the Allied Army between 1942 and 1945. Realizing the historical significance of the station, NFR took up the challenge and restored it’s function in 2009.

According to NFR’s Chief Public Relations Officer Situsing Hajong, there are ongoing efforts to identify more rail assets or objects of historic importance. “We hope that any one with knowledge of such sites and objects would contact NFR…”he said. In times ahead, Hajong believes, the list of heritage objects will certainly increase.

He pointed out that the new emphasis on heritage assets includes the much talked about Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), a 610 mm (2 ft) wide narrow–gauge railway that meanders over Himalayan ranges from Siliguri to Darjeeling for 88 km.

According to experts, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is the first, and still the most outstanding example of a hill passenger railway. Opened in 1881, it applied bold and ingenious engineering solutions. To preserve DHR in its true spirit of UNESCO declaration, the Railway Board has sanctioned Darjeeling – Heritage preservation Project, Phase-I along with works for restoration of Darjeeling station building and façades and damaged steam loco shed due to land slides at a total cost of Rs 2.27 crore. The NFR also has plans to restore the Heritage Siliguri Town station under public private partnership (PPP) model. Work will be undertaken soon.

Due to uni-gauge policy, most of the metre gauge track has been phased out on Indian Railways. In order to commemorate the metre gauge system and its contribution towards the development of NE region, Railway Ministry has decided to retain the existing MG track on “Mahur – Harangajao” and “Siliguri – Bagdogra” sections of NF Railway.