From 2020, people travelling to Kohima for the Hornbill Festival need no longer leave the train at Dimapur and catch a taxi to the Nagaland capital. With Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu recently laying the foundation stone for the Rs 2,315 crore, 88-km Dhansiri-Kohima railway track, which was declared a national project in 2007, all seven Northeastern capitals are finally being connected to the national railway map.
Kohima is the last of these. Work on connecting three other capitals — Imphal, Aizawl and Shillong — is progressing fast and trains are expected to chug in there in the next three years.
It has been a long journey since 1881, when the railways first arrived in the region. The Assam Railway & Trading Company laid the Dibru-Sadiya railway, a 92-km line connecting Dibrugarh to Margherita for evacuation of coal and tea for dispatch to Kolkata and beyond by steamers on the Brahmaputra. Fourteen years later, that line got connected to Assam Bengal Railways through Lumding, Badarpur and Dhaka.
Assam’s present capital Guwahati found itself on the railway map in 1901, and a century more went by before Agartala became only the second Northeastern capital to get a link in 2008, followed by a broad gauge link this year.
“The Northeast is on top of the government’s agenda for providing better connectivity to the region. Once completed, these projects will not only bring about a sea-change in the connectivity scenario of the Northeastern region but also provide a big boost to the region’s economy,” Railways Minister Prabhu said when he toured Agartala, Imphal and Dimapur to kick-start projects to spread the network in the region.
Agartala not only got its first direct train to New Delhi but also saw the minister lay the foundation stone for a new 15-km line that will connect Agartala to Akhaura in Bangladesh for an onward link to Kolkata through Dhaka.
To Myanmar border
Among the most significant of the ongoing projects is the Jiribam-Tupul-Imphal line, 111 km, which will not only put the Manipur capital on the railway map in the next couple of years but also prepare the grounds for taking the railways to Moreh on the Myanmar border and beyond to become part of the proposed Trans-Asian Railway.
The Jiribam-Tupul-Imphal line will have two striking special features. The bridge on the river Iring, with a pier height of 141 metres (almost equal to one Qutub Minar stacked over the other) will be the tallest bridge of the world. And Tunnel No. 12 will be the longest in India at 11.55 km.
The railways minister, while announcing commencement of work on Tunnel No 12, said it would be a symbolic representation of the state getting connected to mainland India. “It will also open up new vistas for economic development of the region,” he said.
Declared a national project because of its strategic importance, the Jiribam-Tupul-Imphal line has already been partly completed, with freight trains moving on the 12.5-km Jiribam to Dholakhal section since March. On the 84-km Jiribam-Tupul section, 25 of 37 tunnels have been completed, said officials at Northeast Frontier Railway headquarters in Guwahati.
What the entire Northeast is most looking forward to is a direct railway link to Kolkata through the heart of Bangladesh, which will reduce the train journey between Agartala and Kolkata by nearly 1,100 km. While the present length of the Agartala-Kolkata link through Lumding, Guwahati and New Jalpaiguri is 1,613 km, once the 15-km stretch between Agartala and Akhaura (in Bangladesh) is complete, the direct travel distance between the Tripura capital and Kolkata will come down to just 514 km.
Once completed, the project will also make movement of goods – particularly foodgrains, petroleum products, cement and other materials – faster and smoother to Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram and the Barak Valley of Assam too. As of now, transporting foodgrains to these states has been a major problem especially during the monsoon months, with landslides and floods making movement of both trains and trucks impossible in Assam and Meghalaya. Tripura has been the worst sufferer, having had to get supplies through Bangladesh at least twice in recent years.
With railway connectivity now much better than road connectivity, Tripura last week even saw oil tankers being moved by flat-wagon goods trains, an exercise that is generally meant only for movement of goods for the armed forces.
“Railways’ capital investment in the Northeastern region has been consistently increased and next year approximately Rs 7,000 crore will be allocated for developmental projects in the region,” the railways minister said.
He said these initiatives would in the long run not just trigger all-round development but also contribute towards raising the region’s per capita income to the highest in the country.