Agartala was the second northeastern city to get on India’s metre-gauge railway map in the 1990s, but only now can it look forward to joining the mainstream. The first broad-gauge locomotive has rolled into the capital of Tripura on a trial run, gaily decorated, like a New Year’s present. Following further safety inspections, passenger services will commence in March, and travellers will be able to ride directly to Kolkata and points west and south. A bus service already connects the two cities, which are joined in spirit by a long history of communist rule, but the route cuts through Bangladesh. This excludes travellers without passports, which means most Indians on the move. For non-passport holders who cannot afford airfares, the new rail link will be crucially important.
It marks the first step in a long overdue project, deadlined for 2020, to connect the capitals of all the northeastern states to the rest of India which, politically incorrectly, is spoken of as the “mainland”. Even before that, by 2017, a line will be laid to Akhaura in Bangladesh, which will offer through connectivity all the way to Chittagong. In about the same time, another line to the Bangladesh border through the South district of Tripura will be laid. These lines will assume significance in the coming decades, when international rail links through Asia are expected to play large roles in trade and tourism, leaching traffic away from air and road networks.
The political impact could be even more valuable than the efficiencies offered by rail transport. The railway system has served India as a great unifier, binding together diverse cultures in a web of steel. Now, the fact that travellers to and from Agartala will not have to change lines at Lumding, the old metre gauge terminus, will reduce the psychological distances which seem to sequester the Northeast.