A 221-km gauge railway track that was built by the British way back in the last decade of the 19th century through the most difficult Barail mountains in Assam’s Dima Hasao district, and was always referred to as an engineering marvel, has become history. The zig-zag metre-gauge track whose 37 tunnels were a major attraction, has closed down for ever to make way for a broad gauge track that will become operational by April next year.
“When the 05697 Hill Queen Express, the last passenger train, left Haflong at 1:45 pm on Monday, it was indeed a tearful moment. No trains will come to this historic Lower Haflong station again,” said Anup Biswas, a local journalist-cum-activist who is pressing for declaring the 111-year old railway station as a heritage museum along with four other stations that surround the mountain on which Haflong, Assam’s only hill station is located.
Recalling the history of the metre gauge track that the British had built over a period of 16 years, Northeast Frontier Railway CPRO Sugato Lahiri said, “The Badarpur-Lumding section was part of the Assam Bengal Railway formed in 1892 to primarily evacuate tea, coal and timber produced in the upper Assam region. While the Dibru-Sadiya Railway, opened in 1882 had already started moving these items to steamers on the Brahmaputra, the Lumding-Badarpur section was built to have direct access to the nearest Chittagong port.”
Following independence and Partition of Bengal, the Lumding-Badarpur section however became the only life-line for land-locked Tripura, Mizoram, the Barak Valley in southern Assam as also south-eastern Manipur. With the metre-gauge track closed for the next six months in order to facilitate final laying of the broad-gauge tracks, these states are now faced with an uphill task of stocking foodgrains and also transporting by road, one which is at least two times costlier than moving by goods train.
Noted author Arup Kumar Dutta, who had written a wonderful history of railways in the Northeast (“Indian Railways: The Final Frontier. 2002) has gives a lot of details about how challenging a task laying the Lumding-Badarpur track was in the 19th century. Describing it as a “magnificent feat” Dutta also refers to how British officers and their Indian and Afghan labourers worked against difficult terrain, dense jungles infested with tigers, elephants and mosquitoes, as also hostile Dimasa and Zemi tribesmen who thought it was an invasion of their beautiful mountain villages.
Dutta also quotes from travel-writer Bill Aitken, who in his ‘Travels by a Lesser Line’ in 1993 had written, “One had to come to check out the claims that the Lumding-Badarpur section was the most spectacular mountain line in India. The most scenic part of the journey is the ascent from Lumding to Haflong Hill, 116 kms in six hours… The total effect is of impenetrability and one is filled with admiration for the original builders of the line. For those brought up on the notion that the Ooty climb – also a metre gauge – is the most impressive mountain line, the ride to Haflong will prove a sensational journey of discovery.”
Officials in Northeast Frontier Railway however claim that once completed and commissioned the new broad guage line too will be equally exciting. Two particular tunnels, one over three kms and another 1.68 kms long, as well as 419 bridges, the one on the Doyang being 61 metres long and 54 metres tall, would sure maintain the charm that the old metre gauge track had, they claim.
“While 37 tunnels and 586 bridges, including the amazing Doyang bridge that takes a curve literally up in the sky will now become part of nostalgia, eleven new tunnels and several high bridges that have been already completed for the broad guage track will be equally attractive. The present-day engineer too has accomplished a job as daunting as did his British predecessors in the 19th century. And, while steep gradiants, geological instability, jungles and wild elephants are still there, the present-day workforce had to also work under the shadow of militancy,” said chief engineer RS Jingar.
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