Metre-gauge railway line fades into history after 115 years

It was an emotional moment in mountainous northeastern region when the train ran on the 115-year-old metre-gauge line of the region for the last time - and into history.

The metre-gauge tracks laid over a century ago are to be uprooted to make way for broad gauge.

Thousands of men and women gathered at many stations between Lumding in Assam and Agartala in Tripura as the last of the metre-gauge trains chugged its way out, bidding them a final goodbye. “The historic metre gauge railway line has a glorious past since it was constructed in 1899,” said Sukumar Das, an academician and veteran citizen of Silchar in southern Assam.

The zig-zag metre-gauge track has 37 tunnels and were a major attraction among tourists. At 1.45 pm, the 05697 Hill Queen Express left Haflong at 1:45 pm on September 29 to become the last train on the metre-gauge.

According to information available, the British had taken about 16 years to build the track. The Badarpur-Lumding section was a part of the Assam Bengal Railway and was meant to move tea, coal and timber. While the Dibru-Sadiya Railway 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.

Now, the Lumding-Badarpur section is the only life-line for land-locked Tripura, Mizoram, the Barak Valley in southern Assam and south-eastern Manipur. With the metre-gauge track closed for the next few months, food grain will have to be transported by road.

He said: “Railway authorities should build a museum or a commemorative centre to conserve the historic and old railway tracks as these have a heritage value.” The Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) between September 28 and September 30 pulled out in three phases 27 trains running between southern Assam’s Lumding, Agartala (Tripura), Jiribam (Manipur) and Bhairabi (Mizoram) on the metre-gauge section. 

The railway lines will be converted into broad-gauge, bringing them in sync with those in the rest of the country. For this, the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) stopped train services in Tripura, Mani­pur, Mizoram and southern Assam from September 29. “The 18-month-long gauge conversion work from Assam’s Lumding to Tripura’s Agartala has started and will continue till March 2016,” a senior NFR official said. 

The railway line is broad-gauge from Assam’s main city of Guwahati up to Lumding (in southern Assam). From Lumding to Tripura’s capital Agartala and western Manipur, northern Mizoram and southern Assam, the railway link with the rest of India is a single metre-gauge. The 437-km long Lumding-Agartala metre-gauge rail line, most part of which is in Assam and the remaining in Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur, will be converted into broad-gauge in two phases.

The Lumding-Agartala metre-gauge link connects Bairabi in northern Mizoram and Jiribam in western Manipur with the rest of the country.

Mahatma Gandhi and Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore visited southern Assam 95 years ago using the old railway network, built by British rulers. “Eleven people, including a young woman, became martyrs at the historic Silchar railway station (in southern Assam) when they were killed in police firing after participating in the language movement on May 19, 1961,” writer Uttam Saha said. “Gandhiji came to Silchar August 27, 1921, by this metre-gauge train from Kolkata (via Bangladesh) and addressed a mammoth public gathering. After Gandhiji’s visit, the struggle against British rulers was further stepped up in the region.”

He said “Rabindranath (Tagore) on way to Sylhet (now in eastern Bangla­desh) from Guwahati came to Badarpur railway station (near Silchar) to attend a function in February 1919. Local people gave a massive reception to the bard.”

Another writer and historian, Panna Lal Roy said that the metre-gauge railway line had played a crucial role during British rule as huge number of freedom fighters clandestinely travelled to Northeast region of India, then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and then Burma (now Myanmar) as a part of their freedom struggle related works.

Southern Assam’s commercial city Silchar, a junction among Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur, was connected by the metre-gauge railway track in 1899. “To boost the tea industry in southern Assam, the British rulers connected Chittagong (in southeast Bangladesh) with Sylhet, Karimganj (now in southern Assam) and Silchar by railway lines 115 years ago,” Roy said. “In 1905, the railway line extended up to Hilakhandhi and Lumding to link with the rest of India’s rail network via Guwahati,” Roy added.

Another piece of history associated with the northeastern rail line was linked to the language movement of the region. NFR’s Chief Public Relations Officer Sugato Lahiri said that all 27 trains plying in the Lumding-Badarpur-Silchar-Karimganj-Bhairabi-Jiribam-Dharmanagar-Agartala routes have been withdrawn in a phased manner.

Railway first entered Assam in 1881 when the Assam Railway and Trading Company constructed a 65-km long metre-gauge line from Dibrugargh to Makum collieries in Margherita for the sole purpose of transporting tea and coal.

The NFR was formed on January 15, 1958, with its headquarters at Maligaon, near Guwahati with aim of giving greater impetus to the development of the northeast. Currently, the northeastern region has 2,646 km of railway line, including 861 km metre-gauge track, and of this Assam alone has 2,467 km railway line. Tripura station came up on the country’s rail map in October 2008.

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