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, northeast 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 northeastern 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.
(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)