It is good that the 18 year-long wait for the people of Barak valley to have broad gauge passenger rail services has ended filly; it is bad that it took this long to complete the project, with the cost overrun ballooning over the years. Sanctioned at an initial cost of Rs 648 crore, the foundation stone for the 210 km Lumding-Silchar gauge conversion project was laid back in January 1997 by the then Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda. Seven years later in 2004, it was declared a tiol project by the Manmohan Singh government and targeted for completion in two years. But 2006 came and went, while the project got stuck on the way to Haflong ostensibly due to the hostile terrain and even more hostile activities of insurgents. The North Cachar (presently Dima Hasao) Hills were burning with the DHD rebellion and tit-for-tat clashes between Dimasas and other ethnic groups like the Karbis, Hmars and Zeme gas. Several railway personnel were shot dead, senior officials and engineers abducted at gunpoint. All this unrest was piled on top of technical problems galore like loose and squeezing ture of soil, deadly methane gas in the tunnels, land acquisition hassles and poor roads frequently shut down by bandhs. There were also allegations that a section of political leaders, bureaucrats and contractors were milking the situation hand in gloves with militants.
Gradually the fires subsided and the Silchar-Haflong-Lumding track conversion project began to pick up momentum about two years ago, with as many as 79 large bridges and 21 tunnels constructed up to now. Meanwhile, the costs have reached an estimated Rs 3,500 crores. On October 1 last year, the ‘mega block’ for the Lumding-Silchar section began — all rail movement was stopped for six months to finish the conversion from metre gauge to broad gauge. On March 27 this year, the first goods train was flagged off, followed thereafter by more than 150 goods trains plying on this track. With the first passenger train run now beginning on the Silchar-Haflong-Lumding-Guwahati section, the work for phase-1 of the project is over. Initially, it would take about 12 hours to cover this distance of 380 kms, but the timings will get shorter as the track settles and more train services are added. Meanwhile, all train services to Tripura has come to a halt for the next six months with the mega block on October 1 this year for gauge conversion of Badarpur-Kumarghat-Agartala section. This will be part of phase-2 of the project, along with the Aruchal-Jiribam, Baraigram-Dullabcherra and Karimganj-Mahishasan finger lines, targeted for completion by March 31 next. The current estimated cost of the entire project is around Rs 6,000 crores. So after South Assam including Barak valley came into the broad gauge rail map this year — Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur are scheduled to get rail connectivity next year.
Once Manipur gets connected through Imphal-Jiribam line to the Silchar-Lumding-Guwahati section, it will no longer be held hostage to frequent road blockades in galand. Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu has said that connecting all capitals of Northeastern states by rail has been made a ‘mission item’, with Aruchal brought onto the railway map in April this year after a passenger train reached harlagun from Harmuti in Assam. Exciting developments are in the offing after the Railways gets steaming with projects like connecting to Bhairabi and Sairang in Mizoram from Katakhal in Assam, Zubza in galand from Dhansiri in Assam, Shillong-Byrnihat from Digaru in Assam, and Agartala to Akhaura in Bangladesh. While the Railway authority has been commissioning on average 133 km broad gauge track every year in the NE region for the last 4-5 years, Prabhu intends to raise the bar to 500 km every year. The Railway minister has also pointed to higher budget allotments of Rs 5,200 last fiscal and Rs 5,300 in the current fiscal to expedite rail connectivity in the region. The greater thrust to develop rail infrastructure for the landlocked Northeast is a must, if the region is to open up in future to the ASEAN countries and Bangladesh.