Northeast's 115-year-old metre-gauge rail track becomes history

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Agartala/Silchar (Assam), Oct 1: It was an emotional moment in India's 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.

He told IANS: "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 Sep 28 and Sep 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 115 years old railway lines would be converted to 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 Wednesday.

"The 18-month-long gauge conversion works from Assam's Lumding to Tripura's Agartala would start today (Wednesday) and would continue till March 2016," a senior NFR official told IANS.

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, would 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 May 19, 1961," writer Uttam Saha told IANS.

Writer Uttam Saha told IANS: "Gandhiji came to Silchar Aug 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."

"Rabindra Nath (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 Eastern Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and then Burma (now Myanmar) as 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.

"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 May 19, 1961," writer Uttam Saha told IANS.

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 from Sep 28 to Sep 30.

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 in Jan 15, 1958, with its headquarters at Maligaon, near Guwahati with an aim to give 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.

The Tripura station came up on the country's rail map in October 2008.

IANS

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