Saturday morning was a momentous day in the history of the 57-year-old Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) as the last train on the solitary meter-gauge track left in the entire northeastern region departed from Agartala station.
Except some railway employees led by Agartala station manager Paramananda Das and some curious locals, there was no VIP or important functionaries to see off the last train as the 10 bogie rake with 953 passengers on board quietly pulled out of Agartala station at around 9.30 am for Karimganj in southern Assam.
The metre-gauge tracks laid in Tripura are to be pulled up to make way for broad gauge tracks. The preliminary work for the gauge conversion would start from Sunday and the main work would begin from October 1.
To bring them in sync with those in the rest of the country, the 115 to 120-year-old meter-gauge lines over 220 km from Lumding to Silchar (in southern Assam) were converted to broad gauge in the first phase.
“In the second phase, running of both passenger and goods trains in Badarpur (southern Assam) and Agartala section would be stopped from September 20,” NFR chief public relations officer Pranav Jyoti Sharma told IANS.
“To facilitate faster conversion, this would be taken up in the Badarpur-Kumarghat- Agartala section (excluding Badarpur railway station),” Sharma said, adding the work over the 217-km section has to be completed by March 31, 2016.
Passenger services on the Lumding-Silchar route are yet to begin due to technical reasons.
“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, the main city in southern Assam.
“Railway authorities should build a museum or a commemorative centre to conserve the historic and old railway tracks as these have a heritage value,” Das told IANS.
Mahatma Gandhi and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore visited southern Assam 96 years ago using the old railway network, built by the British rulers for tea trading and governance.
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 said.
“Gandhiji came to Silchar Aug 27, 1921, by the old metre gauge train from Kolkata (via what is now Bangladesh) and addressed a mammoth public gathering. After Gandhiji’s visit, the struggle against British rulers was further stepped up in the region,” he added
“Rabindranath, 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,” Saha said.
Southern Assam’s commercial city Silchar, the junction of 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 (now in southeast Bangladesh) with Sylhet, Karimganj (now in southern Assam) and Silchar by railway lines 116 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,” another writer and historian, Panna Lal Roy, said.
The railways 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 January 15, 1958, with its headquarters at Maligaon, near Guwahati, to give greater impetus to the development of the northeast.
Currently, the northeastern region has around 2,800 km of railway lines, of which Assam alone has 2,467 km.
A railway official said that a meter gauge engine would be mounted in front of the Agartala railway station for public viewing.