The development of rail infrastructure in the landlocked Northeast region (NER) is one of the priority areas of the Ministry of Railways (MoR). The Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) was carved out of the Northeastern Railway in 1958 and serves eight north-eastern states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim besides parts of West Bengal and Bihar. The region holds strategic importance as the states share international borders with Bangladesh, China, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal. Key commodities like coal and petroleum products are moved from the region to the rest of the country.
As of April 2015, the NER has a total railway network of 2,658.5 km, a marginal increase from 2,600 km in April 2012. Of the total length, almost 80 per cent is broad gauge while the remaining 20 per cent is metre gauge. The capitals of Assam (Guwahati), Arunachal Pradesh (Itanagar) and Tripura (Agartala) have rail connectivity. For Agartala, work on conversion of the existing metre to broad gauge was commissioned in early 2016. Also, new lines for the state capitals of Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Meghalaya have been sanctioned and are expected to be completed in the next 5-7 years.
To improve connectivity in the region, 20 projects are currently being implemented. Of these, 13 involve new line projects worth about Rs 400 billion, four are doubling projects worth Rs 52 billion, and three are gauge conversion projects worth Rs 71 billion. Moreover, to provide connectivity to the capitals of Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram, five new line projects have been taken up by the MoR – the 108 km Byrnihat-Shillong section, Meghalaya; the 51.4 km Bhairabi-Sairang (Aizwal) section, Mizoram; the 125 km Jiribam-Imphal section, Manipur; the 123 km Dimapur-Kohima section, Nagaland; and the 53 km Sivok-Rangpo section, Sikkim. All these are national projects and are targeted to be completed by 2020.
Funding for NER projects
Under the Railway Budget 2016-17, the total plan outlay for NFR is Rs 62.41 billion. Of this, Rs 43.08 billion is for the construction of new lines, Rs 5.15 billion for track doubling, and the rest for other works. Besides, the MoR has allocated another Rs 42.08 billion for 11 national projects in the region, of which, Rs 38.08 billion has been earmarked for new line projects. Meanwhile, Rs 260 million has been allocated for the construction of bridges (excluding the Bogibeel bridge) during 2016-17, as against Rs 19.25 billion during 2015-16. In addition, the MoR has sanctioned funds for undertaking survey works for a number of new rail projects. These include Rs 49,000 allocated for the Pasighat-Tezu-Parashuram Kund new line in Arunachal Pradesh, Rs 1.6 million for a new line to link with Bangladesh Railway, Rs 2 million for the new line between Sairang and Hbichhuah for port connectivity on the Colodyna river in Myanmar as an extension to the Bharabi-Sairang new line (266 km) in Mizoram, and Rs 50,000 each for Patharkandi-Kanmum (45 km) in Assam and Panisagar-Simanapur (80 km) in Tripura.
Developing the rail network in the NER is fraught with several challenges. The primary issue faced by contractors is the difficult terrain and unfavorable climatic conditions. Delays in the grant of forest and wildlife clearances result in time and cost overruns of several projects such as the Harmuti-Naharlagun new line project in Arunachal Pradesh and the Sivok-Rangpo new line project in Sikkim. Other issues faced include law and order problems and limited capabilities of local contractors.
The way forward
The MoR plans to invest Rs 390 billion during 2015-19 for national projects, including those in the Northeast. Some of the key upcoming projects entailing high investments include Dimapur-Tizit (Rs 42.74 billion), Sivok-Rangpo new lines (Rs 33.8 billion) and Bongaigaon-Goalpara-Guwahati doubling work (Rs 18.32 billion). This investment is likely to accelerate railway projects in the region and improve connectivity to the rest of the country.