Extending its Reach: Improving rail connectivity in the Northeast

Improving rail connectivity in the Northeast

The Ministry of Railways (MoR) lays specific focus on the development of rail infrastructure in the landlocked north-eastern region (NER) of the country. The Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) undertakes infrastructure development projects in this region and serves eight north-eastern states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim – besides West Bengal and Bihar.

Current network

As of March 2016, the railway network in the Northeast spanned a total length of 2,669.52 km. Of this, while almost 98 per cent of the network comprises broad gauge lines, while the remaining 2 per cent is metre gauge. Five NER states – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur – are currently connected to the railways’ broad gauge network. However, railway infrastructure in the NER is not well distributed. While about 92 per cent of the network lies in Assam alone, Mizoram has marginal connectivity and Sikkim has none. While the MoR has sanctioned a new line from Sivok (West Bengal) to Rangpo (Sikkim), it is awaiting clearances from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs for executing the project.

Regarding rail connectivity to state capitals, at present only the capital cities of Guwahati (Assam), Itanagar (Arunachal Pradesh) and Agartala (Tripura) have rail connectivity. The MoR has sanctioned new lines for the capitals of Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Meghalaya and they are expected to be commissioned in the next five-seven years. The NFR has set a target to provide broad gauge connectivity to all the capitals of the north-eastern states by 2020.

Ongoing projects

A total of 210 projects are currently under execution in the NER. The maximum number of projects involve track renewal works (39 per cent), followed by road overbridge/road underbridge (RoB/RuB) works (16.2 per cent) and the construction of new lines (10 per cent). These works are being implemented at a total investment of Rs 552.48 billion, of which the maximum funds are being spent on the development of new lines (63.21 per cent). This is followed by 22.5 per cent and 10.36 per cent of funds going towards gauge conversion and doubling works respectively.

Meanwhile, the NFR is executing eight key national projects in the region. Five of the projects involve the development of new lines to provide rail connectivity to the capitals of Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Sikkim. However, commissioning targets have been set for only one of these projects, the Jiribam-Tupul-Imphal railway line in Manipur, which will be commissioned by March 2019.

Upcoming projects

In the coming years, the NFR is planning to execute 48 railway projects in the NER. While the major focus will be on undertaking track renewal works, bridge works and signalling and telecommunications projects have also been prioritised. A total cost of Rs 15.43 billion will be incurred on these projects. Of this, the maximum share will be for track renewal works, followed by doubling and RoB/RuB works.

Regarding new line and doubling projects, there are eight key upcoming projects, which have either been announced or are awaiting approvals and sanctions by the government. These will be developed over a total length of 745.62 km at a cost of Rs 57.35 billion. Four of these projects are expected to strengthen international borders and improve trade and connectivity with neighbouring countries. These involve the laying of new lines between Murkongselek-Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, the Agartala-Akhaura line which will connect Tripura to Bangladesh, the Imphal-Moreh line in Manipur, and the Tamu-Kalay line in Myanmar.

The way forward

In recent years, several developments focused on enhancing rail connectivity in the NER have taken place. However, while the MoR has laid significant stress on planning and executing these projects, several region-specific issues pose hindrances to their timely implementation. For instance, projects such as the Harmuti-Naharlagun new line project in Arunachal Pradesh has faced delays in availing of forest and wildlife clearances. Another case in point is the Sivok-Rangpo project, which has not been able to make any progress in the past eight years owing to forest/wildlife clearance delays. In addition, local law and order issues also inhibit project progress in the NER. The difficult terrain and unfavourable climatic conditions of the region further add to the woes and create unique challenges for infrastructure projects. The issues posed by the Himalayan geology can only be solved with technological advancements. Further, the execution of only projects with viable cost economics should be undertaken. There is an urgent need for the government to step up its efforts to facilitate project execution in the NER.