There couldn't be a better gift for Bengalis on New Year's Day. Bedecked with flowers and amid much fanfare, the Maitree Express chugged out of Kolkata shortly after 7-15 p.m. for its historic maiden journey to Dhaka. With this, passenger train services resumed between the countries after 43 years.
Describing the occasion as memorable, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the service would bring the two countries closer at the inaugural function. He also thanked Railway Minister Lalu Prasad for introducing the train. "He is a great magician of the Bihar Institute of Management," he said.
The train was briefly stopped at Nadia district in West Bengal by a group of people who squatted on the tracks, demanding rehabilitation of Bangladeshi refugees. The Nikhil Banga Nagarik Sangha represents Hindu refugees from Bangladesh. However, the train resumed its journey without security personnel having to use force to remove the blockade.
Passenger trains did not run after the 1965 war between India and Pakistan though Indian Railways have been operating goods trains to Bangladesh. However, a train carrying government officials on an inspection trip had run on July 8, 2007
Emotions ran high. Ranjit Kumar Chakraborty said he was returning to his village in Bangladesh after 55 years. "Its like a dream come true. I will meet a lot of my old friends," he said.
Janotosh Das, 68, a resident of Chinsura in Hooghly, could not hold back his tears. "I can't describe what I feel. After more than fifty years I will be in Bangladesh."
While the Indian train has the capacity to carry 368 passengers, the Bangladeshi one can carry 418. The trains will leave their respective starting points on Saturdays and return the next day. A one-way ticket costs about Rs 400. The Bangladesh government will earn 75 per cent of the revenue generated by the train as only 115 km of the journey falls on the Indian side.
The inaugural function was a glittering one with CPM leader Sitaram Yechuri, Railway minister Lalu Prasad, Bengal Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi and Union I&B minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi among the many dignitaries present.