India’s train to Tawang, a Buddhist pilgrimage at the core of Beijing’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh, might be years away from reality. But the inauguration of a passenger service to the frontier state has brought the dream project 50km closer to the disputed border with China.
On Monday afternoon, railways minister Suresh Prabhu inaugurated a new broad gauge train on the Dekargaon (Assam)-Bhalukpong (Arunachal) stretch. Bhalukpong is the gateway to Tawang 330km uphill by road.
Last year, China opened a railway line connecting Tibetan capital Lhasa to Shigatse 257km west. More importantly for New Delhi, Shigatse is north of Sikkim and a show of Beijing’s intent to expand the Chinese railway network to the politically charged border with India and Nepal.
This made the NDA government plan railway connectivity to areas bordering China. Earlier this year, the Railway Board cleared a proposal for final location survey of a proposed 378km track from central Assam’s Sonitpur district to Tawang. The alignment envisaged starts with the 52km Dekargaon-Bhalukpong stretch laid in the last five years.
“There used to be a metre gauge line on this stretch but it was more or less defunct. The first passenger service to Bhalukpong should take our achievements to Himalayan heights,” a Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) engineer said, alluding to Tawang’s perch at 10,000 feet in the eastern Himalayas.
NFR’s general manager RS Virdi said the proposed line to Tawang is likely to follow the road to Bomdila (between Bhalukpong and Tawang) and have an elevation of 3,048 metres. “The survey will be conducted jointly by the railways with the defence ministry and the government of Arunachal Pradesh for identifying the best alignment,” he added.
Virdi said regular service for a pair of passenger trains to and from Bhalukpong will begin from Tuesday. This train – proposed goods trains too – is expected to be more crucial for defence personnel than locals.
“This should take care of the movement of our troops and provisions to some extent,” an officer in the army’s 4th Corps based in central Assam’s Tezpur town said.
The Dekargaon-Bhalukpong passenger service was inaugurated along with a train on the newly-laid 512km Rangiya (western Assam)-Murkongselek (eastern Assam, bordering Arunachal) broad gauge track. This line is expected to improve connectivity to central Arunachal Pradesh.