Flood-enforced blockade hurts Northeast Frontier Railway in best Revenue Year

Rail link between the Northeast and the mainland cut off since August 13. Track damage has also put the spotlight on alternative rail routes for bailing out the Northeast during emergencies.

GUWAHATI: Floods have cut off rail link between the Northeast and the mainland since August 13, hurting the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) in its best revenue year, besides depleting the stock of essentials across the region.

Damage to tracks has enforced a blockade that has again put the spotlight on alternative rail routes for bailing out the Northeast during emergencies.

Unlike other zones, NFR, catering primarily to eight landlocked north-eastern states besides parts of Bihar and West Bengal, is dependent on passenger traffic for revenue.

For the first time in decades, NFR topped all zones across the country to record 12.2% growth in passenger traffic between January and July this year. Passenger earnings too increased by 7.73% to touch Rs 1,009.40 crore during this period.

But two breaches on the arterial track near Telta and Sudhani stations in Bihar (between Kishanganj in Bihar and Malda in West Bengal) on August 13 came as a dampener for NFR, which has lost more than Rs 40 crore in revenue since.

The loss could cross Rs 50 crore by August 31, when the railway line is expected to be repaired for movement of trains.

“Our goods traffic is mostly inbound, which means there is hardly any loading of goods in the Northeast. Our revenue is thus passenger-dependent,” said NFR spokesperson Pranav Jyoti Sharma.

From August 13-20, NFR lost Rs 23.77 crore because of cancellation of 284 trains.

FCI stocks depleting

The nature-enforced railway blockade has hit Manipur – a victim of blockades by NGOs for long – the most.

As on August 20, Manipur had only a day’s stock of foodgrains and sugar procured by Food Corporation of India (FCI) via the railways. Mizoram followed with 11 days’ stock, Assam with 13, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland with 14 each, Tripura with 27 and Meghalaya with 29 days’ stock.

The next assessment of stock will be done on Tuesday.

FCI’s total storage capacity for foodgrains and sugar in the Northeast is 563,557 million tonnes.

According to the Kamrup Chamber of Commerce, the most influential trade body in the region, FCI warehouses being low on essentials is no cause for panic.

“Private players have sufficient quantity of essential commodities to last more than two months. Merchants are also bringing in goods by road. But the problem is NFR has halted continuous loading of wagons because of the disruption,” said the chamber’s president, Mahavir Jain.

Unlike FCI, merchants across the Northeast bring in only 30% of their goods by trains

NFR officials handling freight admitted 109 rakes, 10 of them for FCI, were stopped from being loaded in commodities hubs across the country. This was because 100 Northeast-bound rakes were not able to enter the NFR system for unloading at specific destinations in the region.

A rake has a maximum 52 wagons that are booked by a single or group of merchants. NFR handles an average 630 inbound rakes per month.

The freight service has been affected because the Guwahati-headquartered NFR’s three goods interchange points – Purnea, Katihar and Malda – are beyond the stretches where the tracks have been damaged.

Katihar and Purnea cater primarily to rice and wheat from northern India, while Malda is the interchange point for freight trains bringing in potatoes, onions, sugar, and fertiliser from western, central and southern India besides the ports on the Bay of Bengal.

Security concern for oil rakes

Seven loaded oil rakes stranded in northern West Bengal have raised security concerns for NFR. The railway zone has sought extra security fearing sabotage and pilferage of high-speed diesel and superior kerosene oil from these rakes.

“NFR moves an average 120 oil rakes per month. Some of them are loaded from the four refineries in Assam and some from two pipeline points in northern Bengal connected to two of these refineries. Each rake has 3,000 tonnes of diesel or kerosene,” a senior commercial manager said, declining to be named.

The vulnerability of the oil tankers increases manifold if they are stationary.

Alternative tracks

The Chicken’s Neck, a narrow strip of land in West Bengal connecting the Northeast to mainland India, allows little scope for alternative railway tracks.

“This disaster should make NFR give serious thought to laying tracks that can be relied upon during times of crisis. The railways has been delaying a few such projects,” Jain said.

NFR officials, however, disagreed, claiming work on one such broad gauge project — the 110.75 km Araria-Galgalia line in north-eastern Bihar — was started after a budget grant of Rs 150 crore during the 2016-17 fiscal.

The progress of work on this new line, estimated to cost Rs 838 crore has been 2% till date, according to an NFR officer.

A grant of Rs 10 crore was also provided for another project, the 50.87 km Jalalgarh-Kishanganj line in Bihar, but work has not started yet, said the officer. The anticipated cost for Jalalgarh-Kishanganj is Rs 565 crore.

“If we had either of these two lines, all goods and passenger trains could have been diverted,” the officer said.