Himalayan nation Nepal gets first modern train tracks

The competition between two Asian giants, India and China, for influence over tiny Nepal is yielding a bonanza in the form of the Himalayan mountain nation’s first modern railway – and possibly more to come.

KHATMANDU: New shiny rails connecting the 34 kilometers (21 miles) between Janakpur in southeastern Nepal and Jay Nagar in Bihar are raising hopes for more business and pilgrimages.

The railway is India’s latest bid to keep its foothold in South Asia, a traditional sphere of influence, as China spends billions on its massive Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure project that aims to expand trade across a vast arc of 65 countries from the South Pacific to Africa and Europe.

Biswombar Sah, a 62-year-old farmer, is among hundreds of people in Janakpur visiting the still-under-construction rail station daily to check on its progress as workers polish the marble floors, lay tiles on the platform and paint local art on the walls of the waiting room.

“These train tracks are the best thing to happen to us in a very long time. We are all thrilled about getting a modern train that will make travel so much easier and cheaper,” Sah said.

Once the new $80 million rail line begins operations, plans call for extending the railway deeper into Nepal.

For now, only a dusty trail passing through villages connects Jay Nagar and Janakpur. It’s mostly used by people bringing in daily goods on motorcycles and small trucks.

The British, who ruled India from 1858-1947, built a narrow-gauge 2.5-foot wide track in 1937 to transport timber from Nepal. That train, with only three rusted carriages, windows lacking panes, missing doors and iffy service – the engine often broke down for days – quit running in 2014.

Millions of Hindu devotees travel every year to the Ram Janaki temple in Janakpur, where the Hindu goddess Sita is believed to have been born and later married the Hindu god Ram.

The new line will be able to handle bigger trains carrying more passengers than the old trains.

Home to Mount Everest and other peaks on the roof of the world, Nepal has limited road networks. Politicians have been promising for years to build new train lines across the mountainous country. China and India are vying for leverage by offering to build them, and that helped spur work on the Indian-funded Janakpur-Jay Nagar line.

Despite great hopes among those awaiting the new train it’s unclear exactly when passenger service will start. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been expected to travel by train to Janakpur in December to inaugurate the new line during a popular Hindu festival but that plan has been cancelled.

The new train connection is expected to give India a boost. And when it comes to railways, it already has an advantage since Nepal’s border with China is mountainous while the frontier with India is in the plains, said Dhruba Hari Adhikary, an independent analyst based in Kathmandu.