India keen to connect to SAARC Nations with more Rail links

India, which already has direct train service with Bangladesh, has also announced two new routes. The two countries are currently operating Maitree Express between Kolkata and Dhaka

(File Picture) - Earlier, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) have agreed to begin discussions on the possibility of having a BBIN Rail Agreement drawing on the draft SAARC Regional Rail Agreement
(File Picture) – Earlier, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) have agreed to begin discussions on the possibility of having a BBIN Rail Agreement drawing on the draft SAARC Regional Rail Agreement

New Delhi: After the India-Myanmar-Thailand road link, the government is considering seamless rail connectivity with SAARC nations. The Indian Railways is considering rail links from India to Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The most prominent is the Indo-Myanmar rail route for which railways plan to connect Jiribam in India to Kalay/Mandalay in Myanmar.

A senior railway ministry official said studies are being conducted on setting up at least five rail routes between India and Nepal while feasibility of another route is being examined between India and Bhutan. India, which already has direct train service with Bangladesh, has also announced two new routes. The two countries are currently operating Maitree Express between Kolkata and Dhaka.

Approval for signing and ratifying SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Regional Railways Agreement

Officials said initial work has started on rail projects from Tripura to Akhaura in Bangladesh and Haldibari in India to Bangladesh International Border. While the first project was announced in 2012-13, the latter was sanctioned in rail budget 2016-17. The projects are, however, subject to requisite government approvals in both countries.

“A feasibility study was done in 2005 by Indian Railway through its engineering consultant RITES for a link from Jiribam to Kalay/Mandalay in Myanmar. The Jiribam – Imphal section (125km) which falls within Indian territory has been sanctioned and construction work taken up. Remaining portions from Imphal to Moreh (111km) within India and from Tamu to Kalay (128km) in Myanmar have not been sanctioned,” said a railway board official.

India is also seeking rail routes to Bhutan and Nepal. While a small link between Raxaul in Bihar and Birganj in Nepal is operational, railway officials said four new routes could be explored between the two countries. At present, Nepal does not have a rail network. However, meter gauge lines exist in some parts of the plains or terai region in Nepal.

Geographical advantage

Officials said India has a geographical advantage that its northern plains connect seamlessly to Nepal’s terai region. Also, many railway stations like Jaynagar, Jogbani in Bihar and Sonauli, Rupaidiha in Uttar Pradesh are located very close to Nepal border. Railway lines from these stations can be extended up to Nepal for better connectivity.

It may be noted that China has also announced constructing rail corridor to Nepal via Tibet. The connection, according to Chinese media reports, could include a tunnel under the Everest. It is to be an extension of the Qinghai-Tibet railway that links China with the Tibetan capital.

Meanwhile, officials said India was also keen on reviving the railway link connecting India and Bhutan announced in 2008. The Nehru Golden Jubliee Railway Link was proposed as 18-km link connecting Hashimara in West Bengal to Toribari in Bhutan. RITES was asked to prepare the project report with assistance from Northeastern Frontier (NF) Railways but the consultancy firm failed to complete the survey work.

Earlier on 20th November, 2014, the Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, approved signing and ratifying the SAARC Regional Railways Agreement by India, as a member State of SAARC.

SAARC region is considered one of the least networked regions in terms of physical and soft connectivity leading to high costs and low volumes of trade recognizing which the leaders of the SAARC countries agreed that better transport infrastructure and linkages among the SAARC countries was necessary. A study viz. the SAARC Regional Multi Modal Transport Study (SRMTS) of 2005 undertaken by SAARC Secretariat had recommended multilateral agreements permitting free movement of people, goods and services within SAARC region in the Road and Rail sector and this was endorsed by the SAARC countries in the Summit level and Transport Ministers meetings. Accordingly, the Regional Rail Agreement (RRA) was drafted by India for SAARC countries in 2008. Since then, the draft Agreement has been discussed in the three meetings of the Expert Group on Regional Rail Agreement and in the meetings of Inter-Governmental Group on Transport (IGGT) and the text of the Agreement proposed now for signature was finalized in the 5th IGGT held in New Delhi on 30th September, 2014.

The SAARC Regional Railways Agreement will strengthen transport connectivity in the SAARC Region. Strengthened rail and transport connectivity will not only provide stimulus to the economic development in the region as a whole but also promote social and cultural contact and encourage tourism amongst the Member States. The Regional Rail Agreement will also enable low cost, energy efficient and environmentally sustainable transportation in the SAARC region and provide trade and economic links for the land locked countries and semi isolated regions.

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