Railway Development in Nepal is dependent on its long-term economic viability

The future development of railways in Nepal, although geopolitically motivated, is dependent on its long-term economic viability. China and India may provide the technical know-how and the capital required, but it’ll be up to Nepal to gauge what the country wants to do with it.

KHATMANDU: After being told for many years that railways were not feasible in Nepal because of the terrain and the high capital costs, we are faced with a future where China and India are both connected to Kathmandu via trains.

Prime Minister KP Oli’s Delhi visit, successful by all accounts, saw agreements being signed on initiating a railway link between Kathmandu and Raxaul, and on utilising the waterways for transport.

India is stepping into an infrastructural game where China has already taken the lead. But given the delay in any infrastructure project in Nepal, it’d be prudent to hold any expectations until the locomotive starts rolling.

Having said that, Nepal’s history with railways goes back before the 1920s, when the Amlekhganj-Raxaul railway was initiated. Much of it revolved around the export of products, especially timber, to India during British times, rather than increasing connectivity within the country.

While under the Ranas there was an obvious hesitation to improve transportation systems inside Nepal unless it was for economic reasons, post 1950, despite a World Bank transport master plan that outlined railway development in Nepal, the development of road networks took priority.

In many ways, the expansion of railways into northern India ‘pushed the country deeper into the vortex of India’s growing economy’, as historian MC Regmi put it: ‘The commercial importance of existing towns on the Nepal-India border, particularly Nepalgunj, increased almost overnight. In the central sector, the Nepali border market town athwart the Indian railroad terminus at Raxaul was rebuilt and renamed as Birgunj, obviously after Prime Minister Bir Shumsher.’

When the first Indian passenger train chugged from Bombay to Thane in April 1853, it would end up being a ‘memorable day’ not just for the British, but for the Ranas in Nepal too. As the British developed an infrastructural network across much of northern India, the demand for timber – to be used as railway sleepers, railroad ties, planks for bridges, or for use in homes – grew exponentially.

As most of north India’s sal forests began to be depleted, “the major sources of supply were, consequently, left on the Nepali side of the Tarai border.” An 1897 report stated, “The great marts of Nepal on the border of Oudh are Golamandi and Banki, alias Nepalgunj… The policy of the Nepal Durbar is to force all hill produce to be brought to these places,” from whereon Nepali timber was sent forth to India.

Regmi notes that the waterways earlier used for trade with India declined in importance after the introduction of railway junctions near the Indo-Nepal border, as railways were safer, more reliable and even ‘small consignments’ could be transported on them.

Rafid Kabadi, 49, had been driving trains on Nepal’s Janakpur line for 25 years before it was shut down in 2014.

Although railway lines on the Indian side of Nepalgunj opened in 1885, and another line connected Forbesganj in eastern Bihar, adjoining Rangeli, in 1890, by 1908, ‘the bulk of the [Indo-Nepal] trade pass[ed] through Raxaul, the terminus of the Sugauli-Raxaul branch railway’, which was connected by rail in 1898.

‘Thanks to those railroad connections, it now became possible to transport Nepal’s exports by boat or ox-cart up to the nearest Indian railroad terminus and then by railroad to different destinations in India,’ wrote Regmi in An Economic History of Nepal (1846-1901).

The extraction of timber also provided the impetus for Chandra Shamsher to rope in JV Collier, a British forestry official, in 1923, who had a ‘short stretch of narrow gauge’ pushed into the west Tarai.

Hunter-conservationist Jim Corbett writes of the timber tramway: ‘The [Mahakali/Sharda river] gorge is four miles long and was at one time traversed by a tramway line blasted out of the rock cliff…[it] has long since been swept away by landslides and floods.’ The first passenger railway inside Nepal, between Amlekhganj and Raxaul began in 1927, while the now defunct Janakpur-Jaynagar line began in 1937.

Nepal Freight Cargo in Birgunj

Although intended for timber export, with multiple railheads now across the border, and because of the lack of roads within Nepal, transportation began to witness a distinct change with the railways.

Historian Perceval Landon wrote in 1928, ‘For any long distance, it is now easier and quicker and, it may be added, cheaper for a Nepalese to make his way either to one of the railway stations on the Indian border….and then join the Indian railway system for an excursion east or west even when his destination is in his own country.’

“We are doing a detailed study of east-west railway. Out of six rail linkage tracks provided by India, two will be in operation in southern Nepal probably this year. We have written to Chinese government to select an appropriate company to study Kathmandu to Kerung railway which we are hoping to start soon,” said Prakash Upadhyay, spokesperson and Senior Engineer at Nepal’s railways department.

This was a massive disruption to existing transportation networks within Nepal, even the few that existed. New economies started to emerge around the border towns near railheads. One visible impact of railroads was on the trans-Himalayan trade, where Newar traders found it simpler to take the train to Calcutta, from where they would purchase their wares, and then onwards to Lhasa via Kalimpong than using the old passes of Kuti and Kerung. Nepal’s external trade began to be shaped by its proximity to railway connections in India, which continued into the modern era.

‘The principal function of railways in Nepal will be to facilitate and improve the movement of goods into and out of Nepal across the Indian Border. This will be done by, in effect, extending the most important Indian Railways into Nepal,’ concluded a 1965 World Bank report on a national transport system for Nepal.

The report recommended Nepal develop three cross-border railway terminals in Nepalganj, Biratnagar and Birgunj. ‘The general idea is for the Indian Railways to provide all freight cars, use their own locomotives, and maintain all rolling equipment necessary for the operation of these terminal railways.

Some years ago Nepal’s last working narrow gauge railway was dieselised with locomotives supplied by India. However, for economical reasons they kept one steam locomotive serviceable. In 2005 steam operation to this railway was re-introduced for four days. As the daily trains are nearly always overcrowded, special charter passenger trains would appear as only ghost trains.

The Indian Railways would bill each local Nepal railway separately for the actual cost of services provided.’ The masterplan suggested the construction of a new Birgunj railway terminal beyond the 1927 Nepal Government Railway between Amlekhganj and Raxaul, as ‘the present […] narrow gauge line cannot perform the necessary terminal function because of the change of gauge at Raxaul.’

In Biratnagar, the new terminal would include petroleum storage tanks, while at Nepalganj, a feasibility study was recommended first. The study presciently said the line between Amlekhganj and Raxaul should not continue because of high repair costs, and the ‘serious problem’ of changing gauges at Raxaul. The line was finally shut down in 1965 itself.

But the report’s railway recommendations didn’t go through. Post 1950, up to 40 per cent of the total outlay for the first five-year plan, declining to 35 per cent in the third five-year plan, was dedicated to upgrading transport infrastructure in Nepal. However, the development of railways was not as much a priority as roads.

Now, with a future where Kathmandu could see trains both to China and India, a reasonable assumption holds that a China-Nepal-India railway connection that turns Nepal into a transit market will be of greater advantage than discrete and unconnected networks with the two neighbours.

The future development of railways in Nepal, although geopolitically motivated, is dependent on its long-term economic viability. China and India may provide the technical know-how and the capital required, but it’ll be up to Nepal to gauge what the country wants to do with it.

Challenges emerge as happiness blooms

Though rail and roadways have already crossed the lofty mountains on paper, many challenges lie ahead. Landslides are not uncommon on the geologically fragile and earthquake shaken route from Kerung. “There are definitely issues around it but it can be handled, it needs rigorous planning and investments accordingly,” Upadhyay said. As China is interested in investing, financial constraints are not as much of a problem as technical ones, according to the officials.

According to the railways department, it is likely that about 90% of the Kathmandu-Kerung railway would be either over bridges or through tunnels. “We have technical challenges on our side but it is not impossible to connect Kathmandu with Kerung, However, it is not as easy as linking Kathmandu with Birgunj in southern border,” Upadhyay said.

Nepal’s inadequate expertise and experience in rail services has become a major issue. It has been seeking support from its neighbours and nurturing talent to work in this sector. “I am also a highway engineer but have been assigned now to work on railways,” Upadhyay said. “We don’t have expertise on railways. So, for us, it is learning by doing. As the department has been just set up, human resources is the priority now,” he added.

The rail and the road from China pass through one of Nepal’s most popular tourist destinations — the Langtang National Park. Nepal is often cited as an illegal trade corridor of wildlife body parts from South Asia to China and vice-versa. Park officials are worried about the railway plans.  “We are aware and bit worried. This year we are planning to establish a separate wildlife check point at the border as an effort to curb the problem as mobility has already increased through this route,” said Yubraj Regmi, the Chief of Langtang National Park.

Due to the political turmoil, Nepal couldn’t hold local body elections for the last two decades resulting in serious communication gaps between the government and local residents. Newly elected politicians are hoping to bridge the gap and excited to cooperate with the national government on agendas like BRI/OBOR.  “I agree there has been very little information or discussions with the local communities regarding it, but we have come through people’s mandate recently, we are all set to play our role,” said Kaisang Tamang, the mayor of Gosainkunda Rural Municipality adjoining the Chinese border.