A mountain railway that existed 125 years ago

Last Updated: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 11:54

Cherrapunjee: Meghalaya does not have a rail
link at present but around 125 years ago people from this
quaint hill-station made memorable journeys on one of the most
romantic mountain railways of the world - the Cherra
Companyganj State Railways (CCSR).

The CCSR a contemporary of the Darjeeling Himalayan
Railway (DHR) was aimed at connecting Kolkata and Shillong
through the plains of what is now Bangladesh.

While the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is currently on
the World Heritage list, the CCSR has been relegated to the
pages of history.

The CCSR in Meghalaya was opened to traffic on June 6,
1886.
Passengers and goods were ferried between Tharia, a
sleepy hamlet below Cherrapunjee and Companyganj, now in
Bangladesh, for a distance of 7.5 miles.

"Not many know that a 3.5 mile railway line was actually
laid from Cherrapunjee to Mawsmai (now in East Khasi Hills
district)," Arup Kumar Dutta, author of the book `Indian
Railways ‘The Final Frontier`, said.

The author culled records for the book from the British
railway records available at the National Archives and the
Railway Museum archives in New Delhi and the State archives of
Assam.

The ambitious railway project was conceptualised by a
British engineer in India, H Kench, after need arose to
connect Shillong, the then capital of the British India
Province, to Calcutta by rail since carts had difficulty in
negotiating mule tracks and roads on the steep slope of the
Khasi Hills.

Dutta said, "Kench believed that if Shillong was to be
linked by rail to Calcutta, the obvious route was from then
Assam’s capital, Shillong, through Cherrapunji to Mawsmai."

It envisaged a rope-tramway down the 4,100 feet
escarpment to the mining village of Tharia in then East Bengal
and to Companygunj to connect Sylhet and Goalundo, from where
rail services to Calcutta already existed, he said.

Dutta said, "This might appear today to have been a
foolhardy endeavour, given the precipitous nature of the
terrain leading from the Meghalaya plateau to the plains of
Bangla. But this in no way robs the attempt of its grandeur,
nor detracts from the ingenuity of those who failed to
translate the concept into reality."

The total cost of building the mountain railway project
covering a total distance of 15 miles was just about Rs eight
lakh then.

Dutta said, CCSR had three sections with Tharia to
Companyganj being the first, Tharia to Mawsmai covering a
distance of about 5 miles the second and Mawsmai to
Cherrapunjee, a distance of about 4 miles on the Shillong
plateau, the third.

Building the second section proved the most arduous as
the lines climbed 3,616 feet from Tharia to Mawsmai through
the heart of thick jungle and past waterfalls.

After the Tharia to Companyganj section was opened to the
public, the Tharai to Mawsmai stretch was completed by
November 1887, Dutta said.

But, because of steep inclines on the second section,
attempts to run carriages failed. The number of derailments
were far greater then successful runs. Builders did try to
realign the lines and futilely tried for months to run
carriages, the author said.

After much hesitation, the British Provincial government
of Assam inked the closure of CCSR in 1891. It did, however,
allow the Tharia to Companyganj section to run.
At the end of its first year of service in 1887, the CSSR
chugged away to earn Rs 4,734.

History has it that it doggedly toiled on to increase its
earnings to Rs 17,490 by 1890, thus reducing its total loss to
about Rs 2000.

But after 10 years, the Assam earthquake of 1897 had
other plans and destroyed this section also consigning CCSR to
the pages of history.

Today, remains of railway bridges, ancient stone ramps
and scrapped bits of history are still found in nearby
villages.

In Sohbar village for instance, scrapped rail tracks
are now used as lamp posts.

"These (railway lines) were brought from the jungle
nearby," S Lyngskar, an elder of Sohbar village said.

A hundred years after and 60 years of India`s
Independence, Meghalaya still remains land locked and
without rail connectivity.

PTI



First Published: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 11:54

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