A railway link that existed 125 years ago

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.