The Tezpur Balipara Light Railway

This article first appeared in Centenary Souvenir of the Tezpur Station Club, Tezpur.

Most members of the Tezpore Station Club would be hard pressed to remember when they last visited the town's railway station. Certainly there is no burning reason for anyone to drop in as only two passenger trains call at Tezpur these days, apart from the odd goods train. The Passengers don't really go to anywhere useful from here and in any case take much too long getting there. Both trains arrive and depart under the cover of darkness (one before dawn and the other long after sunset) as if embarrassed to advertise the tiny complement of passengers they bear. Whatever little activity there is ceases once each train beats a hasty retreat and for the rest of the day the station wears a desolate look; hardly worthy of the attention of even schoolboys playing truant, far less the good members of the Station Club.

But this wasn't always the case; the history of Tezpur's railway is as rich and fascinating as the history of the town itself and deserves to be acknowledged as any of the town's other heroes and institutions are. For, long before Assam was connected to the rest of India by rail and around the time an unconnected branch line had struggled up to the capital Guwahati, Tezpur had already got its own railway, one which came to be regarded as a model of efficiency in its time and a beacon of success for all other light railways in the country.

The story of Tezpur's railway is entwined (just like the story of the Station Club) with the town's mainstay -- the tea industry. It begins officially in 1892 when the Tezpore Balipara Steam Tramway Company Limited (TBST) was floated with a paid up capital of Rs 4 Lakh (Rs 400,000), almost half of which was subscribed to by the tea companies of Darrang District. What drove the tea companies to invest these large sums in an isolated railway in the middle of nowhere? Well, the tea gardens of the district extended northwards from the town and were more or less strewn along a single rough road -- from Mission Chariali to Balipara by way of Bindukuri, Sessa and Rangapara. On this road finished tea was transported from the estates to the Steamer Ghat on bullock carts, which returned with coal and other tea garden stores. Anyone despairing of the condition of this road today should take heart in the fact that nothing has changed in over a hundred years. Yes, it was the almost permanent state of disrepair of the very same road in the 1880s that brought the railway to Tezpur!

The business of a tea garden as we all know is tea alone, not trains. So the tea companies weren't exactly thrilled about having to invest in a railway though undoubtedly it would make life much easier for them. To soften the blow, they asked the Government for some concessions, which the latter mostly granted, employing the kind of wisdom that is much absent in today's dispensations:

  • The free use of government=owned wasteland for the tramway facilities and a right of way along the existing road on which to lay the track.
  • Free timber from government forests for the sleepers
  • Land owned by tea companies for free with compensation only for areas actually under tea.
  • A subsidy of Rs.5000 (then a princely sum) per annum from the Tezpur Local Board (thus freeing both the provincial and central governments from burdening their own finances).

Construction began in December 1893 even before official government permission was obtained, but the tramway was a fait accompli since its funding was almost entirely from private and local sources and the government wasn't expected to have any objections to it.

One of the most far-sighted decisions taken by TBST was on the gauge to be used. The question of gauge had vexed railway builders throughout India with the result that certain lines were found to be either too big and costly for the traffic subsequently generated or too small for the cargo to be carried. Being a private branch line TBST had a choice between two types of narrow gauge (2' and 2'6") and the metre gauge, knowing that the wider the gauge more the cost to lay it down. TBST opted for the 2'6" gauge and this decision not only changed the latter part of its name from Steam Tramway to Light Railway but also ensured that it remained a profitable enterprise through its entire life.

In keeping with the need to keep costs at a minimum, the track was laid alongside the existing road and was ballasted only at a few places. The rails were light weighing only 30lb to the yard, fencing was erected only within station limits and bridges such as the one over the Depota River were made of locally available Nahor wood. Construction was quick -- the first 8 miles (13km) to Bindukuri was completed by September 1894, the next three and a quarter miles to Sessa by November and the remaining four and three-quarter miles to Rangapara by December of the same year. While the 16-mile stretch up to Rangapara began operating in time for the plucking season of 1895, the entire 20-mile (32 km) route from Balipara to the Tezpur Station (located conveniently and picturesquely right next to the Brahmaputra) was officially inaugurated only in September of that year. Later, Borjuli T.E. built a two mile extension from its factory to Rangapara and TBLR ran a daily passenger service on it till 1908.

Three steam locomotives (Type 4-4-0, one of which apparently plunged into the river in a freak accident in 1895) and rolling stock were purchased from Penney & Co. and Brush Electrical Engineering Company in England. Three more locomotives from W G Bagnall & Co. were added between 1914 and 1925 and the first and last of these were seen still working in a sleeper depot in Clutterbuckganj near Bareilly in 1981! Passenger carriages were mostly open from the sides and had distinct differences in the interiors and comforts between classes. First Class passengers enjoyed closed compartments with polished teak interiors and sat on maroon morocco leather upholstery while third class passengers made do on hard wooden benches. Goods rolling stock was basically just covered bogies for tea and stores or open wagons for coal.

The top speed on TBLR was about 15 miles per hour, laughable in this day and age but for the fact that today's metre gauge trains pulled by much more powerful diesel locomotives crawl into town at 15 kilometres per hour! To begin with there were two passenger services per day in each direction but a 1934 timetable shows three daily services with an additional two "Haat Specials" on Sunday catering to the district's largest haat at Bindukuri. The fares were just as quaint -- in 1934 Tezpur to Balipara in First Class would have set one back by Two Rupees, One Anna and Six Paise, and in Third Class, a mere Seven Annas and Six Paise! The distance to Rangapara was covered in an hour and twenty minutes after halting at every station in between and to Balipara in an hour and 45 minutes -- TBLR would have competed well with any mode of transport today!

TBLR was a roaring success from the very beginning and the Rs. 5000 subsidy from the Tezpur Local Board was discontinued from 1913-14 onwards. Records are sketchy but Hugh Hughes notes in his authoritative "Indian Locomotives", Part 3 that "in 1900 the Inspecting Officer was moved to comment: 'The flourishing condition of this railway and the excellent condition of the way and works, reflect credit on the management'". Hughes also mentions that in 1907 the line carried 157,000 passengers and 15,000 tons of freight of which tea accounted for 4203 tons, general merchandise for 5718 tons and coal and coke 3015 tons. This is far, far more than what the line carries today -- clearly TBLR's first 55 years were far more impressive than the last 55!

In "The Final Frontier", a history of the Northeast Frontier Railway, Arup Kumar Dutta says that the average return for TBLR was 5% in 1900-10, 8% in 1911-20 and an astounding 31% in 1943-44 at the height of the Second World War. Dutta also records Chief Commissioner of Assam Henry Cotton as having addressed the Bengal Chambers of Commerce thus: "I am satisfied that the Government have gained greatly by the construction of that little tramway owing to the quantity of land which has already been brought under cultivation on each side of it. This tramway has got its nice little branches to the gardens, and the branches go up to the tea house, and at the tea house the tea is put on to the train, and so it is sent down to Tezpore."

Perhaps even the great Henry Cotton didn't quite foresee how successful and resilient TBLR was to become for it held its own for nearly 60 years, right until 1952 when it was taken over by Indian Railways and merged into the North Eastern Zone and converted to metre gauge. The metre gauge Eastern Bengal Railway, which provided a more direct and faster overland route to Calcutta with a change of gauge at Parbatipur had reached Tangla on the eastern edge of Darrang District in 1912. But the success of TBLR ensured that it took another 21 years to reach Rangapara and even afterwards it carried less tea to Calcutta than did TBLR to Tezpur Ghat!

Just as TBLR was the lifeline for both town and tea, the River was the lifeline of the Railway. As long as the steamers plied the river, TBLR continued to prosper. Partition rang the death knell of the Steamers and simultaneously drove the first nail into TBLR's coffin. The Assam Rail Link completed in 1950 was the second nail. It reconnected the Rangapara branch of EBR to the rest of the country and avoided the customs delays that plagued the river and rail routes through East Pakistan. Within a few years TBLR would have sunk like the loco it lost to the Brahmaputra long ago but it was swallowed whole by Northeastern Railway, thankfully never living to see the day when the last steamer for Calcutta docked at Tezpur Ghat.

In its metre gauge avatar the Tezpur Railway had one final, brief but dazzling moment in the limelight. In April 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and made his way down to Tezpur via Bum La and Tawang. A special train with 13 carriages was made available to him at Tezpur Station to carry him, his entourage and 3 tons of baggage to exile in Mussoorie via Lucknow (later to McLeodganj). On that day it seemed that the press corps of the entire world had descended on Tezpur Station as noted by the Dalai Lama in his own words; "And when we came down to the railway at Tezpur I was astonished and quite overwhelmed to find thousands of telegrams of good wishes and about 100 journalists and photographers, representing newspapers all over the world, who had come to that remote place to meet me and hear what they called 'the story of the year'".

After the Dalai Lama's eventful visit and the subsequent panic of the 1962 war, the Tezpur Railway has been in almost continuous free fall. The railway centre of gravity has shifted to Rangapara North Junction, the tea gardens have long abandoned the line and so has the Army, while the townsfolk have little use for it. Anybody who had experienced the vitality of the TBLR of old would have been devastated to see the decrepit track, the closed stations of Dekargaon, Sessa, and Thakurbari, and the decaying infrastructure of today. But even the darkest clouds have silver linings and for the Tezpur Railway it is the promise of Broad Gauge, which is expected within the next five years. Perhaps only then can we hope to regain a small measure of the spirit and enterprise of the Tezpur Balipara Light Railway.

References:

  1. Hugh Hughes; Indian Locomotives, Part 3 -- Narrow Gauge 1863-1940
  2. Arup Kumar Dutta; Indian Railways -- The Final Frontier
  3. Sarah Hilaly; The Railways in Assam, 1885-1947
  4. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama; My Land and My People
Material provided by Mohan Bhuyan, Copyright © 2011
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