Gelephu Town

Bhutan explores rail links to Gelephu, Nanglam and SJ as Samtse link fails

In October 2020 it was announced that Bhutan and India had finished a survey for the first ever rail link connecting the two countries with a 37.5 km stretch between Mujnai in West Bengal and Neyopaling village under Phuentshopelri Gewog in Samtse somewhere close to Gomtu.

It was announced that construction would start in a year. It was said that this route avoided settled areas in West Bengal, however, the project now stands cancelled as it was found that the rail line has to go through some tea gardens and it would not be possible to acquire those lands due to land acquisition issues in West Bengal.

Now, to replace that, Bhutan is requesting for rail links from the less settled Assam side to Gelephu as a priority and also Nanglam and Samdrup Jongkhar.

Lyonpo Loknath Sharma who recently visited Delhi conveyed this to the Commerce Minister Piyush Goel.

Lyonpo said on the West Bengal side there are some land acquisition issues and so the focus is now in on the Gelephu side and freight railway connection. The focus is on Gelephu as the Industrial estate of Jigmeling is coming up there.

“On the Gelephu railway connection they are quite positive and we have flagged this up to initiate and take up and take forward. They said they will definitely support. Basically our priority is Kokrajhar or Bongaigaon to connect to Gelephu and they are quite positive,” said Lyonpo.

Lyonpo said he has also conveyed if they can connect Nanglam and Samdrup Jongkhar too from Assam.

On the West Bengal side, the request now is if Bhutanese boulder exporters can use the Chilahati and Haldibari rail link between India and Bangladesh through West Bengal to export boulders. The request is also to get and use freight trains from Hashimara and Birpara for boulder and other exports.

Background

 As early as 2007, the Indian government had come up with plans to give five railways links to Bhutan.

In May 2008 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had come to Bhutan to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru visiting Bhutan where the Prime Minister announced the 18 km Nehru Golden Jubilee Rail Link from Hashimara to Toribari near Pasakha.

However, soon after the announcement it ran into local problems as local residents and tea estate owners opposed the project going through their land.

The West Bengal government in 2011 said the current route would displace people.  The alternative route was to take the train route through more forested areas but the Ministry of Environment and Forests raised environmental issues at the time shutting down the project.

In November 2014 the project received a formal burial during the visit of the former and Late Indian President Pranabh Mukherjee.

In 2018 talk of railways connections to Bhutan started making the rounds again when the Northeast Frontier Railway submitted feasibility studies to India’s Ministry of External Affairs on rail connectivity to Bhutan.

The five feasible rail link routes were Kokhrajhar, Assam to Gelephu (57 km), Pathsala, Assam to Nanglam (51.15 km), Rangiya, Assam to Samdrupjongkhar (48 km), Banarhat, West Bengal to Samtse (23 km) and the old line between Hashimara to Phuentsholing (17.52 km).

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