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Take this train at your own peril
The most dangerous train journey in India snakes through the incredibly picturesque Dima Hasao district of Assam.
This would vie for top honours in the category of most scenic rail routes in India. A 186-kilometre long, 110-year-old metre-gauge track that snakes through one of the most verdant and breathtakingly beautiful landscapes in the country. It is also, perhaps, the most dangerous rail route in Asia. That's why the diesel locomotive is armoured, armed security personnel outnumber passengers on the train and gun-toting para-military men line the most of the track.
The rail route through the Borail Hill Range between Lumding and Badarpur in Assam that passes through the state's insurgency-infested Dima Hasao district is considered to be an engineering marvel with 37 tunnels and a series of stunning bridges and viaducts spanning deep gorges and ravines. This terrain also provides ideal hideouts for the members of the 13-odd armed outfits belonging to warring ethnic groups like the Dimasas, Nagas, Kukis, Hmars, Karbis and Baites.
During the construction of this rail line, which took 11 years (it was completed in 1903) and cost Rs 4. 2 crore, many died of malaria, diarrheoa, other diseases, attacks by wild animals. There were also killer landslides. But when it was completed it was beautiful enough to have poems written about it. Now, the Hill Queen Express plies everyday between Lumding and Badarpur via the quaint and picturesque town of Haflong, the headquarters of the Dima Hasao district.
A potent mix of backwardness, poverty, neglect and ethnic tensions brought insurgency to this district, earlier known as North Cachar Hills, in the 1990s. The violence intensified in 2005 when the Jewel Garlosa faction of the Dima Halim Daogah (DHD), an outfit of the district's dominant Dimasa tribe, launched bloody attacks on non-Dimasas and security forces.
"The journey on this route then became hazardous and tourists, who used to flock to the Hill Queen Express, stopped coming, " says a spokesperson of the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR). Towards the end of 2007, DHD militants lying in ambush at one end of a tunnel attacked the Hill Queen Express as it emerged from the tunnel. The bullets hit Nityananda Barua, the locomotive driver, who, despite being seriously injured, reversed the engine and took the train back inside the tunnel, thus saving many lives. Barua died and was awarded the Kirti Chakra for his valour.
Train services were then suspended and resumed only after the locomotives were retrofitted with bullet-proof glass and their bodies reinforces with steel sheets that can resist bullets. But militants targeted the train again in April 2009, killing a CRPF jawan and injuring 25 others. The next day, militants attacked a goods train on this route, killing two security personnel. "We have provided bullet proof vests to the loco drivers and guards and every coach of the train has at least 25 armed security personnel. Passengers are not allowed to sit next to the windows, " says the NFR spokesperson.
Since the attacks, NFR authorities have been playing it safe and the Hill Queen Express plies only intermittently. "The local railway authorities take a decision on running the train based on the situation in the district and intelligence inputs, " says the spokesperson. A lot depends on the availability of army and para-military personnel to guard the train and the vulnerable portions of this route.
However, it is not only militants who make this rail route dangerous. The sharp turns and ill-maintained tracks appear to have confused quite a few loco drivers who ignored warnings about speed limits. You can see the rusted remains of mangled trains, especially freight rakes, that line the route.
The Hill Queen Express itself is anything but regal: the train is now about ten-odd ramshackle coaches pulled by a locomotive that missed its date with the scrap-yard by at least a decade. But if one can ignore the discomfort and the perils, the journey is unforgettable. For some, it is the inherent perils that add the thrill to this journey.
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