The history of steam engine is synonymous with the history of industrial revolution. It was the discovery of steam power by James Watt that made the mills and factories in England possible. It was once again steam power that made fast and affordable travel possible. The steam loco was invented by Richard Trevithick and perfected by George Stephenson, who was not only an inventor, but was also the founder of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Civil Engineers. The first train in the world ran from Stockton to Darlington in England in 1825 with a steam engine designed by Stephenson. This was a goods train and passenger trains were introduced in England in 1830. A large number of railway companies came up to meet the demands for rail travel in England.
Very soon , the railways in England reached a saturation level and the companies looked forward to invest in other British colonies. India, being the jewel in the crown, was a favourite destination. The railways in India was made possible by Lord Dalhousie, the Governor general of India from 1847. With his initiative, two companies were formed. The first was the East Indian Railway (EIR) and the second was the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIP). GIP Railway ran the first train in India on 16th April 1853 from Boribunder to Thane, a suburb in Bombay. There was a rapid expansion of railway network in India, which at that time consisted of the present India, Pakistan , Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma).
In Assam, the first train was made possible by the Assam Railway Trading Company which was set up in 1881. When Assam came under the British Rule , it possessed four great assets - land , rivers , forests and minerals, all awaiting development. In 1834 a committee set up by the Governor General found that the tea plant was indigenous to Assam which led to the formation of a number of Tea Companies. In 1848 East India Company provided steamers to ply between Calcutta and Guwahati. Later, the India General Navigation Company introduced regular services between Calcutta and Assam Valley . However, Upper Assam was not connected by rail or road to the rest of the country. Before the establishment of the Railways the journey from Dibrugarh to Calcutta took about 20 days.
The name of John Berry White, Civil Surgeon of Upper Assam is familiar to Medical students of Assam as the founder of the Berry White Medical School, Dibrugarh (now known as Assam Medical College & Hospital ). It is, however, not so well known that he played a prominent part in the early development of Upper Assam's mineral resources and railways.
Apart from taking part the development of tea, coal and oil, Dr. White had also campaigned in 1878 for construction of a railway line. He and his friends had issued a prospectus on 4th Dec, 1879 inviting application for shares in the Assam Railway Company Limited. Unfortunately, the plan had to be abandoned due to poor response. However, shortly thereafter action was initiated for formation of Assam Railways and Trading (ART) Company Limited which was incorporated on 30-7-1881, with Dr. White as one of the directors.
The construction work on the Dibru-Sadia Railway was started in the same year and on 15th August, 1882 the line was opened for goods traffic from Dibrugarh to Dinjan river. The train started from the terminus on the Bramhaputra, known as Mohono Mukh, the steamer ghat during dry season about 5 miles from Dibrugarh.
It was extended to Chabua on 23rd December , 1882. The line to Makum Junction , about 40 miles from steamer ghat of Dibrugarh was opened for passenger traffic on 16th July 1883. The great day was however on 18th Feb 1884 when the official opening of the Coal field took place and a special train was run from Dibrugarh to Margherita. This signified the successful completion of Dibru- Sadia Railway. The special train left Dibrugarh shortly after 7 A.M. with about 400 people of all communities on board, including a detachment of the Lakhimpur Volunteers and the band of the 42nd Assam Light Infantry.
After leaving Makum Junction at 10-30 A.M., the Dehing Bridge was reached at 12-30 P.M. Since the bridge was made of timber at that time, it was not ready for the locomotive. The carriages were hand-shunted one by one across the bridge to Margherita. A special coal train was sent off. The train started its return journey from Dehing bridge at about 6.00 P.M. and reached Dibrugarh at 12.15 A.M. depositing its passengers at the various gardens en route.
From this small beginning the railways in Upper Assam have come a long way. Oil was struck in Digboy in 1889 leading to the formation of Assam oil Company. A number of saw mills , brick works, tea companies and plywood factories were set up in the succeeding years since they were assured of fast movement. By April 1997 the entire region will have BG lines thus linking Upper Assam directly with the rest of India. Apart fom Kamrup express and Brahmaputra Mail, which will run directly from Dibrugarh to Howrah and Delhi respectively, there will also be an Inter-city express connecting Tinsukia / Dibrugarh with Guwahati. The region is poised for great development as it is expected that super fast trains for passengers and containers for goods will also be touching the region shortly.
The steam engines also known as Black Beauty have been the mainstay of the railways for a long time. However , the march of technology cannot be stopped and it is with great regret that the railways and the people of this region will bid farewell to the last steam engine scheduled to run between Dibrugarh and Tinsukia on 21st February 1997
Note : Subsequent to the publication of this article , Brahmaputra Mail on BG was inaugurated by Shri I.K. Gujral, Prime Minister of India on 19th May 1997. Kamrup Express and Inter-city Express to Guwahati were introduced in July 1997 ; Rajdhani Express was extended from Guahati to Dibrugarh (once a week) in January 1998. The first goods train on BG was despatched on 24th April 1997, when a POL rake was loaded by IOC at Tinsukia and sent to Rajkot.