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Maitree Express: The Friendship Train Between India and Bangladesh

Grand Opening of Maitree Express II – traveling from Khulna to Kolkata. Screenshot from YouTube Video by user BDRailFan. April 8, 2017

By reinstating two railway routes from the British colonial era, India and Bangladesh are hoping for increased friendship and peace between its citizens. The Maitree Express, which started operations nine years ago, is slowly winning the hearts and minds of travelers by providing affordable and regular transport between the two countries.

How political divisions affected the railway

Bengal is a large geopolitical area in the Indian sub-continent; with more than 250 million Bengalis, it is one of the densely populated regions of the world, united by language and culture, but divided by religion. The first blow was the partition of Bengal in 1905, announced by the British colonial rulers, which separated the largely Muslim eastern areas from the largely Hindu western areas. Bengal was reunited in 1911, but Hindus and Muslims soon began to demand the creation of two independent states inside Bengal.

Map showing the location of East Bengal and West Bengal. Image by Goran via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1947, Bengal received its fatal blow: it was divided in two countries, India and Pakistan, solely on religious grounds, as part of the Partition of India. West Bengal remained under India and East Bengal became East Pakistan, which was liberated from Pakistan in 1971 and became Bangladesh.

Before the partition of India in 1947, regular passenger services used to connect Kolkata (Calcutta) to cities like Khulna and Jessore in East Bengal, as part of the Eastern Bengal Railway. After the partition, the railway suffered greatly — visa restrictions were introduced, and the lack of border stations with proper customs and immigration facilities led to the shutdown of services. The remaining train services between India and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) were suspended during the 1965 India-Pakistan War. Expensive air travel and limited bus services were the only means of transport between the two Bengals ever since.

A gesture of friendship

After four decades, the Maitree Express I was launched on April 14, 2008, following years of negotiation between India and Bangladesh. Maitree means Friendship, denoting the significance of this train service to the foreign relations between both countries:

The service started running twice a week, with a travel time of 13 hours, including two stops at the Gede and Darshana border stations for immigration and customs formalities. Now, the train operates with air conditioned coaches six times a week from both sides, with a travel time of 11-12 hours for about 450 kms of tracks. (This Facebook page gives updates of the train service.)

The price of the AC First Class ticket from Dhaka-Kolkata (or Kolkata-Dhaka) is about US $27 and the AC Chair Coach is approximately US $17 (inclusive of Value Added Tax and other taxes). This is much cheaper than a typical economy class airfare between these two cities, which costs around US $100 for a one-hour flight.

To meet the growing demand, a second train (the Maitree Express II) was inaugurated in April 2017, connecting Kolkata with the Bangladeshi city of Khulna, thereby reinstating the historical Barisal Express route. The 176 km-long train journey includes 96 km on the Bangladesh side.

“Pleasing chills of joy”

Because the Maitree Express unites people from the two Bengals, a lot of emotions are involved. Affordable transportation has proven it has the power to unite people from both countries, and give them the opportunity to visit their ancestral lands and meet friends and family on the other side of the border. On Facebook, Bangladeshi journalist Fazlul Bari shared one such experience in a train station in West Bengal, describing a woman who migrated from Bangladesh when she was in her teens:

স্টেশনে বসে যখন লোকাল ট্রেনের জন্য অপেক্ষা করছিল তখন একটা ঘোষনা এলো ‘’দুই নম্বর প্লাটফর্ম থেকে একটা ট্রেন সোজা চলে যাবে দয়া করে নিরাপদ দূরত্বে সোরে দাঁড়ান ‘’। তখন দেখে ট্রেনটা ‘ মৈত্রী এক্সপ্রেস ‘ কলকাতা টু ঢাকা বাংলাদেশ লেখা আর ট্রেনের গায়ে লাল সবুজ বর্ডার টানা। ট্রেনটা ২-৩ মিনিট মত দাড়িয়ে ছিল। [..]

সঞ্চিতা বলল এটা দেখে মুহূর্তের মধ্যে যেন তার ভেতরটায় এক অজানা, স্নিগ্ধ, মনোরম, অনাবিল, আনন্দের ঢেউ খেলে গেল! দিশা তাকে কিছু একটা জিজ্ঞেস করতে চেয়েছিল। ও তখন দিশা কে থামিয়ে দিয়ে ওর কানের কাছে মুখ নিয়ে বলতে লাগলো ‘’দিশা, দেখ! এটা আমার দেশের ট্রেন। এই ট্রেনে আমার দেশের লোক রয়েছে। সেই দেশ যেখানে আমি জন্মেছি , বড় হয়েছি। যে দেশ নিজেকে চিনতে শিখিয়েছে। নিজেকে , নিজের দেশকে, দেশের মানুষকে , ভালবাসতে শিখিয়েছে। আমাকে অনুভূতি দিয়েছে , অনুভব করার শক্তি যুগিয়েছে । এই ট্রেনে যারা আছে তাদের হয়তো আমি চিনিনা কিন্তু এরা তো আমার সেই চেনা দেশের লোক। সেই চেনা দেশেই থাকে । তাই এরা ও আমার আপনজন। এদের একটু প্রাণ ভরে দেখতে দে’’।

She was waiting in the station for a local train and there was an announcement on the loudspeaker: ‘Maitree Express will travel through Platform 2, please keep a safe distance.’ She looks at the train marked ‘Kolkata to Dhaka, Bangladesh’ and there are red and green borders on the coaches. The train stopped only for 2-3 minutes. […]

Sanchita said she felt an unknown, smooth, pretty, peaceful and pleasing chill of joy inside her body watching the train. Her daughter Disha was going to ask something. Sanchita stopped her and said: ‘Disha, look, this is a train from my country. Inside it are people from my country, where I was born and raised. The country which enabled me to discover myself and express love for my country and people. It enabled me to feel and gave me the power to feel for it. I may not know the passengers of this train but they are from the country I know. So they are close to me. Please let me watch them for a bit.’

MD Arif Hossain lamented on Facebook about his hobby of keeping the train window open to watch outside:

পহেলা বৈশাখ থেকে শুরু হয়েছে মৈত্রী এক্সপ্রেস এর ফুল এসি ট্রেন। আমার মতো ভ্রমণ পাগল মানুষের জন্য মনে হয় একটু সমস্যাই হয়ে গেল।
এসি বগির জানালার কাঁচের ভেতর থেকে প্রকৃতি দেখা আর টেলিভিশনের সামনে বসে প্রকৃতি দেখা একই ব্যাপার, দুটোই খুব দূরের মনে হয়

The Maitree Express trains are now fully air conditioned since this Bengali new year (April 14). I think this will be a problem for travel enthusiasts like me.

To watch the scenarios of nature through the glass window of an air conditioned coach is like watching a television screen. Both seem unnatural.

On various social media channels, some people have been sharing their experience of taking the Maitree Express or trainspotting. A Rahman Atik shared a vlog on YouTube about his experience of traveling from Dhaka to Kolkata on the Maitree Express:

The Maitree Express will soon be inaugurating a non-stop service — passengers will be allowed to complete immigration and customs services at their point of departure, allowing for a comfortable and hassle-free journey, and reducing travel time from 12 hours to six or seven.

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