DHAKA (Reuters) - Passenger trains began rolling between Bangladesh and India on Monday, resuming a service suspended more than four decades ago due to a war between India and Pakistan.
Amidst singing and dancing, the first “Maitree Express” left Dhaka for Kolkata in the morning with nearly 500 passengers.
Another specially painted train left Kolkata for Dhaka at almost at the same time, officials said.
“It is a journey down memory lane,” said Rangalal Chowdhury, 62, who left Bangladesh after passing school examinations, in Kolkata.
In Dhaka, senior officials and diplomats attended festivities at the decorated station to mark the maiden journey of the train service, which coincided with the Bengali New Year.
“I heard a lot about the train service from my parents. Now it is going to be resumed, so I never wanted to miss this opportunity. I am happy to be part of this historic moment,” said passenger Chowdhury Mainul Hasan.
Bangladesh, which became independent from Pakistan in 1971, was part of East Bengal before Indian partition in 1947 and its people share a common history, culture and language with those in the Indian state of West Bengal.
“It is a historic occasion and the beginning of a new era. It will strengthen the bonds between the two countries,” said Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, adviser for foreign affairs of Bangladesh’s army-backed interim government.
Thousands of people on both sides of the India-Bangladesh border have relatives on the other side, and many Bangladeshis also travel to Kolkata, capital of West Bengal, and other Indian cities to seek medical treatment, officials said.
“Now the visit to India by students, patients, businessmen and tourists will be cheaper and easier,” an official said.
Before the rail service, most people travelled by bus between the two countries.
“It’s a historic moment for both the nations,” Pranab Mukherjee, India’s external affairs minister, said after sounding a horn to start the journey of the train from Kolkata.
With one-way tickets starting from $8 (to $20), the service is expected to strengthen ties between the people of both the nations, Mukherjee said.
The passenger train service between India and Bangladesh was suspended after a war between India and Pakistan in 1965, when Bangladesh was the eastern province of Pakistan.
Officials said around six hours would be taken up by customs and immigration formalities at the border stations in Bangladesh and in India, meaning the 500 km journey would take 14 hours.
Initially, the train would make the trip twice a week, but its frequency would be raised, they said.
The first trip of the Maitree Express included a 56-member media delegation from Bangladesh and a host of enthusiastic passengers.
Bangladesh and India signed a deal on July 12, 2001, to resume a direct train service between Dhaka and Kolkata.
But the restart of the service was delayed by India’s insistence on the construction of a 150-metre security cage along the railway passage through a no-man’s land between both countries to ensure security and to stop smuggling or illegal migration.
Goods trains already run between the two countries.
Bangladesh annually imports about $2 billion worth of products from India, and earns nearly $400 million from exporting to that country, officials said.
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