How Floods in North Bihar Disrupted Rail Operations Over 120 Years – Part 1

Flood situation in Bihar this year

Dealing with floods has been an integral part of railways’ operations, ever since railways came into North Bihar.

The railway network north of the Ganga lying between the Gandak and the Kosi rivers was first under Tirhut State Railway from 1875 to 1890. After July 1890, it was taken over by the Bengal and North Western Railway Company. Floods occurred frequently.

Bengal and North Western Railway (B&NW) had plans to lay an 85-mile long extension line between Bairagnia, Bettiah and Bagaha. However, in 1898, they had to revise plans and estimates as the floods of 1897 showed that more water-way was required than was originally provided for.

As a result, the branch was opened for traffic on March 1899. The reason: A spill opening of 20 arches of 12 feet, north of the Sikrana river, was destroyed in the 1897 floods. A deep channel was scoured in the river bed at the Sikrana bridges (9 spans of 80 feet) by this flood. Moreover, the line was badly breached in several other places.

The Sagauli-Raxaul railway line was closed during the rains due to the breaches and damage to bridges done by the floods of September 1898. The line was re-opened for traffic on diversions on October 23, 1899.

Bihar Floods – 1899

In Bihar, inundation was rampant every other monsoon thanks to the flooding of rivers flowing in from Nepal. The year 1899 was no different.

The first case happened on the Tirhoot section of the B&NW Railway, near the Kurhani railway station between Hajipur and Muzaffarpur in July.

The ground support of a new formed bank at one of the new rail bridges near Kurhani was lost (called land subsidence) affecting goods traffic for some days.

During the same time and again in August end, traffic was interrupted between Samastipur and Simaria Ghat due to breaches in the diversion near Bachhwara railway station.

Here, the main embankment was being raised and a new bridge of 15 spans of 12 feet was being constructed.

Raising of banks and construction of bridges

Banks were raised and several new bridges were constructed between Hajipur and Bettiah. This was in addition to the raising of the formation at places where floods had over-topped the formation. As a result, the height of all existing bridges was also raised.

B&NW could not work the dry weather ghat at Simaria due to the formation of sand banks in front of the station. Hence the line had to be extended to Nepania ghat – a place where sufficient water was available for steamers to cross over to Mokama on the other bank of the Ganga.

Bihar Floods in the 20th Century

By the year 1902, the B&NW was directly connected by railway to other parts of India at only 3 places- Burhwal, Benares and Katihar.

At all other places, the communication was interrupted by rivers especially the Ganga.

To cross the Ganga, East Indian Railway (EIR) ran steam ferries between Ghazipur- Tarighat and Pahlezaghat -Digha Ghat. Wagon ferries were run between Simaria Ghat -Mokama Ghat and Bararighat and Bhagalpur Ghat.

Eventually a branch line between Bhagalpur Ghat and the East Indian railway at Bhagalpur was constructed to connect the B&NW and the EIR via the Bhagalpur ferry.

Between Ajodhya Ghat and Ajodhya on the Sarayu river, a bridge of boats connected the railways on either bank. A steam ferry was run during the monsoons.

In 1906, floods in August damaged tracks and bridges disrupting traffic for five weeks between Samastipur – Darbhanga and Muzaffarpur- Samastipur. On the Sitamarhi branch between Kamtaul and Jogiara, traffic was suspended from August 14 to September 24.

Floods again wreaked havoc in the 1920s. In the August of 1923, villagers cut the banks of the Ganga at six places to save their villages from flooding. As a result, the Dighwara-Sonpur line was closed for four weeks starting August 20 on the B&NWR.

The Bagaha-Narkatiaganj section was breached in September leading to line closure for three weeks. Four bridges were washed away and several trains were stranded at stations on the lines breached.

Gandak Bridge between Bagaha- and Chhitauni

In 1924, the river Gandak, notorious for frequently changing its course washed away one of the piers of the metre gauge bridge between Bagaha and Chhitauni. The bridge had lasted only for 12 years. The British government did not restore the bridge to check freedom fighters from traveling easily between UP and Bihar.

When the question of why the bridge had not been re-built for over 50 years was posed to the then Member Engineering Indian Railways in 1978-79 by the Public Accounts Committee of the sixth Lok Sabha, he said “Restoring the bridge was a difficult question because the river had changed its course. Some attempt was made to bring the river through the bridge but ultimately in 1940 they just shelved it. Central Water and Power Research Institute, Poona felt that it was not worthwhile constructing a bridge there.”

To this, the then Chairman Railway Board added “Unless the river was tamed, it was felt that it was not worthwhile building the bridge.”

 Finally the decision to rebuild was taken by George Fernandes and the works completed in 1996. Gauge conversion happened within two years.

Other major instances of Bihar floods during the British Raj

On August 2, 1926, villagers cut the embankments between Khadda and Chhitauni stations and a breach 180 feet wide was found. This halted rail traffic beyond Khadda. Normalcy was restored on September 3 after a diversion around the breach was opened.

Finally in the mid-1930s between August 23 and August 31, 1934, the Ganga, Ghaghara and Sone rose simultaneously breaching the rail line at several places between Sonpur and Chapra.

The breach occurred between Goldinganj and Dighwara at seven different locations. Between Dighwara and Sonpur, villagers cut embankments at eight places despite the permanent way staff and the police patrol trying to prevent them from doing so.

 A few other sections of the line was also breached during that period and train services were suspended over the various sections between 10 days to about three months.

 End of Part 1

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About the Author: Raghavendra Rao

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