Much excitement has been caused among those connected with the Railways by the imminent start of the new cross-border train between Kolkata and Khulna. Trial runs were held a few days ago and many videos can be seen on Youtube showing the train running at various places along the line to Bangaon and beyond. Here is an example:
The earlier Maitree Express, now running between Kolkata and Dhaka Cantt, follows a route in which much of the route in Bangladesh did not exist before Partition. There had been trains with names like the Dacca Mail which started from Sealdah and terminated at Goalundo Ghat, from where the passengers embarked on a ferry trip of several hours to Narayanganj on the outskirts of Dacca (as it was then spelt). By 2001 the Bangabandhu Bridge had been completed along with a connecting line to Dhaka. This provided a route from the Gede-Darsana border to Dhaka without a ferry crossing. More about that in another post.
This new service between Kolkata and Khulna revives a pre-partition train called the Barisal Express between Sealdah and Khulna which was running since at least the 1930s. In fact it was running for some time after Partition and was listed in the ER timetables of 1964. However, all cross-border services between India and East Pakistan ceased with the 1965 war.
In a Bradshaw dated February 1935, we see the 31 Barisal Express leaving Sealdah at 15.26 and arriving at Khulna at 20.45. It stopped at many places beyond the present border, though the main stoppages were Bongaon (16.47/16.55) and Jessore (17.59/18.02). The return train was the 30 Barisal Express which left Khulna at 05.45 and reached Sealdah at 10.10, with the main stops at Jessore (07.27/07.30) and Bongaon (08.34/08.42).
Here is an extract from a Bradshaw of June 1944, which is unfortunately not very legible as it has been photocopied many times.
Part of the first page has got cropped, although the full route from Khulna can be seen on the second page. The distance is shown as 110 miles or 177 km.
Another curiosity on these pages is the Khulna-Bagerhat Light Railway, which was to be the only narrow gauge line running in East Pakistan. It started from Rupsa East, across the river from Khulna and was not linked to the rest of the rail network. This line was converted to BG around 1970 but was closed a few years later as it was uneconomical.
From the above time table, you can see that Petrapole station did not exist then and the border crossed the line between Bongaon and Benapol. The station at Petrapole, like Gede, was built after Partition in order to provide a station closer to the new international border.
Running of limited goods and passenger trains across the border continued after Partition up to 1965, though there may have been interruptions. Those who have been following the Indian Railways since the 1960s may remember seeing BG wagons marked PE and PW, being the initials of the then Pakistan Eastern and Pakistan Western Railways.
Goods trains across Gede-Darsana and Petrapol-Benapol and (to a lesser extent) other crossing points were running for some time before the Maitree express between Kolkata and Dhaka started running in 2008. There are frequent EMU services between Sealdah and Bangaon (the present spelling), but no passenger train seems to have run to Petrapole since 1965 till the present. Goods trains would have crossed the border after formalities at this station.
In early 2008 I had traveled by road from Khulna to Benapol. The highway between Khulna and Jessore runs mainly adjacent to the rails. One could see a number of IR wagons from various zones stabled at the small stations on this route.
A Google maps reference for Petrapole and surrounding areas is given here. Those who are interested can trace the path to Khulna, which involves a sharp turn to the south at Jessore.
It can be seen that the main road crossing point is in the vicinity, though not very close to Petrapole and Benapol stations.
Here is the checkpoint for the existing Maitree Express at Kolkata station. Presumably the new train will also use it.
Getting details of stations functioning in Bangladesh at present is not very easy, particularly as no detailed timetable seems to have been published since the 1980s. If one is really interested one can refer to http://www.railwaystationlists.co.uk/pdfasia/bangladeshrlys.pdf although it does not seem to have information beyond the 80s. This is the best I can find, from a map published by a railfan around 2001. The mapmaker has tried to show every station which existed at that time.
Here is the best official map which I could find, which is dated 2013. It does not show every station.
While the route from Khulna to Jessore is part of the main line going to the north-western part of Bangladesh, the Jessore-Benapol section was quite neglected with a single pair of local trains between Khulna and Benapol. See train nos 53/54 near the bottom of this page:
This is a typical branch line train of Bangladesh, which you can see in this short clip:
Clearly the new service from Kolkata to Khulna will be a considerable improvement over the crowded EMUs on the Indian side and the neglected passenger train shown above.
Afterthoughts: If Partition had not occurred, there would almost certainly be an electrified double track and frequent EMUs between Khulna/Jessore and Sealdah.
A rail link to Barisal (now Barishal) via Bhanga will open in the 2020s.