The iconic mini train at Matheran hill station near Mumbai is likely to resume operations by the end of this year, over three years after its services were suspended following extensive damage to its narrow gauge rail tracks due to heavy rains.
Once this more than a century old heritage train starts chugging again after the restoration work worth Rs five crore gets over, travelling by it will be safer and more comfortable as compared to the pre-2019 period, officials of the Central Railway (CR) said.
The 20-km long narrow gauge Neral-Matheran train came to a grinding halt three years back as the railway line was severely damaged due to torrential rains and landslides.
The train is currently operational only between two stations - Matheran and Aman Lodge - out of the total five stations. Between Neral and Aman Lodge, there are two stations named Jummapatti and Water Pipe.
The officials said that the CR has undertaken track renewal and other related work, which is expected to get over by the end of this year. The Neral-Matheran line was built in 1907 as a family enterprise of the Peerbhoys and is now in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) tentative list of World Heritage Sites.
This toy train is one of the major attractions among the tourists, especially children, visiting Matheran hill station, located about 100 km from here in Raigad district. Apart from carrying passengers, the train helps the local residents in ferrying essential items and other things.
The track renewal work includes replacing old rails with new ones, changing the earlier steel, iron and wooden sleepers with the concrete ones, installing anti-crash barriers, erecting gabion walls and building drains, among others, they said.
According to the CR, it has already installed cement sleepers on the nearly 12 km stretch of the route. Matheran hill station is located at an elevation of around 2,600 feet above sea level.
Since the train passes through a ghat (hilly) section having some sharp curves, the railway authorities are also installing new anti-crash barriers at dangerous spots overlooking the deep valley.
To avoid damage to tracks during monsoon, the CR has been building drains along the route in some sections, erecting gabion walls at certain locations, and bolting rocks at some places to prevent landslides.
According to the officials, the estimated cost of the work is around Rs five crore. “The Neral-Matheran track renewal and other safety work will help make travel safer, more comfortable and better. The work is expected to be completed by the end of the year,” Shivaji Sutar, chief public relations officer of the CR, said.
The officials said that during the 2019 monsoon, the railway line was severely damaged and got breached at more than 20 locations. At a few spots, the tracks loosened up and even started hanging out as the embankment under it got washed away.
Sutar said that replacement of sleepers and rails will improve the train ride experience as passengers won't feel the bumps. Anti-crash barriers will make journeys safer, he said. A small stretch between Aman Lodge and Matheran was restored in December 2019 and has been functional since then.
In normal course, tourists can reach Matheran either using this train or by road. Since the mini train service is currently shut between Neral and Aman Lodge stations, passengers have to rely on either cabs or private vehicles to reach the hill station.
But vehicles are allowed only up to Dasturi Naka, the entry point of Matheran, and only ambulances have permission to proceed further. In the absence of the mini train service till Matheran, tourists as well as local residents have to shell out a hefty amount for the road journey.
Moreover, after reaching Dasturi Naka, they have to either walk or hire a horse ride or hand cart to go to their desired destination in Matheran. In this situation, carrying luggage becomes a tough task.
So the mini train is the only mode of transport that takes tourists till Matheran market from Neral village, and perhaps the most convenient one that also offers an enchanting view.
(With PTI inputs)