The last of the ‘old world’ railway lines will soon come to a halt in Gujarat, and with that the Western region of the country. The Ministry of Railways has given its consent to the Western Railway's request to discontinue the nine remaining narrow gauge railway lines in Gujarat. The reason: it’s become commercially unviable to keep them operational.
The list also includes two broad gauge lines, which were earlier narrow gauge tracks. Once the network of these narrow gauge lines is stopped, Matheran Hill railway will be the sole narrow gauge train functional in this part of the country, say railway enthusiasts.
The lines that are going to go defunct comprise Nadiad-Badran (60 kms), Kosamba-Umarpada (64.24 kms), Samlaya Junction-Timba Road (53.39 kms), Jhagadiya Junction-Netrang (27.06 kms), Chhuchhapura-Tankhala (38.20 kms), Billimora-Waghai, Choranda-Motikoral, Chota Udepur-Jambusar and Chadod-Malsar.
The railway network was set up by the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayyajirao Gaekwad III. According to news reports, the Railway Board in 2018 had mentioned preserving five narrow gauge rail lines – Dabhoi Miyagam (the country’s first narrow gauge line started in 1862, Miyagam-Malsar (38 kms), Charonda-Moti Karal (19 kms), Pratap Nagar-Jambusar (51 kms) and Billimora-Waghai lines. A month later, the Dhaboi-Miyagam line was closed down.
Once a cheap mode of last-mile transport that connected the hinterlands of the country, modernisation and alternate modes of travel have made this slow mode of transport redundant. “Most of these lines go through forest area and the Advasi belt. In some places, there are no proper roads and for some communities, these railway lines are the only connection to civilisation, so to speak,” says Shashanka Nanda, member of the Indian Railways Fan Club.
However, the trains are slow, rudimentary, and the population using it doesn’t make it worth sustaining. During the pandemic, almost all the narrow gauge trains (having track size ranging from 2 ft to 2 ft-6 inches) were stopped. Many are also in the midst of being converted into broad gauge (5 ft 6 inches) lines. According to the Indian Railway Fans Club website, there were 45 narrow gauge lines operational in 2007.
The Western Railway, formerly called the Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway, has inherited a large number of narrow gauge lines, spread mostly over Gujarat, says Rajendra B. Aklekar, journalist and author of A Short History of Indian Railways. “In those days, it was almost a race among rulers to have their own private lines. Not many countries have such varied lines, old rail operations technology and trains of different gauge," he says.
"It is a sad fact that the Indian Railways are systematically dismantling the glorious heritage without a second thought. It is a murder of its own heritage and legacy. England and other countries usually take pride in retaining live sections of such heritage lines,” adds Aklekar, a life member of Indian Steam Railway Society.
Also known as toy trains, as the coaches are much smaller in size, Nanda says except the Kalka-Shimla railway, Kangra Valley railway (Pathankot to Joginder Nagar), Darjeeling Himalayan railway and Matheran Hill Railway, all the other narrow gauge trains have been shut down or converted to broad gauge, or in the process of being so. “Nothing of these narrow gauge lines will remain by the end of 2021,” says the Delhi-based Nanda. The Nilgiri Mountain railway is a metre gauge railway train.
In August, the North Central railway closed the century-old two-foot-wide Gwalior-Sheopur railway line spanning 200 kms, one of the longest narrow gauge lines in the country. The line will be converted to broad gauge due to the increase in the number of passengers. The only functional narrow gauge line under South-East Central Railway, Itwari to Nagbhid (109 kms), close to Nagpur, was shut down last year. It is in the process of being converted to broad gauge.
“From economic and revenue standpoint, there is no argument that it doesn’t make sense to have narrow gauge trains. It’s only old world romantics like us, who want to persevere them. It’s a relic of the past, a throwback to the time that doesn’t exist anymore. We will lose a lot of our railway history,” he says.
Most of the narrow gauge railway lines pass through little-known villages. The lines in the hill towns brought little known parts of the country to prominence. Besides being a popular tourist attraction, the narrow gauge trains were also a fixture in Hindi cinema of a certain era. The most memorable example of it is in the 1969 movie Aradhna, where Sharmila Tagore is seen travelling in the narrow gauge Darjeeling Mountain railway.