Here's how Central Railway's 'out-of-the-box-idea' derailed Matheran toy train

Updated: Jan 06, 2019, 15:23 IST | Rajendra B. Aklekar | Mumbai

Why has the 111-year-old toy train gone off track five times in eight months? As conspiracy theories abound, founder Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy's grandson says change in design to blame

Matheran Hill Railway
Matheran Hill Railway

The bulb curve is one of the safest and time-tested methods of turning a train at a terminus station. It is named so, because it is laid out in the shape of a bulb and helps a train move slowly and turn in the opposite direction. On December 31, 2018, as the empty six-car toy train on the UNESCO-recognised Matheran Hill Railway (tentative list) was negotiating one such curve at Matheran station — readying itself for a return trip to Neral, around 3.15 pm — a freak accident alarmed locals. The Matheran train had derailed again, and this time, during the peak holiday season on New Year's Eve.

Mumbai: Matheran Bound Train Derails; Passengers Raise Safety Questions

The over century-old iconic toy train has been in the news for the wrong reasons, for the last few years. In 2016, services were suspended after the train suffered several bouts of derailment. The coaches were then upgraded, and opened to public in December 2017. Since then, the train has derailed five times, raising many red flags regarding passenger safety. While Central Railway (CR), which has been blamed for the shoddy restoration work of the toy train, continues to be at the heart of this controversy, locals feel that there are many other spokes in this wheel too.

The old design with a box-type rail car
The old design with a box-type rail car

Conspiracy theories
Tourist Rasik Shah feels that the transport mafia could have a role to play in the derailments. Around 700 to 800 tourist travel between Neral and Aman Lodge station — the point till which motorised vehicles are allowed — daily. For many locals, plying tourist vehicles is the only source of income. "They [transport mafia] previously burnt down a state bus," said Shah, referring to a 2008 incident, where a Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) mini bus was mysteriously ambushed, stoned and burnt.

But, Sunil Shinde, former president of the local transport body, and a long-time resident of Matheran, denied the charge. He feels that the incidents of derailment went up after services of the toy train were increased. The train currently does 22 trips daily, and carries around 3,500 passengers. "The Railways should not come under pressure from locals to increase services of the train. It needs to be preserved, as it is unique," Shinde added.

On December 31, 2018, the toy train toppled while negotiating a bulb curve
On December 31, 2018, the toy train toppled while negotiating a bulb curve

Hussain Peerbhoy, the grandson of Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy, who built the Matheran Railway line as a family enterprise more than a century ago, has another theory about the recent derailments. "We suspect that the Railways compromised with the original design of the rail car. If you see the old rail coaches (preserved at the National Rail Museum in New Delhi) and compare them with the newer coaches, the Railways seem to have upgraded them to a wrong design. Our grandfather had meticulously drawn every specification of the railway line, including the tracks, wheels and the design of the rail car. It was because of this, that the train never had a single accident in hundred years.

But now that CR has changed the original design of the seats in the rail car, the centre of gravity and balance of the rail coach has been lost." According to Hussain, the old design had a box-type rail car with a fixed row of horizontal seats on either side and a small door in the centre. "This symmetry also limited people's movement. The new coaches are wider with bus-type seat rows allowing free movement of passengers that makes the rail car lose balance," he said. Meanwhile, employees at the Neral workshop, where the train is maintained, said that there is no proper equipment and machinery to fix the train parts. The employees are planning to stage a protest next week.

At Matheran station
At Matheran station

The Railway's side
CR, however, said that the various conspiracy theories are not true. "After the latest spate of derailments, CR has initiated a probe and is also working on studying the technical aspects of the train. A team from Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO), which is the technical consultant for the Indian Railways, will be coming to Matheran soon, to probe the technical aspects of the frequent derailments. We are also training staff and improving the working condition of the line," said Sunil Udasi, CR's chief public relations officer.

Despite facing losses, CR had invested around R18 crore on upgrading the line; new locomotives were also being manufactured at the Parel workshop to improve services. An official said that CR has put gabion walls [a retaining wall stacked with stones] and also upgraded the old locomotive with digitised controls to double the train's horse power — from 306HP to 650 HP. The train has also been equipped with air brakes, replacing the earlier hand-operated brakes. "The multi-disciplinary team of RDSO officials will conduct a comprehensive technical audit of the section to analyse the operational/technical issues. The various issues identified for audit include rail coaches, locomotives and tracks," Udasi added.

Sunil Shinde
Sunil Shinde

What next?
According to Manoj Khedkar, former president of the Matheran Hill Station Municipal Council, the unreliability of the train service has not just affected tourists, but the livelihood of locals, too. "The train was shut in 2005, and then again in 2016. We need something more dependable. Since Matheran is an eco-sensitive zone, we citizens have come up with a proposal for e-rickshaws. They are safe, and aren't an environment hazard and will be a faster option for commute. The e-rickshaw proposal will not just help tourists, but also help in the transport of utilities like gas cylinders, which are presently plied in a very unreliable way by horses," said Khedkar.

The other option, he said, was that the Maharashtra government revive the plan to open a funicular railway. A funicular railway is a cable railway in which a cable is attached to a pair of tram-like vehicles on rails, moving them up and down a steep slope. "It is the safest mode of mass transport, given the failure of the toy train. A report was prepared and studied by the Indian Railways' consultancy organisation, RITES, over a decade ago and they had approved it for Matheran, but it's caught in red-tape," he added.

The current no. of services that the train runs per day. It was 18 till a few years ago

The train pioneer
The Matheran Hill Railway came up as a private venture of the Peerbhoy family. The construction of the line began in 1904, and was finally opened to traffic on March 22, 1907. It still maintains most of its original layout. The train trundles at a very low speed of 13 kmph and has a gauge of only two feet.

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