Saving Matheran rail difficult, need to rebuild bridges: German engineer

Updated: Nov 30, 2019, 07:31 IST | Rajendra B Aklekar | Mumbai

Mid-day caught up with the international expert on Friday. Dr Wingler believes only a mega-scale operation to rebuild bridges and embankments can restore it.

(Inset) Dr Frank August Wingler; Matheran's toy train. File pic
(Inset) Dr Frank August Wingler; Matheran's toy train. File pic

A Railroad expert from the German city of Leverkusen, Dr Frank August Wingler, 83, whose fascination of Matheran's 'baby trains' compelled him to pay a visit recently, was devastated to see the havoc this year's monsoon caused on the line.

The Light Railway line was washed away at 21 locations along the 21-km Neral-Matheran stretch. Dr Wingler, after voluntarily examining the trains and the line for over a week, opined that the toy train's long-term survival is doubtful. mid-day caught up with the international expert on Friday, just before he left for Germany. Dr Wingler, who also interacted with locals, believes that only a mega-scale operation to rebuild bridges and embankments — like the one being done on the Mumbai-Pune line — can restore it. This would require huge investment and initiative. On the other hand, there is also the option of converting a part of the line into an electric one to keep the supplies going.

Frank August Wingler
Frank August Wingler

The two-foot narrow gauge line was built in 1907 as a family enterprise of the Peerbhoys. It is in UNESCO's tentative list of Mountain Railways of India. The line has been running intermittently since the turn of the century. It was restored in early 2019 but this year's heavy monsoon led to widespread damage. The Central Railway (CR) has promised to make the section between Matheran and Aman Lodge operative by December.

Dr Wingler though remained sceptical. "It may not be possible to run it that soon. Baby trains here need a big fix like the one being done at Bhor Ghat. This line was built as a light tramway and not a railway line like the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. The foundation of Matheran's rail tracks is weaker," he said. In January this year, Dr Wingler had shot off his findings to the CR, but by then, the railways had restored the line partially.

Dr Frank August Wingler
Dr Frank August Wingler

"The big gabions, the unanchored retaining walls and all other newly built infra have proved to be patchwork. The two locomotives and eight coaches are stranded. There is no access to the repair workshop-cum-running shed at Neral. It is not possible to get a workshop up in Matheran," he explained. On being asked what went wrong with a line that ran well for 100 years, Dr Wingler said climate and rainfall.

CR officials said they are working to restore the line. Outgoing CR Mumbai Divisional Manager SK Jain had said that one permanent solution is to build a bulb line at Aman Lodge to reverse trains. The proposal is with the state government for consideration as it requires some land. According to Jain, if this plan is put in place, the line would never have to be shut between Matheran and Aman Lodge, even during monsoon.

Dr Wingler has worked with the Sri Lankan Railways, has presented papers at Permanent Way Engineers conferences and has worked for consultants in the field of modern track technology. "We have to appreciate Dr Wingler's love for Matheran Railway. He came here, stayed with us and involved us in the discussions and offered key solutions. He had read my name in news reports and promptly remembered me," former president of Matheran Council, Manoj Khedkar said.

Hussain Peerbhoy, grandson of Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy, who built the line, said his family was thankful to Dr Frank. The Peerbhoys, had visited Germany during the inception of the line to buy engines from M/s Orenstein & Koppel, who built special locomotives to meet the needs of the Matheran Light Railway. "It was a gift worth millions of rupees for Central Railway. Something like this was unheard of in those days. Unfortunately, today the line is in shambles. The country's railway system cannot bring it back on its wheels. It is one of a kind and Matheran would lose its charm and beauty if it were to go," said Hussain.

Dr Winger's solutions

. Well-anchored retaining walls
. Hill-side bridges
. Stabilising track
. Drone surveys to stabilise/remove loose rocks by bolting
. Converting a small section into light electric railway
. Getting a locomotive in the middle of coaches for better brakes

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