All Aboard! Taking a Toy Steam Train Ride from Neral To Matheran

On the world heritage day, which was celebrated on April 18, the inaugural run of the steam engine on the Aman lodge-Matheran rail line would be carried out. Now, book an Indian Railways’ two-coach steam locomotive for a round trip between Aman lodge and Matheran Railway stations. Tourists can book the entire two-coach steam locomotive at Rs 55,000. For a one-way ticket, one has to pay Rs 28,000.

MUMBAI: The tiny hill station of Matheran is a far cry from the peace and serenity that its British founder Hugh Poyntz Malet yearned for. In the 1850s, Indian Civil Service Officer Malet was the Thane collector and while camping below in the village of Chowk, he climbed up the hill-top to explore the region finding it lush green with clean air and water springs, an ideal spot for a vacation. In love with the place, he frequented it with friends and family. Soon, the then Governor of Bombay, Lord Elphinstone, visited the place to make it as a site for his bungalow (still known as Elphinstone Lodge). The rest is history.

Today, over 160 years later, Matheran has lost much of its peace to commercialisation, but it retains some of its charm and character. It remains an eco-sensitive zone with no motorised vehicles, allowing only for horse rides, carts and cycle rickshaws. Though paver blocks have surfaced much of the red soil is intact, and it remains a quick getaway from fast-paced Mumbai.

Track record

The journey is fun if you are in a group as it takes just about two hours for the entire ride. Reach Neral on the Mumbai-Pune line and the Matheran narrow gauge train station is adjacent to it. The station and the line are well maintained and are in the tentative UNESCO World Heritage List. Tickets are available on the spot with no prior or on-line bookings due to its limited capacity. The Central Railway runs about 102 services every week (see box). With a width of two feet, it is one of India’s narrowest running passenger railways, and is similar to the Darjeeling Hill Railway.

After booking our tickets, we settle down in our seats. We note that ticket checkers are quite strict. As the mini train pulls out, the initial stretch runs parallel to the Karjat railway line and we spot the local trains pass by, but a sharp right and a steep climb runs the train between two hillocks and the spirals begin. The railway line that was built as a private venture of the Peerbhoy family between 1901 and 1907 still maintains most of its original layout, except for a few stretches. The line winds around the mountain in spirals taking us 2,625 feet above sea level!

High on geography

The train chugs along slowly, at only 13 kmph. The first station is after a distance of 4.8km called Jummapatti. Here, the road that had vanished meets the rail again and we spot motor vehicles speeding by. The line operates on the old token signalling system and the train comes for a brief halt here. Steam trains ran on the stretch till the early 1980s; these were replaced with diesel locomotives in 1984. As the train proceeds, there are three stretches, where we spot our train as it zigzags the curves to avoid reversing points.

The next station is Water Pipe Road, called so due to its proximity to the twin metal water pipes that make their way to the station. It’s another place where tokens are exchanged. During the journey, the rail intersects the road at several places. A little ahead, we enter the One-Kiss Tunnel, popularly named so because it gives a couple time for just a kiss! The entire line has over 121 bridges (mostly minor), 221 curves and only one tunnel. As the train reaches the next station Aman Lodge, we spot tourists walking along the train and more crowds.

This is the closest station to Dasturi Point till where motor vehicles are allowed. The railways have a number of special trains to cater to this crowd as beyond this point besides the train, only horse carriages, cycle rickshaws and carts are allowed. After we cross Aman Lodge, we reach Matheran in 20 minutes, and as we alight, the locomotive goes ahead in a spiral loop to make way for the return journey.

WHAT TO SEE

Located in the Sahyadris at 2,625 feet above sea level, Matheran has 38 points, including a lake. Panorama Point provides a 360-degree view of the surroundings and Neral, Charlotte Lake and Celia Point offer nice views of the dam. Echo Point, is a must-visit too.

While in Matheran

The marketplace on the main street is ideal for knick-knacks, curios and food items like chikki and fudge. Phone network works well in the market, but weaken elsewhere.

Villagers are co-operative but remember that Matheran has inadequate medical facilities.

Remembering a legacy

“The story of the Matheran railway is intriguing. By the turn of the century, the hill resort became popular during summer vacation. Once, after arriving from Mumbai to Neral, Sir Adamji was unable to reach Matheran as no horses were available throughout the day due to the heavy rush. He returned with the thought that of improving things and came up with an idea of a small railway to connect uphill. It was the fastest available mode of transport and he was ready to fund it. This historic decision changed the destiny of the hill station. The next time he visited Matheran was only after his own railway was built,” recalls Ali Akbar Adamjee Peerbhoy (inset), second great-grandson of Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy. His forefather built the line as a family enterprise over a century ago.

Toy train schedule

Monday: 17 services Tuesday to Thursday: 14 services Fridays: 21 services Weekends: 22 services
COST 1st class (adult): R300, 2nd 2nd class (adult):Rs 75. NOTE: Bookingsare done only at Neral station

Travel by road

If you prefer to drive down by the road, set your phone map to Dasturi Naka, the entry point into Matheran. It’s until here that motorised vehicles are allowed. It has ample parking space. From Dasturi Point, you can either walk up to Matheran — it’s a 20-minute trail — or opt for cycle rickshaws, horse rides or the train. The Aman Lodge station is next to the Dasturi Point car park. The services between Aman Lodge and Matheran is frequent and is a 10-minute-long-journey.

Rs 55k

The cash you will have to shell out if you wish to book an entire train with its steam engine!

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