Railway Ministry decides to preserve Narrow Gauge Railway built by Gaekwad Baroda State Railway

Originally, all the lines, which are in Gujarat and add up to 204 km, were owned by Gaekwad Baroda State Railway (GBSR). In India, the narrow gauge lines are 2 feet, 6 inches apart and on the other hand the broad gauge lines are 5 ft, 6 inches apart. So, engines, coaches, machinery and maintenance apparatus that are required for the narrow gauge network are different from the rest of BG network.

MUMBAI: Indian Railways to preserve five narrow gauge rail lines: Indian Railways has recently decided to preserve the five oldest, working narrow gauge lines dating back to the 19th century from complete extinction. These old narrow gauge lines are part of Asia’s largest narrow-gauge light railway system, according to a report. At present, commercially working narrow gauge lines are almost non-existent all over the world, apart from some hill railways in India. Originally, all the lines, which are in Gujarat and add up to 204 km, were owned by Gaekwad Baroda State Railway (GBSR). Recently, a letter was issued, which stated that the five narrow gauge lines would be preserved, the report said. Every day, almost two-three pairs of trains run on these lines with marginal footfalls, the report added.

Bullocks hauled train on 2 feet 6 inches wide 3 lbs rail connecting Dabhoi with Miagam

One of these lines, Dabhoi-Miyagam line, which is 33 km long was the nation’s first narrow gauge railway stretch. In 1862, the line started functioning when coaches were pulled by oxen as steam engines came into functioning, the following year. The owner of the GBSR, Maharaja of Baroda, developed a network of light railways, linking many towns across his state. However, another arm of the railway network, from Dabhoi, which is still the focal point of the narrow gauge lines network to Chandod, is also a part of the gauge conversion project.

As it still draws many foreign tourists every year, many policymakers at the Railway Ministry have been keen to preserve this key industrial heritage. The other lines are 38 km long Miyagam-Malsar line, 19 km long Charonda-Moti Karal line, 51 km long Pratap Nagar-Jambusar line and 63 km long Bilmora-Waghi line.

Railway Board Chairman Ashwani Lohani, along with the Financial Commissioner and Member (Engineering) of the Board took the decision to preserve GBSR. Therefore, the Railway Board has asked Western Railway, under which the lines fall, to make a detailed plan identifying the resources required to preserve the lines and also to develop them for promoting heritage railway tourism.

According to officials, at present, gauge conversion is happening on lines that have been unused for 15-20 years, unlike the five narrow gauge lines identified for preservation. The officials said that these five lines in Gujarat are more or less “island lines” as they connect far-flung areas, and gauge conversion will not significantly add to the connectivity value for the local population.

In India, the narrow gauge lines are 2 feet, 6 inches apart and on the other hand the broad gauge lines are 5 ft, 6 inches apart. So, engines, coaches, machinery and maintenance apparatus that are required for the narrow gauge network are different from the rest of the broad gauge network.

Lost rail heritage

In 1991 when IR launched its “Unigauge Policy” – a one broad gauge network for the entire country – India’s rail system consisted of 25,000 kilometers of meter gauge and approximately 6,000 kilometers of narrow gauge lines. Of those, only about 4,000 kilometers of meter gauge and about 2,000 kilometers of narrow gauge lines have survived. In a recent policy decision, the Railway Board decided to uproot all but half a dozen of the small lines and convert then to broad gauge tracks.

“There exists a big potential for developing these heritage lines for tourism purposes,” said Amit Chopra of a firm called Travel Pals. “Foreign clients have shown immense interest. In the past months, I had pitched in with proposals to run heritage trains on some of these routes, but the railways authorities have not responded.”

India’s record for preserving its railway heritage has been dismal. While the United Kingdom has preserved 1,000 kilometers of narrow gauge lines and has 100 steam locomotives in its inventory, the Indian Railways has lost three classic locomotives, called Sultan, Sahib and Sindh, which were the first steam engines that pulled the 14-carriage train on the inaugural runs from Mumbai to Thane in 1853.

The third-class compartments which Mahatma Gandhi traveled in across India to build up a movement against British rule at the beginning of the 20th century were long dismantled and sold off as scrap.

The hanging railway clocks, the caps, the uniforms of station masters and rail staff of pre-Independence India and the telephones used by them have all disappeared from IR’s inventory. Some has found its way into the flea markets of Delhi or Kolkata.

A mini steam loco numbered EIR-21 – called the sister of the Fairy Queen and the world’s oldest running steam locomotive – has been left sitting at the Perumbudur workshop for the last several years.

Preservation or cutting costs?

India’s railway authorities want to standardize the system across the entire country to provide faster mobility and operational efficiency, while state transporters will also cut their losses, as the need to maintain separate rolling stock or sheds for small trains will become unnecessary.

But these arguments have an inherent flaw. All the narrow gauge and meter gauge routes identified by IR to be uprooted have traditionally had an extremely low traffic density in past decades and their conversion to the standard gauge are unlikely to substantially ramp up rail revenues.

On the 200 kilometer Gwalior-Sheopur Kalan NG line – where upgrading work has been sanctioned – only one pair of trains has been run during the past several decades and traffic projections for the future are not optimistic, officials say.

Similarly, on the 51 kilometer narrow gauge route from Pratapnagar to Jamusar in Western Railways – also included in the budget for conversion – only two pairs of trains are being run on a daily basis. Also included in the budget for conversion is the 109.9 kilometer Nagbhir-Itwari narrow gauge line of the South East Central Railways.

India’s neighboring countries including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka operate their rail networks mainly on narrow gauge and meter gauge routes.

“The majority of these [government’s] decisions are political, as leaders want their constituents to know that they are engaged in developing and modernizing the rail network. But these decisions mostly prove [to be] counter-productive,” a railways official said.

The way forward

At an estimated rail conversion cost of US$1.03 million per kilometer, IR will spend a fortune to convert the lines.

“But there is little likelihood that the money invested can be recovered in the foreseeable future, as traffic on these routes is not projected to increase,” former Railway Board member Vinoo Mathur said, pointing to the example of the Sabarmati-Okha narrow gauge line which was converted to standard gauge more than a decade ago.

“After conversion, passenger traffic on the line has not increased,” Mathur pointed out. “For one-fourth [of] the conversion cost, the existing narrow gauge and meter gauge lines can be developed and promoted as heritage trains,” a railways official said.

J L Singh of the Steam Enthusiasts Society suggested that, rather than engaging in a drive to uproot small lines, IR should construct inter-change points through conveyor belts at junction points between the two smaller gauge lines, so as to provide for seamless travel.