Matheran rly chugs towards UNESCO!

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Matheran, Maharashtra, Dec 16: Fascinated with the scenic beauty of Matheran hill station, nestling in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra, a Mumbai-based architect stumbled upon an audacious idea of connecting the hilly terrain with a rail link. That was in 1900 AD.

When Abdul Hussain, the architect and son of a business tycoon Adamjee Peerbhoy, divulged his plan to his father, the latter reluctantly accepted it because of his son's passion for the project to be accomplished at an elevation of 800 meters above the sea level. It costed Sir Adamjee a princely sum of Rs 16 lakh in 1907, but the result was the spectacular Matheran Light Railway (MLR), a 20-km narrow gauge line from Neral to Matheran.

The first toy train, hauled by a steam engine, chugged on April 15 of that year, completing its journey without any difficulty. Nearly a hundred years later, the MLR is close to being inscribed on the UNESCO's World Heritage List and the Central Railway, which runs the train, seems very optimistic.

"The Matheran Light Railway has already been shortlisted by the UNESCO for its inclusion on the Heritage List. We have given the necessary documents to the UN body in this regard,'' Somya Raghvan, General Manager of Central Railways, told the journalists.

Ms Raghvan said a UNESCO team would soon visit to Matheran to evaluate and inspect MLR for necessary documentation. The team would submit its report to the UNESCO after inspecting the train, tracks and its surroundings during its stay in Matheran, she added.

However, it is not likely to happen before 2009. This is so because the UNESCO General Assembly scheduled to meet in Canada in July next year, will first take a final decision on declaring the 104-year-old Kalka-Shimla railway as world heritage site in 2008.

The UNESCO's heritage list consists three Indian railways -- Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the 'Toy Train' (1999), VT Station rechristened Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai (2004) and Nilgiri Mountain Railway (2005) in its list.

Besides, the Railways has also planned to push up the case of the Kangra Valley Railway (Joginder Nagar-Pathankot).

The Matheran hill station, 100-km from Mumbai, is one of the few places in the world where all mechanical vehicles are banned, making its ambient squeaky clean.

More importantly, Matheran, having a population of around 6,000, is solely based on the toy train, whose uniqueness draws tourists from both India and abroad. In particular, tourists from Germany, England and New Zealand come to Matheran in droves, just to enjoy the toy train ride.

Chugging at a leisurely speed not exceeding 16-km per hour, the train offers stunning views of enchanting dales and vales of the mountain area. The MLR has over 121 bridges (mostly minor), one tunnel, popularly known as 'One Kiss Tunnel', and 221 curves, the sharpest being 18.25m. There is a sign on one of the curves, which reads: "Ah, what a sharp curve".

Monkey point, Porcupine (sunset) point, Panorama point and Coronation point provide the most spectacular views from the train.

Matheran Station Master A K Srivastava said every day 350-400 tourists board the toy train but the number goes up during weekends.

On an average, around one lakh tourists enjoy the train ride every year.

''If the toy train disappears from Matheran, the township would also disappear from the map. Tourists from India and abroad come here mostly because of the heritage toy train,'' President of the Matheran Municipal Council Manoj Khedkar said.

Mr Khedkar also makes a strong case of a short railway shuttle service from Aman Lodge, a gateway to the main Matheran station.

"Since mechanical vehicles cannot ply inside Matheran, tourists face a number of problems in traversing the three km on a steep incline. A separate rail-bus service from Aman Lodge to Matheran would help tourists over this problem,'' he added.

His another suggestion is to add an extra coach in the toy train take ration and provisions from Neral to the hill station.

The hill town locals have petitioned the Railway Ministry to start a goods train between Matheran and Neral, drawing its attention to the logistical problems, they have to face while going to Neral for everything, including water and heavy goods.

"The train is the lifeline of Matheran. Any value addition to the train will boost tourism in the region,'' he said. Since the train sustains the socio-economic fabric of the region, it is only imperative that steps are taken to provide basic amenities to the local people, he added.

Matheran train chugged on April 15, 1907 with two steam locomotives built by Orenstein&Koppel, Germany, and hauled by a Darjeeling class steam engine. The steam engines, made in 1889, last ran on the route in 1952.

The mini train is now hauled by a diesel locomotive but the old coal fired mini steam engine is also there.


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