India to scrap its narrow gauge train lines

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The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, also known as the Toy Train, is a narrow gauge railway that runs between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling in the state of West Bengal. Photo: iStock

The Indian government is set to scrap many of the country’s vintage narrow gauge and meter gauge railway lines.

Indian Railways last month began work on uprooting its second oldest rail line – the 18 kilometer long Dabhoi-Chandod line in the western state of Gujarat.

If Indian Railways (IR) has its way, these astonishingly scenic sights will be lost to future generations: Small trains trundling along at slow speeds in India’s countryside on what are known as “branch lines,” arterial routes connecting IR’s main network.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (East India), the Kalka-Simla line (North India) or the Nilgiri Mountain Rail (Southern India) are well-known as part of the country’s heritage. All are designated UNESCO Heritage Sights. Despite plans by India’s railways administration to modernize the network, some stretches of these small rail lines have survived.

Railway authorities have not tried showcasing these as heritage properties and promoting them for tourism. Instead, it has decided to uproot some of the narrow and meter gauge lines and connect the routes with the country’s main 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.

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