THE NERAL-MATHERAN toy train that partly resumed operations on Monday had come up more than a century ago in response to the privileged treatment given to British officials who would be taken to the Matheran hill station from the base by Indian palanquin bearers, according to the Peerbhoy family that built the narrow gauge line.
As per the family, Abdul Hussain Peerbhoy, who oversaw the construction of the narrow gauge line with financial assistance from his father Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy, a business magnate and philanthropist, wanted Indians to also have access to the hill station and hence came up with the proposal for the 21-km line that became functional in 1907.
Ali Akbar Peerbhoy, the grandson of Abdul Hussain, told The Indian Express, “My grandfather often visited Matheran and several Indian leaders would accompany him for hunting expeditions. He would see Indians taking foreigners to the hill station in palanquins. The place was inaccessible to the lower class. He wanted the rail to take Indians to the hill station thereby making it accessible. It also made it easier for him to get there.”
In 1901, Peerbhoy wrote to the Secretary of State in India with the proposal to set up the railway line. Peerbhoy was, however, told that the British government could not award the contact to an individual and that it was bound to fail. The family, however, was ready to put in the monetary investment. “In spite of being warned by top officials that the project was bound to fail, permission was granted for the Neral-Matheran light railway and it became operational in 1907. The total cost for the two-foot gauge line was Rs 16 lakh. To put things in context, back then a tola (11 grams) of gold was worth Rs 16,” Ali Akbar said.
The first toy train was hauled by engine 7-38. Abdul Hussain visited Germany where he purchased a special narrow-gauge steam engine from Orenstein and Koppel. These special locomotives weighing about 7.5 tonnes ran from 1907 to 1982 and were phased out in 1983. Of the four engines, one was sold to a museum in London, another is kept at the Delhi museum. The two others are kept in Neral and Matheran.
For the past seventeen months, the toy train had been stopped following two successive derailments. On Monday, the heritage train started partial operations on a 2.5-km stretch between Matheran and Aman Lodge, and made 12 trips. Central Railway Public Relations Officers AK Singh said, “Barring this 17 months, the toy train has more or less been operational continuously.” A railway historian said that the trains have faced some problems during rains when the services have been discontinued for some time but there has never been such a big delay in the past.
Ali Akbar, who is also locked in a court battle with the railways over the land on which the toy train came up, says he is also fighting for the name of the Matheran railway station to be changed to Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy railway station. He says, “The Aman Lodge station on the railway line was named after Aman Bai, who was the wife of Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy. We are now hoping that the main station should be named after its founder, who worked hard to set up the railway line,” Akbar said.