Shortly after the rust-red train has pulled out of Karjan, a town in Vadodara district, it begins to slow down again. In the distance, a group of people are running towards it, cutting through green fields, flagging it down. The train, only four coaches long, slowly grinds to a halt.
It waits till the passengers walk up to the guard in one of the bogies, who hands out the Rs 10 tickets. And off it trundles again, with its cargo of housewives, peanut vendors and students. Life moves at a slow clip on the last of the five narrow gauge lines in the country — all of which began their life in 19th century Gujarat, and which the Indian Railways has decided to conserve. Every day, the Miyagam Karjan-Dabhoi train, for instance, runs from Karjan to the nearby town of Dabhoi and back, at a speed of 35 km per hour, completing the one-way distance of 33 km in one-and-a-half hours.
The line was a part of the Baroda State Railway’s first narrow gauge network, started in 1862 by the royal Gaekwad family. When it first started, the coaches were pulled by oxen. In 1873, as oxen were replaced by the steam engine, the line was relaid with stronger rails. Over a hundred years on, it remains one of the most preferred modes of transportation for people from the remote villages in the area. When the train stops at the tiny Parikha village, a group of women board the train, with bags of rice and wheat. Every second Sunday, they take the train to Dabhoi. “We don’t have the facility to grind wheat in our village. So we travel to Dabhoi by this train,” says Sumitra Koli, an agricultural labourer. Her views are seconded by Syed Imtiaz, who has been taking this train from Karjan for the last 30 years. He owns a small electronics shop in Dabhoi, which he visits at least twice a week. “A bus or a jeep costs at least Rs 30 from Karjan to Dabhoi. It is always more crowded and stops on the highway. This is a mere Rs 10 and the stoppages are within the villages rather than on the highway,” he says.
The train soon reaches an unmanned railway crossing near Nadda. There is no barricade or signal, but the train slows down and lets the cars go first. Memon Lateef Suleman, 68, boards the train at Nadda and gets down at Dabhoi, a daily 10-minute train ride that is a 30-year-old habit. The train is a cheap way to travel for someone who doesn’t make much selling salted nuts. “The train exists, so my work exists,” he says. The train, with a capacity of 200 passengers, almost always carries more than that number. Five trains run to and fro on the stretch every day, and almost 700 tickets are sold. But railway officials say that the sales have gone down, except for weekends and festivals. Not everyone is happy with life in the slow lane. Fatima Maniyar, 50, complains about the absence of a broad gauge line and says she has even approached the PMO to start one on the route. “It is very time consuming to travel like this. We have to first travel from Bharuch to Karjan and then change to this train. There should be trains that connect Surat to Dabhoi.”
An eager-beaver of a passenger this Sunday is Divesh Soni, all of 11, who boasts that his fondness for the train comes from a definitive bit of personal history: he was born in it. Eleven years ago, his pregnant mother, expecting her second child, was travelling on the train with her sister to her parents’ home in Dabhoi, when she went into labour. She gave birth to Divesh, just after the train reached its destination and both the mother and son were then taken to the hospital. “We have heard that they are going to cancel this train, if that’s the case, we are even ready to protest and agitate. Travelling in this train is one of the fondest memories of my childhood and we want it to stay,” says his mother Sonal Soni, 35.