It was in January 2013 that Maharashtra first considered running water trains. It was again to provide water to drought-hit Marathwada. At a Cabinet meeting, then chief minister Prithviraj Chavan said that initial discussions had been held with the Railways to arrange three wagons to transport 5 lakh litres of water daily.
Last year, as the drought in Marathwada persisted, the idea was thrown about again, this time to transport water to Latur from Pandharpur’s Ujani Dam, 190 km away.
Finally, when the government picked Miraj, Sangli, 342 km from Latur — the longest distance for a water train in India — to supply water, it was the most natural choice.
The Krishna basin, extending over Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, is known for its prosperity. The Warna Major Irrigation Project, with a capacity to store 34 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) water and holding 15 TMC of water at present, keeps the area around Miraj one of the few Maharashtra regions unaffected by the drought.
Among lush fields of grapes, sugarcane, banana and raisins, farmers say they haven’t faced water scarcity in years. Residents talk about getting water supply “twice a day”.
The water train to Latur, since named Jaldoot by Pune Divisional Railway Manager B K Dadabhoy, draws its water from the Krishna river downstream of Warna dam.
From there to a Latur doorstep, it is a Rs 2.8-lakh, 25-hour operation now, for every run with 10 wagons. The wagons are clover-green in colour, having been delivered clean and freshly painted from the Railways’ Kota workshop. Eventually, the Railways plans to carry 50 wagons every trip.
The first of the 50 ‘BTPN’ tank wagons arrived on April 10, one day before the trial run. The Kota division of the Railways was chosen for supply of the rake because it has an “expertise” in cleaning tank wagons, says Chief Workshop Manager P K Tiwari.
“Tank wagons are primarily used to transport petrol, vegetable oils, molasses and crude oil. Earlier, we had cleaned crude oil wagons to be employed for high-performance petrol,” says Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer Haripal Singh.
To carry water, the wagons were steam-cleaned, then cleaned with chemicals, scrubbed, and finally washed with high-pressure water jets, he adds.
At Miraj, preparations were on by then for the task ahead. (Read more)
At the Latur station too, Jaldoot arrives to a special welcome. The Railways have dedicated a special track, that ends behind the main station, for the water train to halt.
Rubber pipes help empty water from the wagons into an 850-m-long RCC pipeline, leading into a well nearby. The emptying of water takes upwards of three hours.
The RCC pipeline was laid by Sunday night, before the first trial run. Later, holes were drilled into the concrete pipeline for inlet pipes coming from the wagons.
The water train to Marathwada is making no waves in this part of the country. For 14 years now, arid Rajasthan has been using the Railways to get its districts water. This year since January, the state’s Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) has been running a 50-wagon train from Ajmer to Bhilwara daily, carrying 25 lakh litres —the same as planned for Jaldoot eventually.
Data with the North Western Railway, headquartered in Jaipur, shows that between April 2002 and October 2002, water trains made a total of 243 trips from Ajmer to Abu Road (in Sirohi district), and to Sojat Road and Bomadra (in Pali district). A severe drought had been declared that year in all the districts of the state.
“The trains were run from Ajmer division and water was sourced mainly through Jawai dam,” says NWR’s CPRO Tarun Jain. The dam has a capacity of 78,875 million cubic feet.
“I was posted at the Mandal railway station then,” recalls Anwar Ali Khan, now the station master at Bhilwara railway station. “As soon as the water train arrived there, people would climb atop it, with buckets and pipes, and make off with whatever they could. The Railway Protection Force too wasn’t harsh. The people just wanted water to drink. They anyway couldn’t collect much.”
The water trains have been working intermittently since. (Read more)
Carrying around 3.7 lakh litres of potable water over 200 km, India’s first water train chugged into Rajkot on May 2, 1986, afternoon, cheered by thousands.
Saurashtra had been seeing consecutive drought years in the 1980s. In 1986, it rained a bit, but far from enough. By February 1986, all the sources of water in Rajkot, the biggest city of Saurashtra with a population of around five lakh then, had almost dried up.
“We had no option but to look outside for water,” says Janak Kotak, a BJP leader who was then a corporator and later became the mayor of Rajkot. “Tubewells were drilled, around a thousand water tankers were engaged. But the situation turned worse with summer… Then mayor of Rajkot Vajubhai Vala requested the state government to do something, else the entire city faced the prospect of migration.”
Chief Minister Amarsinh Chaudhary decided on water trains. (Read more)
Australia used rail networks to transport water as far back as the late 1800s. In 1952, drought-relief water shipments were sent to the mining town of Broken Hill in New South Wales via six water trains a day. In 2008, the Queensland Rail Freight of Australia delivered water to Cloncurry town in north-central Queensland.
The US has also used water trains for long. As per Illinois State Water Survey, 1971, Mount Vernon got drinking water by railway tank cars in 1905, 1925 and 1945. The January 1945 operation, with 100 tank cars, lasted 45 days and cost over $50,000 then. As late as 2015, rail cars were proposed in the US to provide potable water to small communities in California, reeling under a four-year drought.