Making a big exception in its gauge conversion policy, the Indian Railways has decided to preserve the five oldest, working narrow gauge lines dating back to its colonial era, part of what was Asia’s largest narrow-gauge light railway system, running since the 19th Century.
Commercially working narrow gauge lines are pretty much non-existent in the world, other than some hill railways in India, and this is an effort by the Railways to save them from complete extinction. All the lines are in Gujarat, totalling 204 km, and were originally owned by the princely state’s Gaekwad Baroda State Railway (GBSR).
A letter that the five narrow gauge lines would be preserved was issued on Thursday. Around two-three pairs of trains (up and down) operate on these lines every day, with marginal footfalls.
One of the sections, the 33-km Dabhoi-Miyagam line, was India’s first narrow gauge railway stretch. It started operations in 1862, when coaches were pulled by oxen, before steam engines were deployed the following year. The Maharaja of Baroda, the owner of GBSR, subsequently built a network of light railways, connecting most towns in his state. Dabhoi remained the centre of the narrow gauge network. Later a workshop was also built at Pratap Nagar near Baroda.
Policymakers at the Railway Ministry have been keen to preserve this key industrial heritage. A ground assessment of the ministry shows it draws many foreign tourists every year.
Apart from the Dabhoi-Miyagam lines, the other lines are Miyagam-Malsar (38 km), Charonda-Moti Karal (19 km), Pratap Nagar-Jambusar (51 km) and Bilmora-Waghi (63 km).
Incidentally, another arm of the railway network, from the Dabhoi section to Chandod, is part of the gauge conversion project to link to the Gujarat government’s proposed Statue of Unity. Policymakers said the project will not be affected by the new conservation decision.
However, the ministry may have to alter a few related gauge-conversion projects sanctioned in the past, before this policy change. The erstwhile Gwalior Light Railway in Madhya Pradesh, another piece of narrow gauge heritage from the era of the princely states, has already been marked for gauge conversion following years of sustained pressure from local politicians.
The decision to preserve GBSR was taken by Railway Board Chairman Ashwani Lohani, along with the Financial Commissioner and Member (Engineering) of the Board. Western Railway, in whose jurisdiction the lines fall, has been asked to make a detailed plan ascertaining the resources required to not just preserve the lines but to develop them for promoting heritage railway tourism.
Sources said that at the meeting it was pointed out that past decisions regarding conversion of many of the narrow gauge lines in Gujarat were taken not because of operational needs of the Railways but due to local political pressure.
Currently, gauge conversion is happening on lines that have been defunct for 15-20 years — unlike the five identified for preservation. These five lines, connecting far-flung areas of Gujarat, are more or less “island lines”, and gauge conversion will not significantly add to the connectivity value for the local population, according to officials.
In narrow gauge in India, the rails are 2 feet, 6 inches apart, requiring engines, coaches, machinery and maintenance apparatus that are different from the rest of the broad gauge network, whose rails are 5 ft, 6 inches apart.
“Firstly these are island lines, preserving them will not adversely affect the rest of the network, and secondly, it appears that gauge conversion and electrification of these lines will not be financially viable, whereas preserving them will be invaluable,” said Sanjoy Mookerjee, former financial commissioner of Indian Railways and a mentor of the Railway Ministry’s Heritage Conservation Committee, headed by the Railway Board Chairman.