Right outside the bustling Neral railway station in Maharashtra’s Raigad district, a tiny train awaits its next batch of passengers.
It’s the light rail link to the Matheran hill station, lovingly called the toy train by locals.
Still led by a tooting steam engine, it chugs slowly up the steep inclines and hairpin curves along the way. So slowly, in fact, that passengers often hop off and jog alongside, for quirky holiday photo-ops.
But the truth is the little train, built by a local Bohri businessman, is a masterpiece of engineering. It’s over 107 years old, built in some of the most challenging terrain for a railway.
And it may soon be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of the already listed Mountain Railways of India.
India currently has 27 such sites, including the Red Fort, Qutub Minar and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST).
Over the next four weeks, the Indian Railways — which has runs the mini-railway line since the 1950s — and the Central government will speak before a global committee at the UNESCO World Heritage Convention currently on in Brazil (July 25-August 23), presenting their arguments for why the 19-km, 2-ft-wide ‘toy train’ line should be included on the prestigious list of protected sites.
In Matheran, one family is awaiting the results with fingers crossed.
“It is the pride of our family,” says Ali Akbar Adamjee Peerbhoy (45), great grandson of Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy, who built the raiwayline. “UNESCO has already included the railway line on its tentative list in December 2005. Now, we’re in touch with the officials at the convention and we’re hoping for some good news.”
Aside from the prestige of having a fifth world heritage site in Maharashtra — which already has Elephanta Island, the Ajanta & Ellora Caves and CST —listing as a world heritage site would mean increased protection and more funding for the maintenance and preservation of the Matheran mini-rail.
But why does it deserve to be on the word heritage list? “It was built more than a century ago, with comparatively primitive technology, in some of the most treacherous terrain for a railway,” says B.V. Bhosale, associate professor at the department of sociology, University of Mumbai. “It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.”
But that’s not all. The light rail link transformed the lives of the remote hill station’s residents, providing connectivity and opening Matheran up to the world, and vice versa.
“The Matheran Hill is part of the tough Sahayadri range. The terrain is tricky even as far as roads are concerned, so Matheran was very cut-off,” says Bhosale, who was born and raised in Matheran and is currently working on a book on the ‘toy train’. “It also rains very heavily here, and the monsoon made it that much more difficult for build tracks that would not get washed away as the loose earth eroded.”
From planning the line to building it and eventually getting German-made steam engines to run on it, this was a perfect example of a single family undertaking a mammoth task for the benefit of their community, Bhosale adds.
In their appeal to the UNESCO, the railways argued that the Matheran light railway is one of the best-preserved heritage railways in the world, remaining much as it was at the time of its completion in terms of stations, signals and rural environment. Such railways are rare, they have argued, and it deserves conservation and global recognition.
“The railways is our family’s creation and we would like to see it honoured with a world heritage tag,” says Ali Akbar, who still lives in Matheran, where the family runs resorts, a charity and a school. “We would also like to see it renamed after Sir Peerbhoy, a long-standing request that has still not been heeded.”