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Last Updated: Friday, 26 November, 2004, 04:20 GMT
A railway ride into history
By Jaideep Hardikar
BBC News in Maharashtra

India's legendary railway system has undergone radical modernisation in recent years. But it is still possible to take train journeys that transport you back in time.

Shakuntala Express
The route was built to carry cotton for the mills of Manchester (All photos: Ranjit Deshmukh)

Take the Shakuntala Express that runs in a remote cotton-growing area of Maharashtra state.

The four hour, 189km (120 miles) trip from the towns of Yavatmal to Murtijapur will cost you 22 rupees ( 50 US cents).

The tracks are still owned by the British company that laid them in the nineteenth century.

It's like chugging a century back into the Edwardian era of the British Raj.

The Shakuntala Express does just one return journey a day. That is all its operators, the Central Railways, can afford.

It is the only transport link for many desperately poor people from the far-flung hamlets of this region.

"It connects at least two dozen villages that do not have road links," says DP Nimkar, the young station master at Yavatmal.

Signal changes

The non-descript station, occupying a wasteland of now-abandoned goods-yards on the outskirts of this cotton town, comes alive to the petulant noise of Shakuntala as she comes to a halt, bringing commuters of all creeds to their destination.

Not all of them buy tickets though, some of them are that poor.

A staff of seven carry out all the railway tasks by hand, from detaching the engine from the carriages, to signalling and ticket sales.

The line from Yavatmal climbs down a long curving embankment before heading for Murtijapur through dry farmlands, intermittent plantations of eucalyptus trees and patches of forestland.

The signals and the loop's outer point are still worked by a century-old lever-frame, a solid piece of ironmongery bearing the inscription Railway Signal Co Ltd, Liverpool, England 1895.

Killick, Nixon and Company, set up in 1857, created the Central Provinces Railway Company (CPRC) to act as its agents.

The company built this narrow gauge line in 1903 to carry cotton from Yavatmal to the main line to Mumbai (Bombay) from where it was shipped to Manchester in England.

Made in Manchester

A ZD-steam engine, built in 1921 in Manchester, pulled the train for more than 70 long years after being put in service in 1923.

It was withdrawn on April 15, 1994, and replaced by a diesel engine that now pulls the carriages.

Train passengers
The train remains the only regular transport for many villages

The steam locomotive now rests in a shed in Pune, in north-western Maharashtra.

Old-time passengers talk nostalgically about the steam engine days, when the train stopped virtually anywhere where passengers hailed it.

"Authorities might have removed the steam engine because of water scarcity in this region," Hasan Khan, the train's assistant driver says.

This is one of only a few operational railway lines in India that remains with private owners and perhaps the only one that belongs to a British firm.

Future bleak

The Indian government reviews the question of purchase of these lines every 10 years.

Train in Yavatmal
The train arrives at the station in Yavatmal

But taking over these loss-making lines would require a heavy capital investment to upgrade them.

Sadly, the future looks bleak for the Shakuntala Express.

It has been rumoured that the line will close when Indian Railways' contract to operate the line ends in 2006.

This has upset many train enthusiasts in India and also in the United Kingdom.

An Indian Bluebell Line

London-based train enthusiast David Breaker formed a Shakuntala Railway Society and Shakuntala Protection Committee in 2002.

With the help of rail enthusiasts and historians in India, the committee aims to save the Shakuntala Express.

Shakuntala Express
Passengers are nostalgic for when a steam engine pulled the train

Mr Breaker says he got interested in the train when he read online about its imminent closure.

"We were disgusted that such an asset was being lost," he says.

The protection committee aims to save the railway either by finding ways to make Central Railways keep running it, or to preserve it as a community and heritage railway like the famous Bluebell Railway in the UK.

The committee is toying with the idea of running daily diesel trains for local people, and weekend "steam specials" to restore the vintage steam train to its former glory.

The idea is to get a permanent contract or ownership of a branch line, build a rail museum and restore stations to represent different eras of the past century.

Meanwhile, back in Yavatmal, as the Shakuntala Express prepares to leave the station, a caravan of ticket less beggars board the train for Murtijapur for a free journey into a piece of history.

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