Track passing through dense mountain forest to be lit up with LED lamps

For a nature lover and one looking for new experiences, Matheran could just be the destination in about a fortnight.

This mountaintop dense forest will have the added attraction of a ride back downhill in the narrow gauge train after a view of the breathtaking sunset. It will be a night safari through the forest and mountains under the security of lights.

The Central Railway which manages this 22 km ride has decided to illuminate the Matheran Light Railway (MLR) track with the latest LED (light emitting diode) lamps to add a new dimension to this tourist spot of heritage importance, though convincing Unesco to grant recognition has become an uphill task.

Generators will be installed to light up the Matheran track in compliance with the directives of the Commissioner of Railway Safety. He had refused to give clearance to run trains after sunset on this 107-year-old route between Neral and Matheran without proper lighting arrangements.

For smooth operation of the LED, a windmill energy system will be put in place. It will keep the track illuminated and provide power to the stations en route and the sleepy township located 800 metres above sea level, set in the forest at the top, as the name suggests — Matheran.

The windmill will be another step towards protecting the ecology of this region. Vehicles are not allowed beyond Aman Lodge station from where one has either to trek or go horse-back or by train alone. Hand-drawn rickshaws are available for local movement.

The township survives on the Railways and this was evident when torrential rains washed away the tracks in 2005. The delay in reviving the loss-making section had pushed the people towards penury. The Railways re-laid the track in 2007 bringing tourists back to the place facing the Western Ghats, and reviving the local economy. The revenue for the Railways is just about Rs. 60 lakh while they spend Rs. 6 crore to operate the two-hour journey that curls through dozens of exhilarating slopes and sets up the challenge of the “one kiss tunnel” to its romantically inclined passengers — that is steal one if you can.

The night running of trains is part of the programme to make the section more viable, stressed Central Railway general manager Subodh Jain, and push the earnings to Rs. 4 crore annually. The track has now been prepared to be used even during the monsoon, unlike in the past, to encourage round-the-year tourism.

Matheran has no blacktop roads; the broad pathways are dusty and rocky — allowing rain waters to percolate and preserve the foliage.

Two factors have come in the way of Unesco granting it world heritage status. After the torrential rains, the steam engine was replaced with a diesel locomotive.

A fortnight ago, the Railways did experiment with the steam engine to fulfil the UN body’s conditions but found it a fire hazard with the grass and tree boughs kissing the train in several places. They caught fire and the Railways decided against reviving the steam engine as it could set off summer forest fires.

The Railway Board intends to again petition the Unesco despite the rejection of its earlier proposal in 2009 to secure world heritage status for this mountain railway.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and the Kalka-Shimla Railway are now on the World Heritage list since 1999, 2005 and 2008 respectively.

Mr. Jain however maintained that the Railways and other government agencies were taking care of the entire region with commitment, adhering to world norms to maintain the ecology of the hillock irrespective of whether Unesco extends a helping hand or not.