Now that Mumbai’s monorail is almost set to run, here are a few unknown facts about this odd mode of rail transit. I call it odd because it would indeed be a sight to be watched whenever those trains run, as there is just a single line throughout the 19km proposed stretch, balancing the wagons spread over the rails — positioned something like a person riding a two-wheeler. But as claims have been made, this may not be the first ever such system India has had.
Few know that one ran in Patiala a century ago and had been manufactured in our own Mumbai, another ran in Kerala which was eventually converted into a narrow gauge line. More research reveals that the Patiala monorail, compared to Mumbai’s proposed 19km stretch, was a huge 50 mile-long network, operated for nearly 17 years between 1910 and 1927. All its major elements like the rail tracks and other basic infrastructure were made in Mazgaon, Mumbai, and then moved there and assembled. It was indigenous, cost just a few lakhs, and was as reliable as any other mode of transit. It still runs, but now inside the railway museum in New Delhi.
Patiala was one of the princely states during the British regime and Maharaja Sir Bhupinder Singh got this unique railway system constructed to facilitate the movement of people and goods in his state. It was a British firm, Messrs Marshland Price & Co, which had its office in Nesbit Lane at Mazgaon, that built it here. The Patiala State Monorail Tramway, as it was officially called, was initially hauled by mules and bullocks and later a steam engine that came from Orenstein & Koppel of Berlin in 1909. The same company ran locomotives of the Matheran Light Railway, the one in Unesco’s tentative list.
A century later, Nesbit Lane is still there, but the office is gone and everyone has forgotten about this obscure railway. In fact, it was British railway historian Mike Satow who “rediscovered” the rusted remains of the Patiala monorail in 1962 and revived interest in it.
Mumbai’s new planned monorail that glides from Chembur to Wadala along the island city’s eastern coast, then hops over the rail lines, passing Kasab’s Arthur Road jail to end at Jacob Circle, near the racecourse, is being made by a foreign company and has been delayed beyond deadlines, burning crores of rupees. It is a sad story of a transport technology becoming alien to the city it was born in.