“The Railways are indeed our lifeline,” was the sentiment echoed by residents of Matheran, when they saw the toy train chug once again on Monday. People burst crackers and cheered when the train entered Matheran, and women performed aartis, applied tilak to the motorman.
The lifeline of Matheran was shut after the deluge on July 26, 2005, when the entire 20-km stretch from Neral to Matheran was washed off. The locals here feared that if the Railways authorities delayed restoring what the tourist’s value most, Matheran would cease to exist on India’s tourist map.
“The tourist business had dropped by nearly 30 to 40 per cent. People refused to visit this popular green hill-station — also termed as ‘forest on top’ — thereby affecting our business,” said Santosh Pawar, a local shopkeeper.
With Matheran Light Railway entering its centenary year in 2007, it had earned the pride of being one of the Mountain Railways to be listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.
Matheran is the only tourist destination that is eco-sensitive. “People like this place because of its beauty and the toy train ride,” said Rajaram Khale, the motorman who drove the newly decked-up train. He added that it is fun for both the motorman as well as the passengers, especially the youngsters. “It is the only train in which brakes have to be applied manually for every coach,” he informed.
When the toy train was off the tracks, the local taxi drivers and horse-owners were charging exorbitant rates. “During the non-peak season taxi drivers charge between Rs150 to Rs250 per person, the rates double during peak season. This has continued for the last one-and-a-half years, when the train was not operational,” said Kavita Medhekar, a an excited passenger.
And it was a joyous ride for one-year-old Lavanya Bakre. “We had made plans to visit Matheran on Sunday, but as we had to celebrate Lavanya’s first birthday, we postponed the trip. And fortunately today (Monday) when we reached Neral and asked the Station Master about the train, he informed us that the first train was scheduled to chug at 11.10 am. We immediately bought the tickets and are on our way to this green hill station,” said Sarika Bakre, Lavanya’s mother.