It has become such an integral part of our lives that we cannot imagine a life without it. The Indian railways were nationalized way back in the year 1951. But today, we are not going to talk about the Indian railways but we are going to talk about of its long forgotten relative ‘The Shakuntala Railways’. I am sure that for most of you this sounds a bit alien. Hearing the name you might think of it as a name of some train or maybe a little-known rail zone.
Shakuntala Railways is one of the very few operational railway lines in India that remains with private owners and perhaps the only one that belongs to a British firm.
But Shakuntala is neither one of them. In fact, it is an independent railway which does not come under the Indian Railways. So, technically the Indian Railways does not enjoy a monopoly. When Nationalization happened in 1951, Strangely this line was left alone. Interestingly till date, nobody knows the exact reason why this line was never de-privatised.
The birth of Central Province Railway Company (CPRC) or The Shakuntala railways took place way back in 1910. It was founded by a British Firm called Killick-Nixon.
It was formed during the British Raj. During those times, most of the rail lines were operated by individual firms. The location of the track was quite strategical as this route was used to transport cotton from Vidarbha. This cotton then made its way to Manchester.
During those times, there was a deal between the CPRC and the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR). This deal stayed in place even after GIPR became Central Railways.
Soon, the line was used not just for cotton transportation but even to ferry passengers. The GIPR used CPRC’s lines to run its trains and paid a compensation or rent to the company. The deal continued even after GIPR was replaced by the Central Railways. To this day, the Central Railways pays the British firm a compensation for using its lines. Interestingly, in recent times, the Indian Railways has not paid the agreed rent instead has been adjusting it from the cost of repairs and maintenance.
Unlike most train lines in India, this train line still uses a narrow gauge.
The rail line itself is quite unique as the unlike most of the rail lines that are broad gauge lines, Shankuntala railways still use narrow gauge lines. The British company still gets more than 1 crore rupees from the Indian Railways for running a train on its tracks called the Shakuntala Express.
The Shakuntala Express is a passenger train that runs from the small towns of Yavatmal to Murtijapur and back
The train runs through the beautiful cotton growing areas of Achalpur, which falls under Amravati division. If you are ever lucky enough to board this train then this train journey is sure to take you back to the 19th century. Everything about it is old school. It seems that when modernisation happened everywhere else, poor Shakuntala was forgotten!
Every day it covers just one return journey and even today it is a lifeline for hundreds of poor people, who cannot afford to take the road, as road journeys cost almost 5-6 times the train’s fare
It covers a journey of almost 190Km in about 4 hours. For these people, it is the cheapest means of transport and they can’t imagine their lives without it. The train runs through a narrow gauge which itself gives it a very toy- train kind of feeling.
It still runs on a 1921 steam engine built in Manchester and the rail signals have been there right from the British Raj days
Most of the official works are also done manually. In times when our trains run on electric engines ,Shakuntala Express still uses the good old steam engine. Another interesting thing that you would find when you board this train is that all the existing rail signals are still from the British era with the words ‘made in Liverpool’ inscribed on them!!
This journey literally takes you on a trip back into a historical era that none of us lived in! One for the travel/history buffs no doubt!!