Once you get hooked to the idea of journeys on India’s mountain railways, you want to do them all. And the people are packed tight in them, you know these are no more than oversized toy trains. But they sure do pack a punch, considering the steep terrains they haul themselves up on.
The Matheran Light Railway was built by Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy, with a funding of Rs. 1.6 million coming from his father Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy. It was first flagged off on March 22, 1907, covering a distance of 20 km (12.4 miles) between Neral in the foothills and Matheran, a popular hill station in the Western Ghats in Maharashtra at an altitude of 803.45 m (2,636 feet). It is expected to be designated soon as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an extension to the Mountain Railways of India entry.
The ride takes you through wooded forests, stopping at many stations along the way. The journey takes about two hours, with the maximum permissible speed being 12 miles per hour (20 kmph). It used to close during monsoons but this is no longer the case – but be prepared for cancellations on a bad day.
The MLR has over 121 bridges (mostly minor), only one tunnel (the one-kiss tunnel), a steep winding gradient and 221 curves including some very sharp ones; the longer trains take the shape of a semi-circle at points. Look out for a sign on one of the curves reading, “Ah, what a sharp curve.”
You may hop off at stations to stretch your cramped legs, to buy a refreshment, to take a pitstop (there are no restrooms on the train) or to admire the views. It is best to eat either in Neral or Matheran. The latter is a popular getaway for those from Pune, Mumbai and surrounding regions but would be rated average at best as a destination. Lined with modest eateries, budget hotels and shops selling cheap gifts and toys, it is nonetheless almost always full of tourists – many taking pony rides, admiring sunsets, and generally having a good time. Verandah in the Forest, a Neemrana Hotels property, is a wonderful place to stay at though.
The train is definitely worth all the effort.
Book your tickets in advance on www.irctc.co.in. You can never be sure of getting a ticket on the spot; in any case, booking windows open 45 minutes before departure with queues forming well in advance. You can choose to stay overnight at Matheran or Neral and catch the early morning or late evening trains – and enjoy the dawn and dusk lights. Or make a day trip from any nearby city. Neral is roughly halfway between Pune and Mumbai.