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Central Railway (CR) passengers can now enjoy the luxury of saloons, so far the privilege of officers inspecting tracks and railway premises, on the Neral-Matheran hill route.
Sitting on cushioned sofas in the saloons, nature lovers can see on LCD screens images of sites such as 'Jungle of Top' captured by CCTV cameras installed outside.
The comfort, however, comes at a price, though not a heavy one. A group of five passengers will have to pay Rs 1,175 for the experience.
The saloons are part of CR attempts to strengthen the heritage section despite a lack of monetary support from the government. CR is trying its best to revive the heritage mini hill railway that was shut due to losses running into crores of rupees.
"CR is trying to minimise loss in this section. As against the annual income of Rs 40 lakh from ticket sales, we spend Rs 16 crore on operations. We are trying to increase revenue and cut expense," Subodh Jain, general manager, said.
Around 2 lakh passengers travel in the section annually for an average ticket price of Rs 35 each.
Jain said, "If ticket prices are doubled and there is a two-fold rise in the number of passengers, we can cut at least 25-30 per cent of losses.'' But a fare revision needs a Parliament nod.
"There is potential to carry more tourists but CR has capacity constrains," Jain said.
CR would need an additional Rs 16 crore to procure two locos and provide value-added services, such as fast-food joints at stations, to increase revenue, he said. Jain said, "Discusssions are on with Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation to set up food plazas. If they are not interested, CR will do it on its own."
CR also plans to strengthen tracks to increase train speeds. "At present, up trains run at 16 kmph and down trains at 18 kmph as per instructions of commissioner of railway safety. We can run the train at 40 to 45 kmph. As it is a hilly area, operation is difficult and risky. Attempts are being made to increase speed of trains, so that run time can be reduced.'' Jain said.
MMRDA has provided Rs 9 crore to strengthen the section and add more services and engines.
CR is also planning to minimise manpower in operations.
"We are equipping the train with a rear engine to minimise the number of brake handlers. Number of coaches will be increased soon. We have also introduced a parcel van that can be operated even at night. This operation will shore up our sagging bottom lines," Jain said.
CR operates 12 toy trains on the Neral-Matheran up and down lines. Recently, eight shuttles were introduced between Aman Lodge and Matheran. Besides, it operates six additional shuttles on weekends.
"We are happy with the decision of CR as now passengers come directly to Matheran and hire horses. Earlier, people used to come by taxis or private vehicles and hire horses at exorbitant rates, causing us loss,'' said Asha Kadam, president of Horse Owners Union, Matheran.