Amravati, Maharashtra, Aug 15: Killick Nixon and Company, a British-owned company still gets an annual royalty of Rs 1.20 crore from the Indian Railways for running a passenger train known as the Shakuntala Express on its narrow gauge route.
Shakuntala Express runs in the remote cotton-growing area of Achalpur (formerly Ellichpur) under Amravati division, the birthplace of President Pratibha Patil.
The four hour, 189km trip from the towns of Yavatmal to Murtijapur costed Rs 22 several years back.The tracks are still owned by the British company that laid them in the nineteenth century.
It's like chugging a century back into the Edwardian era of the British Raj. The Shakuntala Express does just one return journey a day. That is all its operators, the Central Railways, can afford.
It is the only transport link for many desperately poor people from the far-flung hamlets of this region.
The non-descript station, occupying a wasteland of now-abandoned goods-yards on the outskirts of this cotton town, comes alive to the petulant noise of Shakuntala as she comes to a halt, bringing commuters of all creeds to their destination, most of them poor and ticketless.
A staff of seven carry out all the railway tasks by hand, from detaching the engine from the carriages, to signalling and ticket sales.
The line from Yavatmal climbs down a long curving embankment before heading for Murtazapur through dry farmlands, intermittent plantations of eucalyptus trees and patches of forestland.
The signals and the loop's outer point are still worked by a century-old lever-frame, a solid piece of ironmongery bearing the inscription Railway Signal Co Ltd, Liverpool, England 1895.
Killick, Nixon and Company, set up in 1857, created the Central Provinces Railway Company (CPRC) to act as its agents. The company built this narrow gauge line in 1903 to carry cotton from Yavatmal to the main line to Mumbai from where it was shipped to Manchester in England.
A ZD-steam engine, built in 1921 in Manchester, pulled the train for more than 70 long years after being put in service in 1923. It was withdrawn on April 15, 1994, and replaced by a diesel engine that now pulls the carriages.
The steam locomotive now rests in a shed in Pune, in north-western Maharashtra.
"Authorities might have removed the steam engine because of water scarcity in this region," Hasan Khan, the train's assistant driver says.
This is one of only a few operational railway lines in India that remains with private owners and perhaps the only one that belongs to a British firm.
The Indian government reviews the question of purchase of these lines every 10 years. But taking over these loss-making lines would require a heavy capital investment to upgrade them.
It was rumoured that the line would close when Indian Railways' contract to operate the line ended in 2006, but it was extended again for 10 years.
The historic town of Achalpur (Ellichpur) is 291.29 km away from Nagpur. The commercial importance of this station can be judged from the fact that an average of five wagons are booked from this station daily.
The outward goods traffic consists of cotton which is exported to Bombay, Kanpur and Shalimar; cotton-seed to New Delhi and Bombay; dry chillis to Shalimar, Gaya, Allahabad and Bombay.
There is also brisk export of timber, rafters and bailies. Sizeable parcels of handloom cloth, rosha oil, coffee-seeds, mangoes, guavas and oranges are exported from Ellichpur.
The rosha (palmarosa) oil which is used as an ingredient in perfumes and a few medicines is in great demand in foreign countries, especially in France.
The Murtizapur-Ellichpur railway route added to the prosperity and economic growth of the rich cotton tracts of the western zone of Amravati district. It has accelerated the growth of trade and commerce and facilitated passenger transport on a large scale.
This narrow gauge route emanates from the Bombay-Nagpur-Calcutta broad gauge line from Murtizapur junction in Akola and finds its course towards the north. It covers a distance of about 64.37 km from Bhujwad to Ellichpur, in Amravati.
The line was constructed in December 1913 by the former Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company for a Branch Line company called the Central Provinces Railway.
On termination or the contracts with the former Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company the line was brought under direct state management from July 1925. Though, known as the C. P. Railway, it was grouped in 1952 under the Central Railway.
The topography of the countryside through which the line passes is plain with a few hills and may be described to be more dry than green. It finds its course to the north through the black and fertile tracts famous for cotton cultivation.
Before entering Amravati district the line crosses the Puma river. During its course in this district it crosses the Chandrabhaga river near Banosa (Daryapur) and again between Khusta Buzurg and Chamak railway stations. There is a well-built bridge on the line across the Sapan river at 74.03 km. (mile 46).
Achalpur is the northern terminus of the 762 mm narrow gauge railway line known locally as the Shakuntala railway.