Railway Board pulls chain on tiger safari train

By Probir Pramanik, IANS

Mumbai : The Vidarbha Queen is all decked up but has nowhere to go. The train, which was given a multimillion-rupee makeover to take luxury tourists on a tiger safari in Maharashtra, has not been able to take off.

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The Railway Board has not given its nod to the train – which was to start services in May – on the ground that it may not be viable.

"Yes, it is true that the project hasn't been cleared by the Railway Board. They are not yet convinced about the train's viability. They believe we can't afford to spend more than what the train can fetch us," a senior official of the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) told IANS.

In its bid to cash in on the huge tourism potential of a tiger safari train, the railways chose the Vidarbha Queen for a 120-km run from Nagpur to Nagbhid, right to the doorstep of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) in Chandrapur district.

For this, the IRCTC had entered into a profit-sharing tie-up with the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC), which funded the train's makeover.

Billed as the country's first jungle safari train, the Vidarbha Queen – previously a regular local train – was converted into a luxury carriage that would go up TATR, which is emerging as a favourite tiger-sighting destination in central India.

But the grandiose plans – including a Rs.10 million makeover for the train – have failed to take off as the Railway Board feels the project is "not viable".

Doing a classic cart-before-the-horse act, the IRCTC and the MTDC have already spent Rs.6 million on the train's makeover and another Rs.4 million on sprucing up the infrastructure.

When asked how such huge amounts could be spent without the basic requirement of a viability study being fulfilled, the IRCTC official said: "I don't know about the study of the viability, but I will continue to push for the project with the Railway Board's top brass."

The MTDC too is hopeful of running it soon.

"True the train couldn't start pending the Railway Board's approval. But there is no question of viability as such. I can tell you one thing for sure that the train will run. No luxury trains are initially viable," said MTDC managing director Bhushan Gagrani.

Gagrani said that since the project had been agreed upon between the IRCTC and the MTDC, the train would start.

When told that this year's tiger-sighting season had already ended with the onset of the monsoons, the MTDC chief said, "The train would be run later for "pleasure's sake" till the tiger reserves open again after the rainy season break.

He is hoping the proposal will be cleared by winter when the rush of international tourists begins.

"Even though it's a jungle safari train, the kind of tourists we are looking at don't prefer this time to venture out. So we might see the real rush in winter when international tourists come in," he added.

The jungle safari train has seven AC saloons, all with five-star facilities, a pantry car and two specially fitted guard cabins to ward off any menace of the human or the animal kind.

Targeted mostly at the international tourist, the idea was to take the train up to Nagbhid in the morning in a three-hour journey, from where the MTDC would take tourists to Tadoba by road in a luxury coach.

The train was to halt at Nagbhid for tourists to come back the next evening and return to Nagpur by night. There was even a proposal to extend the train to the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh.

The train is part of the South East Central Railway (SECR) network and runs parallel to the reserve. Incidentally, SECR has the largest narrow gauge network in the world, about 700 km.

But right now the spruced up train is lying idle at the Nagpur yard.