The forgotten railways of Trombay island

The forgotten railways of Trombay island

Source: Bombay Guide Map Including Parts of Salsette, Survey of India, 1933

A few years back, a friend and I stared agape, as did a bunch of excited others from all walks of life, when the brightly-coloured, bug-like coaches of the monorail hummed their way into the terminal station next to Fine Arts. For years, we had groaned in collective exasperation, as a much-touted wonder of rapid transport connectivity met with delay-after-delay. But in that moment, when the spectacularly pink train welcomed us with air conditioning and automated doors, our complaints were forgotten. Honestly, it was (and still is), like riding a slow-motion rollercoaster without seatbelts, but we marveled as it showed us parts of Chembur we had considered “too far”. The euphoria of the monorail has since given way to jokes of the “it’s-so-bad-it’s-good” variety, but the suburban connectivity dream lives on in the two under construction metro lines that are crisscrossing our environs. Time and again we think, why didn’t anyone do this before? Well, almost a hundred years ago, they actually did, right here in Chembur! Here’s the story of a forgotten railway.

The only clue that any of you wanting to be the Sherlock Holmes of the Harbour Line will ever come across, is not here in Chembur, but in Kalina. If you have ever been there for work, or just passed it while going to the airport, you will definitely have crossed a certain CST Road. While that beloved station is 19km away, CST Road bears the name of a long-gone railway line called the Central Salsette Tramway, also called the Salsette-Trombay Railway. 

It so happened that while the first railway in the Indian sub-continent was indeed in Mumbai in 1853, Chembur and its surroundings were still part of a completely separate, Trombay Island. For almost 75 years, the railways gave us a miss as they largely followed a north-south orientation, passing through Salsette island, which covered most of the land mass of suburban Mumbai. Things started changing only in the 1920s. CST was conceptualized as an east-west oriented light railway, both ends of which were still firmly semi-rural settlements. Coaches were imported from England, as they often were, and administrators hoped that the line would spur development. 

At the Trombay end, the line started where the refineries are at Mahul, just beyond where the monorail makes a sharp turn towards its Mysore Colony station. From here, the line ran parallel to the monorail, but further to the east, before cutting through today’s RCF colony and Chembur camp. Thence, it turned north-west, along what we know as Hemu Kalani Marg (Acres Club). From Umarshi Bappa Chowk, it went straight through to the GIPR’s (Central Railway) Kurla station. In doing so, it would have left behind Trombay island and crossed over the marshlands (today’s Nehru Nagar) to reach Salsette island. It also mirrored the path that the metro’s line 2B will be following. In Kurla West, after following SG Barve Road, it met up with the route of today’s SCLR (another east-west connector) following it across the Mithi (then, still a freshwater river) until the University campus. Taking another sharp northward turn, it would have traversed Kole-Kalyan (Kolivery village), Air India colony, and the airport itself (metro line 3), before making a stop at Sahar village and terminating at Chakala (not far from line 1 in what’s labelled today as Koldongri Lane 1).

(video is only a representative)

As you can imagine, the journey would have been a leisurely one. What’s today, for the most part, an urban jungle, would have been serene countryside, with villages that had changed little in spite of their proximity to the big city. Not surprising then that the line was often used by those looking for a day picnic, or simply for a joyride, much like with the monorail today. An important part of the picnic was also so that the people of Andheri could sample the toddy in Trombay island

The line was short-lived and was wound up in the early 30s. Its customer base simply wasn’t substantial enough to sustain operations. Along the same time, the government also purchased large tracts of land for the construction of RAF Santacruz, i.e. the airport, which interrupted the route map. In Trombay island itself, planned development happened not along the CST route, but just outside Chembur village – giving shape to the rectangular area contained between Chembur Gaothan, Ghatla village, Chembur station, and Diamond Garden. Once CST’s services were wound-up, the tracks themselves were dismantled, and the coaches sent back to England, relegating this pioneer of east-west connectivity into oblivion. Those who have heard of the CST, assume that the solitary line beside Kurla’s platform eight, which also cuts across VN Purav Marg at Suman Nagar and terminates at RCF/petroleum refineries, must be a remnant of it. But let’s bear in mind that the installations served by this line came up much later.

While CST’s story is interesting, it is by no means the only forgotten railway line on Trombay Island. Few realise that the Kurla-Mankhurd stretch of the Harbour Line originally started as a Kachra Line in the 1920s, meant for ferrying garbage to the recently set up, Deonar Dumping Ground. Fewer still know of the extensive railway network that was run by the Bombay Port Trust to ferry goods along the eastern seaboard of the city. In Trombay island, three branch lines started in the lower elevations of Trombay hill, unifying to go along today’s BPCL’s toll access road all the way to Wadala station. A skeletal part of this port trust railway still survives.

Source: Bombay Guide Map Including Parts of Salsette, Survey of India, 1933

We read so much about history, but not often is it about our immediate neighbourhood. For me too, the attempt to get to know little-known stories about Mumbai (and specifically, Chembur and Trombay island) started only a few years back, as I got associated with KHAKI, an organisation active in the heritage/history tours, conservation, and advocacy space. Whatever be your chosen means of exploring our history and heritage, I strongly encourage you to undertake your journey of rediscovery – it’s a very rewarding one – much more so than your first joyride on the monorail!

About the author: Rohan Sharma is a lifelong Chembur resident and his family have lived in the vicinity of OLPS church since the 1960s. While he is a Corporate Communications specialist through the week, on weekends he dons the hat of a history walk/tour host with KHAKI Tours, as one of their “Ambassadors of Mumbai”.