What does it take to run India’s longest ‘water-train’?

From special orders procuring equipment to the shunting of trains to give Jaldoot preference. From men working day and night, to hurdles, expected and unexpected. From water Miraj is withholding from own, to water now coming to Latur.


It was in January 2013 that Maharashtra first considered running water trains. It was again to provide water to drought-hit Marathwada. At a Cabinet meeting, then chief minister Prithviraj Chavan said that initial discussions had been held with the Railways to arrange three wagons to transport 5 lakh litres of water daily.

Last year, as the drought in Marathwada persisted, the idea was thrown about again, this time to transport water to Latur from Pandharpur’s Ujani Dam, 190 km away.

Finally, when the government picked Miraj, Sangli, 342 km from Latur — the longest distance for a water train in India — to supply water, it was the most natural choice.

The Krishna basin, extending over Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, is known for its prosperity. The Warna Major Irrigation Project, with a capacity to store 34 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) water and holding 15 TMC of water at present, keeps the area around Miraj one of the few Maharashtra regions unaffected by the drought.

Among lush fields of grapes, sugarcane, banana and raisins, farmers say they haven’t faced water scarcity in years. Residents talk about getting water supply “twice a day”.

The water train to Latur, since named Jaldoot by Pune Divisional Railway Manager B K Dadabhoy, draws its water from the Krishna river downstream of Warna dam.

From there to a Latur doorstep, it is a Rs 2.8-lakh, 25-hour operation now, for every run with 10 wagons. The wagons are clover-green in colour, having been delivered clean and freshly painted from the Railways’ Kota workshop. Eventually, the Railways plans to carry 50 wagons every trip.

Day and night at Miraj

The first of the 50 ‘BTPN’ tank wagons arrived on April 10, one day before the trial run. The Kota division of the Railways was chosen for supply of the rake because it has an “expertise” in cleaning tank wagons, says Chief Workshop Manager P K Tiwari.

“Tank wagons are primarily used to transport petrol, vegetable oils, molasses and crude oil. Earlier, we had cleaned crude oil wagons to be employed for high-performance petrol,” says Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer Haripal Singh.

To carry water, the wagons were steam-cleaned, then cleaned with chemicals, scrubbed, and finally washed with high-pressure water jets, he adds.

At Miraj, preparations were on by then for the task ahead.

A jack well set up by the Railways in 2009 at a ghat 4.5 km away used to already pump 16 lakh litres of water for daily use at the rail junction. The water would first be piped to a water treatment plant through underground pipelines before reaching the station.

Water being emptied in a well in Latur (Photo by Pradip Das)

Water being filled into tankers near the Latur station. 50 rail wagons would hold water equal to 450 tankers. (Express Photo by Pradip Das) Water being filled into tankers near the Latur station. 50 rail wagons would hold water equal to 450 tankers. (Express Photo by Pradip Das)
For supply of 5 lakh litres to Latur every day, the Miraj administration has reduced its own demand to 13 lakh litres. Still, that means that for the additional water, the jack well and the pump are working overtime. The four-hour resting time at the water plant, which has a capacity to filter 1.5 lakh litres per hour, has also disappeared.

Right now, it is taking three hours to fill a single wagon with 50,000 litres of water at Miraj. Work is on to set up bigger, 315-mm-diameter pipes for carrying water from the plant so that the 50 planned wagons can be filled in 10 hours. Eventually, officials also plan to fill 25 wagons simultaneously instead of two-three wagons.

“The distance between the water treatment plant and the Miraj rail yard is 2.7 km, which needs to be covered using this pipeline,” says an official with the Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran, the state Civic Water Supply Department.

A legendary well next to the station, Haidar Khan bawdi, is also being emptied out and cleaned, before it is filled with water again for use as and when needed.

Fifty-five-year-old Julekha Begum, who claims to be the traditional “mujawar (caretaker)” of the bawdi, says it “never dries up even in the worst of droughts”.

Four teams of labourers supervised by engineers are working day and night to finish the work. “There are about 40 personnel working at five different sites. Apart from laying of pipes, the work involves erecting a water-filling facility at the rail yard, installing a bypass valve at the water treatment plant, creating two small tunnels under the railway tracks so that the pipes can cross the railway lines and installing new pumps at the well,” says Prashant Joshi, who is a site engineer with the contractor hired by the Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran.

Since the work began, hurdles have been constant. For instance, a farmer over whose land 100 metres of the pipeline had to be laid refused to cooperate, threatening he would “confiscate” the pipes if they kept lying there “a day over two months”. “It took one and a half days to allay his doubts,” says Joshi.

Besides, work near the tracks can only happen when there is no train traffic, which is mostly between midnight and 3 am. “Mainly freight trains operate at this time, apart from one express train,” says Vivek Kumar, Transportation Officer, Miraj.

Getting the PVC pipes from Jalgaon, 400 km away, also proved problematic. Pipes with a diametre of 315 mm or more are made only on order. “Of the total 2,000 metres of PVC pipes we need, we have only received 600 m,” says a supervisor.

At the station, two teams of Railway’s technical staffers and labourers are working in shifts, supervised by senior officers, to make sure that the water-filled Jaldoot is dispatched at the soonest (four trains, of 10 wagons each, have run so far in five days).

After the first Jaldoot ran on Monday April 11 morning, it took the Miraj junction administration another two days to dispatch the next one, due to problems filling water, although the plan was to send the next one on Tuesday.

It takes 3 hours to fill a wagon with 50,000 litres at Miraj right now. Plan is to cut this to 10 hours for 50 wagons. (Express Photo by Arul Horizon) It takes 3 hours to fill a wagon with 50,000 litres at Miraj right now. Plan is to cut this to 10 hours for 50 wagons. (Express Photo by Arul Horizon)
Currently, a majority of the BTPN tank wagons which arrived from Kota stand idle, with only 20 in use so far. The capacity of each wagon is 54,000 litres, but they are being filled only till 50,000 litres.
To hasten the filling of the water wagons for the first train run, officers of the Carriage and Wagon Department had even stopped the water supply to three other platforms at the railway station. However, this had led to a series of pipe bursts.

Since then, filling of the wagons has been divided into three shifts — 9 pm to 4 am, 6 am to 9 am and 2 pm to 8 pm. At the end of every shift, the train is moved from platform no. 2 (where the filling usually happens) back to the yard, to make space for other trains to halt at the station.

“Many other trains require water-replenishment at Miraj. We can’t avoid that although it slows down the filling of Jaldoot due to low pressure,” says Kumar.

However, others too claim their supply has been hit. Residents of the railway colony right next to the Miraj junction claim they have not received drinking water for four days. The supervisor of the toilet and urinary block at platform no. 1 says its water supply has been cut off since April 11, leading to complaints from visitors.

Concedes B K Dadabhoy, the Divisonal Railway Manager, “At present, we are filling the wagons by curtailing the water supply to railway staffers’ colonies at Miraj and by only half filling the other trains… We are doing our best.”

Senior Railway officials have also been travelling in the engine and guards cabin of the Jaldoot, travelling for at least a couple of stations to ensure everything runs smoothly. On Wednesday morning, during the second water run, the excitement was palpable, and once the train picked speed, many of them took out cellphones and clicked photographs aboard the Jaldoot.

“It’s not for fun,” clarified one of them, travelling in the engine room. “We will send these to our officers so that they know we have done our job well and responsibly.”

At the other end of the train, guard P U Asaware almost stood constantly, clutching the green flag and waving it every few minutes as the train crossed stations overtaking other passenger trains parked on the side to let the Jaldoot pass.

“Other goods trains remain parked at the station for hours for want of line clearance. The first Jaldoot took 17 hours to finish the seven-hour journey as it was detained in Osmabanad. Hence, now the rail administration is making every effort to ensure it reaches Latur in six-seven hours,” says Asaware.

Senior Commercial Manager (Solapur division) R K Sharma admits that this track being a single-line section is a problem. However, he adds, the restrictions placed for Jaldoot don’t affect express trains, whose timings don’t coincide with the water train. “Yes, some goods train do get affected, but that is negligible.”

The well near the Latur station. where water from the water train is emptied, can hold 17 lakh litres. The well near the Latur station. where water from the water train is emptied, can hold 17 lakh litres.

Sleepless at Latur

At the Latur station too, Jaldoot arrives to a special welcome. The Railways have dedicated a special track, that ends behind the main station, for the water train to halt.

Rubber pipes help empty water from the wagons into an 850-m-long RCC pipeline, leading into a well nearby. The emptying of water takes upwards of three hours.

The RCC pipeline was laid by Sunday night, before the first trial run. Later, holes were drilled into the concrete pipeline for inlet pipes coming from the wagons.

Officials say they began work as soon as Revenue Minister Eknath Khadse, deputed to Sangli by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, made the announcement on April 5. Officials of the Latur Municipal Corporation, the district collectorate, Railways and the Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran held an emergency meeting and ordered the RCC pipeline and a 250-m high-definition plastic pipeline, to be delivered by a contractor on priority.

Once the pipelines arrived, over 300 Railway men were put on the job. “The work to lay the pipelines was carried out round-the-clock,” say officials of the Maharashtra Jeevan Pradhikaran.

Latur Municipal Commissioner Sudhakar Telang says the government sanctioned Rs 3.50 crore on an emergency basis for laying the two pipelines, and another one on which work is on.

Most of the work, say officials, was done in 48 hours.

The jack well for pumping water was provided by an S R Deshmukh, for free. “We requested him to make his jack well available for some time, and he readily agreed,” district officials say.

After the RCC pipeline takes the water from the wagons to a nearby well, which has a capacity of 17 lakh litres, the other, 250-m pipeline takes it to an open ground nearby. Here, water is filled into four tankers and sent to Latur’s water treatment plant 3 km away, before being supplied to different parts of the city. “The water we get from Miraj is treated, but we are re-treating it to check against any contamination as a result of transportation,” says Latur District Collector Pandurang Pole.

Pipeline being laid at Latur railway station. The idea is to cut down time taken in use of water tankers. (Express Photo by Pradip Das) Pipeline being laid at Latur railway station. The idea is to cut down time taken in use of water tankers. (Express Photo by Pradip Das)
He adds that the filling of the well, and carrying water away from it to the filtration plant is simultaneous. Now a pipeline is being laid from the well to the water filteration plant too so that tankers eventually aren’t needed.

Giving an idea of how the water train would help Latur, Pole says, “It will ease our water travails. Instead of providing drinking water every six to eight days, we will be able to provide it every four days.”

The water brought by 50 wagons would be equivalent to 450 tankers supplying daily, he adds.

However, Railway officials say, the 50-wagon train will be only making trips every two to three days as filling water takes time.

Latur city, with a population of five lakh, has 1,000 borewells belonging to the civic body, and an estimated 15,000 private borewells. “The city used to get 60 million litres of water daily from Manjara dam, which has run dry. Now our sources are Terna dam and Dongargaon, private and civic borewells, private tankers and the train,” says the municipal commissioner.

The Latur district rural areas, with 943 villages, have a population of another 18 lakh. The water levels in the 131 smaller dams in the district are also depleting fast.

The villages have been demanding that the Jaldoot be stopped en route to provide them water too and not just to the city. Shailesh Saroday, president of the Harangul Budruk, a students’ association, says they have urged the district collectorate to stop the train at Harangul railway station, outside the Latur city limits. “Since the train is bringing in 5 lakh litres of water, they should at least make one wagon available to us,” he says. “Why cater only to city areas?”

In Ward No. 9 in the heart of Latur city, with 15,000 residents, water was supplied from the third Jaldoot that arrived Thursday night. “We have all heard that water from the train will help us get drinking water in a much shorter time,” said Sanjay Rajoure.

Half of Najma Pathan’s husband’s income, of Rs 4,000 per month, from selling household wares on handcart, goes into buying water.

Why did they have to wait so long for Jaldoot, she asks. “Why don’t they bring in more trains and more water from wherever it is available?”

The Precedents
Australia used rail networks to transport water as far back as the late 1800s. In 1952, drought-relief water shipments were sent to the mining town of Broken Hill in New South Wales via six water trains a day. In 2008, the Queensland Rail Freight of Australia delivered water to Cloncurry town in north-central Queensland.

The US has also used water trains for long. As per Illinois State Water Survey, 1971, Mount Vernon got drinking water by railway tank cars in 1905, 1925 and 1945. The January 1945 operation, with 100 tank cars, lasted 45 days and cost over $50,000 then. As late as 2015, rail cars were proposed in the US to provide potable water to small communities in California, reeling under a four-year drought.