Quite a bit of what we know about Patiala State Monorail Trainways (PSMT) comes through Charles William Bowles (1878-1966). At the time, Maharaja of Patiala was Bhupindra/Bhupinder Singh. In those early years, and throughout the bulk of 20th century, there may have been interest in monorail systems, but they never took off.
In a conventional monorail, the train has to be balanced on a single rail. An inventor named W. J. Ewing devised something known as the Ewing System. In addition to the single double-flanged wheel, there would be a smaller balancing or supporting wheel that would rest on the road, since the monorail track would be constructed alongside a road. Oddly, there seem to be only two recorded instances of the Ewing System ever being used and both are from India. Other than PSMT, a plantation company in Kundala Valley (near Munnar) used the Ewing System from 1902 to 1908. However, unlike PSTM, Kundala Valley Railway never graduated from animal traction to steam. Indeed, PSMT initially used mules, not locomotives. That’s because Patiala State’s Army had plenty of mules and one might as well use them. (Mules had to be maintained, since the British Army might want them.) In different accounts, you will find the number of mules given as 300, 500 or 560, and it’s not quite clear whether bullocks also occasionally helped the mules. But by 1909, four steam locomotives turned up and they came from Orenstein and Koppel (Berlin). It’s not very clear whether there were other locomotives too.
There are minor discrepancies about Charles William Bowles. He was a civil and mechanical engineer. His year of birth is given as 1878. But I dug up a Who’s Who from 1922, which should be accurate. That gives his date of birth as 1879. His year of death is given as 1966, but seems to have been 1965. In standard accounts, Bowles was the engineer in charge of Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR) and constructed workshops, houses, schools, hospitals, armory, recreational facilities and a jail for BNR. While laying tracks for BNR, he experimented with the Ewing System and used it for PSMT. The Who’s Who entry doesn’t suggest he was employed by BNR. Instead, it suggests he was employed by an engineering company known as Marsland, Price & Company (out of Mumbai), and similar other companies, which did consultancy work for Bombay, Baroda & Central India Railway, BNR (in Kharagpur) and the Military Works Department. (He served with the army during World War I.) Natwar Singh’s The Magnificent Maharaja (which is about life and times of Maharaja Bhupindra Singh) has a reference to Bowles, though Natwar Singh confuses the first name.
“He invited a number of Europeans to head important departments. Col. Chester Bowles was the chief engineer, who later became the Maharaja’s man for all seasons. The fact that Mrs Bowles was an exceptionally beautiful woman also helped the Colonel gain ascendancy.” Bowles was State Engineer for Patiala, not only for PSMT.
PSMT had two unconnected tracks. The first, opening with Sirhind/Sirhand-Bassi in 1907, and eventually becoming Sirhind-Morinda, carried both passenger and freight and ran almost parallel to North-Western Railway’s conventional track. Therefore, this 24 km of track was never extended up to Ropar/Rupar, it being considered unnecessary. Bowles’ papers tell us this stretch carried 20,000 passengers per month in 1908, along with freight. However, there is no evidence of locomotives ever having been used along this stretch. It was mules and/or bullocks. The second stretch of 56 km was from Patiala to Sunam and locomotives were used for these. Oddly enough, this stretch never quite took off. Incidentally, both tracks were laid by Marsland, Price & Company and the company also maintained them. (There were overtures to North-Western Railways to take up these lines, but nothing came of this.) Automobiles arrived. Competition destroyed PSMT.
PSMT was officially closed in 1927. (Patiala-Sunam seems to have been closed in 1914.) Bhupindra Singh died in 1938 and Bowles relocated to London. (He was in London on leave at the time of Bhupindra Singh’s death and didn’t return.) Almost everyone forgot about PSMT, except John Day. John Day co-authored a book (on unusual railways), got in touch with Bowles for more information and authored an article on PSMT in 1962. That takes us to Michael Satow. (Author of Railways of the Raj, co-authored with Ray Desmond.)
Suffice to say, Satow followed the leads of John Day and another enthusiast named Ambler. Ambler found remains of PSMT (in 1962) in a PWD scrapyard in Patiala. In 1969/70, Satow found they were still there and arranged for their restoration. (It transpired it wasn’t a scrapyard, but a site originally used by PSMT.) One of the PSMT locomotives (PSMT-4) is now on display at National Railway Museum, having been restored by Amritsar workshop of Northern Railway in 1976.
The Railway Museum also has a coach, not an original. This used to be the private inspection saloon used by Bowles. Though the under-frame is original, the body has been redone by Amritsar workshop, with wooden seats in place of original cane chairs. The locomotive has been restored to working order and it makes a tremendous racket. One hundred years later, it is quite an experience to ride on this. A second locomotive is on a plinth in Amritsar workshop. Since they existed in 1969/70, where are the other two locomotives? No one seems to know.
The author is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.
Views are personal