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22 Jul 2018

A toy train story: Keeping the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway running

The circuitous 5.99 km Darjeeling-Ghum-Darjeeling joyride is the most popular among tourists. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)
Esha Roy | IE | Darjeeling | July 22, 2018As Darjeeling’s toy train begins its climb towards Ghum, the country’s highest station at 2,258 metres above sea level, it doesn’t stop at Sonada station. Instead, it huffs and puffs past tall tin boards whose green paint has started melting in the monsoon rain. A blackened frame stands where the wooden waiting room once stood. Parts of the white trellis that adorned the roof are now grey.

Some hours earlier, passengers on the train had stuck their necks out at the smaller, more modest Gayabari station which is now a shed, its tin roof twisted from the fire that swept through the station last year.

On June 9, 2017, a group of agitators demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland had set the waiting room at Sonada station on fire. A week later, on June 15, Gayabari was set on fire as was Elysia Place, the DHR (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway) headquarters at Kurseong. While the stations have been boarded up and left untouched over the past year, Elysia Place has since been repaired and whitewashed, its burnt patches carefully hidden.

“We simply added a fresh coat of paint to all the stations and added some wood panelling inside this station. A painting job has to be carried out in all stations every couple of years. If this is not done, the stations fall into disrepair. UNESCO’s main objection was to the tiles in the toilets of two stations — Darjeeling and Ghum,” he says.
Responding to UNESCO’s charge that the DHR disposed of heritage materials from the Kurseong Printing Press, Narzary says, “The press had not been used for decades; nothing was disposed of. When the cleaning drive was on, we simply shifted it out of the building to another Railways property. Anyway, the printing press was installed by the Railways in 1981. It was never part of the original heritage structure,’’ he says.

Sources at UNESCO say the problem begins here — this lack of clarity on what constitutes ‘heritage’. “The problem with the DHR is that the world heritage site is not defined. The Railways takes it to be just the actual locomotives — that is, the train, the rail lines and the stations — but it is more than that. It is the experience of the journey and the areas that the DHR passes through. The CCMP that UNESCO is developing will precisely define the contours of the world heritage site,’’ says a UNESCO official, adding, “The Railways staff and officials are not trained in heritage conservation. They run the DHR like any other railway and this is where many of the problems arise.”

As part of its CCMP project, one of the first activities that the UNESCO team carried out was to map the entire 88.48-km line and its surrounding areas. Unlike other rail projects, says the UNESCO official, a map was never developed when the project was conceptualised by the British or even later when it was taken over by the Railways.

“We are looking to put down details like which buildings are important, which views and vistas along the road, which forests and even which trees need to be restored and conserved,’’ says another UNESCO official who spoke on condition of anonymity.


The DHR, or the Darjeeling toy train as it is commonly known, opened in 1881, connecting Siliguri with Darjeeling, climbing more than 2,000 meters into the mountains while crossing 456 bridges, 153 unmanned level crossings and looping impossibly around 872 curves. As it did so, the railway line followed the alignment of Cart Road, which was opened in 1869 but was proving inadequate for the increasing traffic.

On a Thursday morning at the Darjeeling railway station, a small group of tourists wait to board their “joy ride’’ — a circuitous 5.99-km trip between the hills of Darjeeling and Ghum, and back. Two trains are being readied — the diesel train stands waiting, while coal is being fed into the heritage steam engine that will haul the second train. While the steam engine ride, with its heritage coaches, costs Rs 1,310 a ticket, the diesel engine ride is for Rs 805 each.

During peak season from April to June, there are nine such joyrides (six steam and three diesel), which from July 1 are cut to four a day. Once a day, a diesel toy train brings passengers up from the NJP station in Siliguri to Darjeeling, a journey of 88.48 km that takes around eight hours.

According to the Darjeeling Association of Travel Agents, there are 6 lakh domestic tourists and 30,000 foreign tourists who come to Darjeeling annually. “The Darjeeling-Ghum-Darjeeling toy train is the main attraction, especially for the foreign tourists, many of whom are train enthusiasts,’’ says Club Side Travels owner Suresh Periwal who says he often books an entire train for foreign tourists for Rs 58,800. “I do about 45 such train bookings a year,” he says.
As part of its CCMP project, one of the first activities that the UNESCO team carried out was to map the entire 88.48-km line and its surrounding areas. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)
The DHR has already collected Rs 5 crore during this year’s peak season. Though annual collections have increased over the past few years, expenditure on the upkeep of the DHR far outstrips its earnings, says Narzary.

“We invest approximately Rs 20 crore annually. The most we have earned from the DHR in any given year has been Rs 5 crore. Last year, we kept a target of Rs 7 crore which we would have met if it hadn’t been for the 105-day bandh in the hills,’’ he says.

A Railways official says it’s hard for a toy train to break even. “The Railways essentially recovers its cost through freight. While the DHR did transport goods at one point, it is no longer the case. It’s now specifically for tourists. Few locals take the train, they prefer the road,” says a Railway official.

The Darjeeling station is one of the few spots along the line that offers an unobstructed view of the Kanchenjunga range. But as the train pulls out of the station, the hills disappear and the ride now feels like an intrusion into the lives of those around —shops with packets of chips strung at the entrance, a balcony where a girl stands drying her hair, past a gate where women stand chatting, their conversation drowned out by the loud horns and the clouds of smoke that the engine belches out.

A Railway official points out that encroachment on Railway property has been a major hurdle in preserving the heritage value of the toy train. “As the population increased, people started building their homes barely 10-15 cm from the tracks. This is dangerous and also affects the experience of the journey,’’ says an officer.

With the road taken over by the city’s ever-increasing traffic, the tracks are often used as footpaths by pedestrians and sometimes even as parking space, with vehicle owners moving their cars every time the whistle of the steam train warns of its approach. In some places, the monsoon grass threatens to take over the tracks, making the ride treacherous.

Encroachment on the tracks is rampant, and these are often used as footpaths by pedestrians. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)
On January 11, 2017, the locomotive and three coaches had derailed at Mahanadi, injuring six people, including three tourists. DHR officials had attributed the accident to “slippery conditions’’ due to the rains. Earlier this year, on May 30, the toy train derailed at the Kurseong station while on its way from Darjeeling to Siliguri. No injuries were reported.

Darjeeling MLA of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and former municipality chairman Amar Rai admits the encroachments are a problem. “The municipality tried limiting the height of the buildings to 11.5 metres, but even this is often met with resistance,” he says, admitting that cases of encroachment are rarely prosecuted. “Over 80 per cent of the buildings in the hills are in violation. We had set up a verification committee, which sent notices to the violators. But demolition never took place because there was so much resistance,’’ says Rai.

“The problem is that the DHR is no longer that relevant to people’s lives. The locals themselves never use it and it takes up road space. One of the suggestions we had is that the road be brought up to the same level as the rail tracks, like the tramway in Kolkata, so that it could be used as a wider road when the train isn’t running,’’ says Rai.
The apathy in Darjeeling today is contrary to the community involvement in saving the DHR in the 1990s, when the government had proposed that the toy train be done away with entirely. Soon after, the community got together to push for a UNESCO heritage status for the DHR.

One of the steam engines at the Darjeeling loco shed preparing
 for the early morning haul. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)
Raj Basu of Help Tourism was one of these activists. “In the early 1990s, the Railways had declared a global auction of the rolling stock. Local enthusiasts under the leadership of Sherab Thendup of Windermere Hotel formed the DHR Heritage Foundation and the lobbying (to save the toy train) was done by former DHR staff, local intellectuals, and some old heritage hoteliers. Meetings were held in Darjeeling, Tindharia, Kurseong, and even London as steam engine enthusiasts from across the world lent us their support. Some of the local railway officials even secretly helped with information on the stock available,” says Basu.
Today the Inner Wheel, a society run by, among others, Maharani of Bardhaman Nandita Mahtab, takes school children on educational trips on the DHR to ensure they are acquainted with their heritage. UNESCO officials say that the organisation is looking at developing a plan that will make the DHR more community-centric instead of tourist-centric in order to ensure that it survives.

There are other problems that slow down the DHR. In 1895, a major landslide swept away a part of the Tindharia workshop, where locomotives used to be built and which now caters to engines and coaches that need repairs. More recently, in 2010, a second major landslide at Tindharia swept away a portion of the rail track and the road.

“In 2014, we replaced the rail track. But the road has not been rebuilt. The rail runs along the national highway so the NHAI (National Highways Authority of India) has to fix the road. It has not been done yet. Because of pressure from local residents, we had to instead open the rail track for use of cars and other vehicles when the train isn’t running. But this is potentially dangerous,’’ says Narzary.

Narendra Kumar Char, Retired engine driver. He was one of the first eight drivers to be trained on the diesel engine. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)
“The soil here is soft. The tracks need to be packed with stones. This has not been done for decades. There is a shortage of manpower as well. A station like Kurseong is supposed to have two station masters, but only has one. We all double up for different jobs,’’ says an official, adding that the DHR has 520 people on its rolls.

Narendra Kumar Char, 74, has seen better times on these tracks, both as a child when he would accompany his grandfather to the Tindharia workshop and through all his working life — from the time he was hired in 1963 as an engine helper, going on to become a fireman and eventually an engine driver. He was one of the first eight drivers to be trained on the diesel engine when it made its debut in 1999.
“The diesel engines were easy to run, more comfortable and efficient. But there really is nothing like running a steam engine. The experience is far more romantic. Besides I have grown up in a railway family. My grandfather used to work in the Tindharia workshop and would take me there sometimes. When I was a child, he taught me everything about steam engines,’’ says Char, who has been living in Kurseong since his retirement in 2003. Two of his four children have carried on the family tradition and work with the Railways.

“Things were very different when I was an engine driver. There were 26 trains running every day on rotation. Now at the best of times there are nine — and only one goes all the way down from Darjeeling to Siliguri. These boys have it easy. We had to work long hours, from early in the morning till late in the night,’’ says Char.
The four-coach train makes eight daily trips between Monday and Thursday and additional three trips between Friday and Sunday. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)
He says he is “pained” to see what has become of the toy train. “We used to run the trains at 35 kmph; now they run at 15 kmph. It’s because the locomotives are so old and haven’t been changed since the time of the British,” he says.
Narzary admits that building locomotives and finding the right spare parts are difficult, but he is optimistic. “We have requested the Ranchi-based Hindustan Engineering Corporation Limited to build parts and locomotives for us. If that happens, this will be the first time in independent India that this will be done. They will start rolling out stock this year,’’ he says.

Outside the station master’s office, as the monsoon fog starts creeping over the Darjeeling Hills, the last steam locomotive has just finished its two-hour Darjeeling- Ghum-Darjeeling joyride. It’s 6.20 pm and as the chattering passengers leave for their hotels, the workers start decoupling the engines from their coaches. The steam and diesel engines are lined up behind each other.
With the peak season over, only four locomotives — three steam engines and one diesel — will remain to cater to the off-season tourists. The other engines will be sent to the locomotive sheds in Darjeeling, Kurseong and Siliguri, where they will stay till the tourist season resumes in September, after which the mountain railway and its crew will make another run — down the hills and round the bends.

Other hill railways
Kalka-Shimla Railway
96.54 km
Six trains running between Shimla and Kalka. Nine trains during peak season. Two special trains – Himalayan Queen and Shivalik Deluxe Express – charge Rs 270 and Rs 550 a ticket. The others charge between Rs 30 and 50 per passenger.

A Unesco World Heritage site since July 2008, the narrow gauge railway was built by the British as a link to Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj. The first train on the Shimla-Kalka railway line was flagged off by Viceroy Lord Curzon on November 4, 1903. The line has 103 tunnels and 864 bridges

In April-May this year, the railway earned a revenue of Rs 10.12 crore. “Revenue and expenditure are almost neck and neck,” said an official on condition of anonymity.

Jabli and Solan Brewery stations, two of the 18 stations, were closed some years ago. Besides encroachments and unauthorised constructions, the line has been plagued by ageing rolling stock.

Nilgiri Mountain Rail
46 km

Five trains run on this route, including one between Mettupalayam and Ooty, and four between Coonoor and Ooty
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the railway was introduced in 1899 from Mettupalayam to Coonoor and was later extended to Ooty in 1908. The train that passes through 16 tunnels and 250 bridges covers its first 8 km through the plains of Mettupalayam before beginning its climb.

Matheran Hill Railway
21 km

The four-coach train makes eight daily trips between Monday and Thursday and additional three trips between Friday and Sunday.

The 114-year-old narrow-gauge railway connects the hill station of Matheran to Mumbai’s Neral. Built between 1901 and 1907, the route has six stations. During the monsoons, when the train’s services are suspended, it runs partially between Aman Lodge and Matheran. While the railway has been referred to UNESCO for World Heritage status, it has not received one.

In 2016, after two successive derailments of coaches, services of the toy train were suspended for close to a year. The train now runs at a restricted speed of 10 kmph.

Kangra Valley Rail
164 km

Six trains daily. The highest railway station, Ahju ,is at 4,230 ft above sea level.

The Pathankot-Joginder Nagar narrow-gauge train is the last narrow-gauge train built by the British in India. This line, commissioned in 1929, was originally designed to carry heavy equipment and construction material for the Sanan hydropower project at Joginder Nagar.

Since this track passes through several villages and the ride is cheaper than the bus service, locals prefer the train to the road. It is also popular among pilgrims travelling to temples in the region.

A PIL in the High Court has sought the removal of more than 2,200 illegal encroachments along the tracks in Kangra district. The case is pending.

170 km
Passenger trains and good trains run on this stretch every day, besides six weekly trains

The track snakes its way through the Barail hills of Assam, crossing 21 tunnels. Laid by the British over a hundred years ago as a metre-gauge track, it was converted to broad gauge and inaugurated in March 2015. There are several challenges in maintaining this track. “The heavy rainfall in the area, the soft foundation of the ground and fractures in the rocks make it difficult to maintain this stretch,” said a Railways official.

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