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Norwegian backpackers Knut Dahl and Kine Kyrkjepo called it their steamy affair. "This is the most amazing train journey I've had, " Kine said after an eight-km ride from Darjeeling town to the sleepy hamlet of Ghum, via the picturesque Batasia Loop, on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR). Just about everyone aboard the two-coach Toy Train on a recent Sunday morning fell in love as puffs of cloud enveloped the pine trees, rolled down the slopes and wafted inside the carriages as the quaint steam engine chugged up the meandering hillside.
The brief ride tugged at heartstrings as it transported passengers back in time with steam bellowing out of the navy blue engine. Its whistle piercing the wind, coal dust settled in the hair and layered the face with soot as it pulled into Ghum, which at 7, 407 feet is the world's second-highest station reachable by a steam locomotive.
The Toy Train is not merely a source of delight for the young and old. This 83-km long section connecting Darjeeling with Siliguri is of great importance and has been bestowed Unesco World Heritage status. It was the first railway in India built exclusively with Indian capital. It is widely believed to be one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century. Even Mark Twain described his Toy Train ride as a "pleasure excursion".
For decades a backdrop in romantic Bollywood films, the world's only surviving narrow gauge railway line is facing tough times these days. According to people who manage the train, the 130-year-old DHR could lose its World Heritage status if the government's negligence continues. "The condition of DHR is critical. Since this is the only steam rail service in the country, skilled technicians and repair material are not easily available. Nearly half the men trained to service steam locomotives will retire in six years, " remarks Dipak Das, DHR section engineer at Darjeeling. Sourcing good quality coal is another problem, he says.
Das believes that the Indian Railways have made some critical errors of judgement regarding the DHR. "There have been some experimental disasters - for instance, trying to convert the coal boilers into oil-fired ones and replacing copper boilers with those made from stainless steel - that caused loss of engine haulage capacity, " he says, adding that proper maintenance can still make the century-old train run for several more decades. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society, a group of Toy Train lovers, had offered to bring in steam locomotive experts from Britian - where 115 narrow gauge lines are maintained by steam enthusiasts - but the Railways rebuffed the offer.
Since its designation as World Heritage, the DHR has lost significant heritage assets and its components. The wooden fencing is gone, the booking office has been defaced with black marble, aluminium frames have been installed in Darjeeling, the goods shed and loco sheds demolished at Ghum and stonework painted at Tindharia station. Moreover, with the Railways barely operating a couple of short-haul joyrides with the steam engine and running three trains with diesel locos, Unesco may label the DHR an endangered site.
DHR director P P Roy acknowledges the gaffes, the most glaring one being the clubbing of the DHR with the Indian Railways. "Since this is exclusively a passenger service on tough terrain with only tourists to cater to, it can't be profitable. The DHR doesn't offer just a journey, it is about an experience, " he says. Others feel DHR should be treated like prestigious heritage trains such as the Palace on Wheels.
Railway minister Mamata Banerjee's budget this year had nothing for the DHR even though it is located in her home state. Strange, considering that she has promised to turn Darjeeling into Switzerland. However, it was during her first stint as railway minister in the NDA cabinet that the DHR was accorded World Heritage status.
Rajendra Kumar Baid, convener of the DHR Society, believes political will can do wonders. He recalled how a phone call from fomer rail minister Nitish Kumar seven years ago had saved the DHR service from being terminated at Siliguri junction instead of New Jalpaiguri. "Those involved with DHR have a lot of expectations from the present railway minister since she is from this state, " Baid said.
In Darjeeling, however, locals believe the neglect is because of the political conflict between Mamata and Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) supremo Bimal Gurung. "The step-motherly treatment to the DHR by the state and the Railways is throttling a service that was instrumental in the development of the region, " says a GJM official.
Nayan Subba, a historian on Darjeeling, believes the DHR is integral to the history and character of the towns that dot the Hills. "Darjeeling and Kurseong are what they are today only because of the DHR. Foreigners and Indians flock here to savour the steam experience. Minus the DHR, will Darjeeling be any different from any other hill station?" he asks.
With just six of the 13 B-class steam locos in working order, down from 34 in 1948, Subba believes the end is not far. "I wish the Railways revived these engines instead of tampering with heritage sites. The Darjeeling station, originally a beautiful Victorian barnhouse wooden structure, was replaced in 1947 by a brick-and-mortar building. In 1983, they built an ugly fourstorey building for employees. Now, they are planning to make a multi-facility complex with budget hotel and stalls, " he says.
Former DHR director Subrata Nath echoes Subba's concerns. With three mountain railways - the DHR, Kalka-Shimla Railway and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway - declared World Heritage and another (Neral-Matheran Railway) waiting in the wings, Nath feels preservation is the key to retaining the World Heritage tag for the DHR. "Any deviation from Unesco guidelines may lead to delisting, " he cautions.
Travel writer Rajan Bali, who has extensively studied the DHR, believes that the Indian Railways should promote the DHR as a tourist circuit involving tea, mountains, photography, cuisine, history, wildlife, ecotourism and adventure sports. "We have a world-class engineering marvel. The tea is world-class. So are some of the bungalows in tea estates that have been converted to resorts. The view of the Himalayas is majestic. All that is needed is a unique product combining all this and more, " says Bali.
In 1999, Unesco got stakeholders together and tried to formulate an integrated strategy for the DHR, but backed out when Indian agencies showed no enthusiasm. Projects that dream of creating a 'dynamic tourist circuit' remain on paper. The Railways have merely offered charter services to a couple of private operators. The call for introduction of new steam locos and coaches along with better maintenance of engines have gone unheeded.
Baid, who operates charters from NJP to Sukna, believes steam trains can mint money during the tourist season as enthusiasts are willing to shell out good cash for the unique experience of a night in the Toy Train. "There are enough steam enthusiasts the world over to patronise the service. The DHR Society itself has over 800 members in 24 countries. All that is needed is a good product, " he says.
Baid suggests the DHR could have an interactive two-day journey with a night halt at Kurseong. "Serve lunch on board. Stop at tea gardens for tea tourism and stay at the Raj-era bungalows. Embark at points to admire the local flora and fauna. Have photo ops at scenic spots. Stop for folk songs and dances. " There are stretches along the route where popular Bollywood films like Aradhana (1969), Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992) and Parineeta (2006) were shot.
However. to develop a tourist circuit one needs to stop the urban degradation and encroachment on the buffer zone on either side of the track. "Encroachments obliterate the scenic beauty at several places along the route, " the DHR director complained. Since land on Hill Cart Road, along which the train plies, belongs to the PWD, the state has to step in. That is unlikely given the current political scenario.
The DHR Society chairman David Barrie, however, remains optimistic. Recalling how the DHR was written off prior to its World Heritage status, he says, "Today, we view the DHR as a tourist attraction, a piece of heritage to cherish. " The proprietor of Das Studio in Darjeeling, septuagenarian Durgadas Pradhan, who has spent his life capturing images of the Toy Train, says, "I sincerely hope I don't outlive it. "
1879 | The Darjeeling Steam Tramway Company starts laying the narrow-gauge line - to reduce haulage rates of commodities to Darjeeling and to improve viability of the tea industry
1880 | 8 steam locos by Messrs Sharp Stewart, Manchester, arrive.
1881 | On July 3, the stretch is opened. The company is renamed the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Co. Around 8, 000 passengers and 380 tonnes of goods carried in its first year
1914-15 | The line is now carrying 250,000 passengers a year.
1919 | The famous loop at Batasia is constructed. Competition arrives with the Siliguri-Darjeeling buses that shorten the journey by 90 minutes
1939-1945 | World War II dramatically increases traffic on DHR, which plays a crucial role transporting military personnel and supplies to
1948 | DHR becomes part of the Indian Government Railways
1984 | The once vital railway mail services are beaten by road competition
1988-89 | The line is closed for 18 months due to civil unrest
1999 | DHR is awarded 'World Heritage' status by Unesco, the second railway in the world to get the status
2000 | Two diesel locomotives are introduced for the first time
2006 | Indian Railways celebrates the 125th anniversary of the Toy Train
2007 | DHR gets its first full-time director. A new daily train, the Himalayan Princess, is introduced
2008 onward | Political unrest in the region continues to disrupt train services sporadically
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