Darjeeling: On and off the rails
Anything can happen on the remarkable ‘railway to the skies’ – the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – as PETE JORDAN found on the recent Steam Railway readers’ tour.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is, in many ways, the Holy Grail for the narrow gauge enthusiast. Many readers of a certain age will remember its unique ‘B’ class 0-4-0STs and its hill-climbing through-spirals and Z-reverses in the centre spread of the Eagle comic in the 1950s. Everyone knows of the line, but not so many can point to its location on a map or find their way to it. Our intrepid group of Steam Railway readers left the UK on January 31, headed for Kolkata (Calcutta in the long-gone days of the Raj). Some of the group flew immediately north to Siliguri at the foot of the DHR, but the majority decided to stay for the day in Kolkata to enjoy a ride on one of the city’s vintage trams – an ideal way to see the teeming streets of the one-time capital of the country without risking getting overwhelmed by the masses of the local population. Many of the city’s buildings date back to the Raj and, despite their apparent decrepitude, still retain some of their grace. After a good dinner, the group went to Kolkata’s Sealdah station for the Darjeeling Mail; the traditional way to travel from Kolkata to Darjeeling. Departing at 10.05pm, it arrived in New Jalpaiguri (known to all as NJP) at the foot of the DHR a few minutes after its booked arrival at 8 o’clock the next morning.
Most described the overnight journey as ‘an experience’; they were happy to do it once, but demurred when asked if they would do it again! That evening heralded one of the major attractions: our dining train – a full three-course dinner served on the train as it passed through the city and travelled up through the forests to Rangtong. The tour was well supported, so three sittings were needed. We photographed the empty stock passing through the Siliguri Town bazaar, and then went down to NJP to board. This is where we encountered our first problem. Our steam locomotive, ‘B’ class No. 1001, managed to spread the track on the run-round loop and dropped into the resulting void. Siliguri shed hastily rustled up a diesel to run the train – a disappointment, but the dinner was still good! Our hotel at the foot of the line was The Cindrella, home of the Indian chapter of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society, through its hospitable owner, Vivek Baid, whose family have done much to ensure the survival of the DHR. Despite (or maybe because of) its purely vegetarian policy, everyone enjoyed the food here. Saturday (February 3) brought our first proper steam charter, from Siliguri Junction to Tindharia, which went off smoothly, headed by one of the early ‘B’ class locomotives, No. 782, built in 1899. It was interesting to see the progress made with repairs to the 2011 major landslip below Tindharia Works, where there is a mammoth project to restore the road that involves rebuilding several hundred feet of mountain! After arrival in Tindharia, we visited the railway’s works, where ‘B’ class No. 787 (the survivor of the failed oil-firing experiment) was stabled and No. 804, one of the last of the ‘B’ class to be built (in 1925), was ready for work after a periodic overhaul. On Sunday (February 4), we continued our journey from Tindharia up to Darjeeling. We crossed the daily Darjeeling to NJP passenger train at Giddapahar by reversing into a siding, and duly arrived in the spur station at Kurseong for a well-earned break.
Fortunately, the best samosas in West Bengal are made in a tiny stall about ten yards from the station and sell for about 5p each, so they did a roaring trade for the time we waited there. A photo session for the Kurseong bazaar followed with the train stopping in the middle of the street to collect passengers!
ThRown A cuRve bALL
After a water stop at Tung, proceedings were again brought to a premature halt just below Rangbhul when the front axle of No. 782 slipped over the outside rail on a curve. The train was being followed by the daily NJP-Darjeeling diesel service train, but an attempt to drag the ‘B’ back onto the track only resulted in its rear axle derailing… Buses took us on the short journey up to Darjeeling for the night. Our hotel there was the famous Windamere, which had been the residence of choice for several generations of tea planters during the Raj era, and is still observing traditions, such as afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches (with the crusts cut off) and, of course, Darjeeling tea. The main disappointment was that the weather during our entire visit was unusually misty and we missed the classic view of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, that normally dominates the northward Himalayan view from Darjeeling. The following day (February 5), and for a bit of novelty, we chartered a freight train, consisting of three four-wheel vans from Kurseong up to Darjeeling, and this proved immensely popular with the photographers. It ran well with ‘B’ class No. 802, which made a fine sight blasting up the hill. Unfortunately, its front axle derailed – within two miles of the previous day’s mishap. However, fortune smiled, as this third derailment was right beside a pile of rail ready for re-laying – and directly opposite a chai shop. The Tindharia re-railing gang were on site within a few minutes and we were privy to a very noisy hour during which everyone had a loud opinion as to how the job should be tackled. Using the expertise of both train and re-railing crews, No. 802 was back on track, and the journey continued. On arrival at Ghum, the train was augmented by a bogie flat with railings attached, and most of the group elected to travel on the downhill stretch to Darjeeling standing in the flat wagon. One of the locals asked why we were travelling standing up in a wagon and was told (with straight faces) that we couldn’t afford a proper coach to sit down in! The railway now makes most of its money running ‘Joy Trains’ over the four miles between Darjeeling and Ghum, and there is the capacity to run up to nine return trains a day. Following last year’s strike, which has severely reduced tourist numbers, and the fact that winter is the ‘quiet’ season, just three services per day are being operated. Happily, however, they all load well. We travelled as a group on the 10am departure, led by ‘B’ class No. 802, and this gave us the opportunity to look round the DHR’s modest museum in an upstairs room at Ghum station. Our last charter at the top of the line ran on Wednesday (February 7), running from Kurseong (with the usual photo
we were privy to a noisy hour during which everyone had a loud opinion as to how the job should be tackled
run-by in the bazaar) right up to Ghum, with No. 802 producing reasonable shots for the photographers in the chasing bus.
We returned to the Cindrella hotel at the foot of the line for our last two nights in the area. There was a wedding at the hotel that night with the garden fully set out for a banquet and party. As is often the case in India, standing at the gate prompted an invitation, and many of our group enjoyed a convivial evening with the bride and groom. Our final charter on Thursday (February 8) was booked to run from Siliguri Junction to Kurseong. Soon after leaving Siliguri Junction we found a lorry parked on the track with no driver. It took half an hour to locate him, but finally his wagon was moved and the train continued. Things proceeded normally until the second Z-reverse, where the locomotive, No. 782 again, needed to run forward to take water, delaying us for another hour. The train then ran forward to the locomotive running shed just below Tindharia station, where two men, each with a pan, proceeded to re-coal the locomotive from a supply about 50 yards away – another delay, but entertaining nonetheless. We finally made Tindharia station six hours after leaving Siliguri Junction – a journey normally timetabled for two. At this stage we were worried about reaching Kurseong before darkness fell, but fate again intervened, as the front axle of No. 782 hopped off the line again about 400 metres above Tindharia station. Four derailments and a wedding, you could say! The road was blocked by the passenger coaches and, as usual, we had been delaying the NJP-Darjeeling train immediately behind us at Tindharia station, so its diesel locomotive came up to drag the passenger coaches back down to the station, and this allowed the road to be re-opened. Reluctantly, we returned by bus to the Cindrella for Kingfisher beer and a good dinner. Most of the group had elected to travel on for a day in Agra. The Taj Mahal and Red Fort in Agra were as stunning as ever, and we even found a plinthed narrow gauge steam locomotive (Class ‘ZD’ No. 550). A final afternoon at Delhi Railway Museum completed a very busy tour, and most of the group returned to the UK happy but exhausted. If you missed this year’s entertainment, you could always come with us in 2019. Hopefully the weather will be better!
The February 8 Siliguri-Kurseong charter goes no further than this road crossing just north of Tindharia, causing traffic chaos on the Old Cart Road…
Another day, another derailment. No. 802 comes to grief on February 5.
‘B’ No. 782 blasts through the forest on the climb to Rangtong.
Victorian Sharp Stewart ‘B’ No. 782 Mountaineer arrives at the neatly preserved Sonada station on February 3 with a Steam Railway readers’ special.
Steam Railway readers pose for the tour’s obligatory team picture at NJP.