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.

Steam Railway (UK) - - Contents -

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.

One-OFF eX­Pe­RI­enCe

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.

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