Unesco to fund revival of Darjeeling toy train

Concerned over India’s lack of interest in restoring the 132-year-old Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which has been in disuse since the 2011 earthquake, Unesco has decided to provide $600,000 to the Indian Railways, which is facing an acute frunds crunch, to do the job.
The rehabilitation of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which is the first mountain railway in India and only the second in the world to have received the status of a World Heritage Site, will now be spearheaded by the UN body after the railways failed to do it even two years after it was ravaged by the earthquake.

The Unesco will sign an agreement with the railways in September, terming railways the main implementing body for a 24-month-long special restoration project costing $665,154 (Rs 42.5 crore).

The 78-km railway system, commonly known as the “Toy Train”, went to the brink of getting an “endangered” status and even being delisted from the list of World Heritage Sites recently because the railways failed to send any official to a crucial meeting held at the Unesco World Heritage Centre in Paris where it was supposed to argue its case against such a move.

Sources said a last-minute request from the ministry, including from Railway Minister of State Adhir Chowdhury, who hails from Bengal, averted what would have been an embarrassment for India. It is believed that the matter will be taken up again on October 24 on United Nations Day.

In a letter to Railway Board Chairman Arunendra Kumar this week, Shigeru Aoyagi, Director and Unesco representative to India, Maldives and Sri Lanka, said that the railways needed to do much more than what it has done to protect the heritage site.

“In view of the serious concerns raised by the international community regarding the condition of the DHR, it is important that your ministry demonstrate its active commitment to the protection of DHR so as to maintain its status within the World Heritage List,” the letter said.

Railways has repeatedly failed to send anyone to the World Heritage Centre to explain itself. “May I also reiterate my advice for your ministry to visit the World Heritage Centre in Paris in the near future. such proactive approach by your ministry will be extremely helpful to dissolve critical views regarding the current management of DHR,” it said.


Oil-fired steam loco for hill railway

Equipped with new oil–fired system, the narrow gauge steam locomotive is all set to chug in the lush green Matheran Hill Railway in Maharashtra. The 96-year-old steam loco ‘B 794’ will henceforth run using high speed diesel as fuel instead of coal in the 20-km eco-sensitive section from Neral to Matheran located on the Western Ghats range in Raigad district.

The ‘B’ class engine was dispatched on Monday from the over 80-year-old Golden Rock Railway Workshop here, which was entrusted with the task of converting the firing system of the loco from coal to oil. The Golden Rock Workshop accomplished the firing system conversion work within a span of 30 days after receiving the loco in April end.

As coal-fired system was posing problems to environment besides causing fire at times from the small particles of burnt coal flying out of the loco’s chimney in the eco-sensitive Matheran region, the Railways decided to convert the loco into oil-fired to avoid such situations in future, workshop officials said. The Golden Rock Workshop was chosen for the task as it had experience and required expertise in conversion of firing system from coal to oil. The workshop had already manufactured oil-fired steam locos for the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway.

As part of the conversion work, the 15.5 tonne steam loco has been provided with twin head burner, combustion blower with air control, fuel pump, electrical control unit, fuel oil system accessories, and diesel oil tank.

The oil tank with a capacity of 800 litres has been installed in the bunker area where coal had been stored earlier. The 5 KVA generator set to power electrical items has been installed in the side platform of the loco which will run at a speed of 13 km per hour hauling four coaches. The loco has been given a fresh coat of polyurethane painting. The modification work has been carried out without affecting the heritage value of the loco, said P. Mahesh, Chief Workshop Manager. This is the first time that a narrow gauge loco has been sent for conversion of firing system from the Matheran Hill Railway, Mr. Mahesh said.

A technical team from the workshop will monitor the trials in the hilly Neral–Matheran section before the steam loco with oil-fired system is put into operation. The cost of conversion was Rs. 20 lakh. The loco was flagged off by S. Sundarrajan, Director, National Institute of Technology, Tiruchi, on the workshop premises.

The Neral- Matheran Light Railway was built between 1901 and 1907 by Abdul Hussein Adamjee Peerbhoy at a cost of Rs. 16 lakh. It is operated by the Central Railway now. Matheran is connected to the town of Neral, which lies at the base of the hills, by narrow gauge rail.


A treat for steam loco enthusiasts

Apart from a discussion on developments related to steam locomotives in India and overseas, the tenth National Steam Congress to be held at National Rail Museum here this Sunday will see a philatelic exhibition as well as a photo exhibition.

Hosted by the Indian Steam Railway Society, this annual event will see participation of steam enthusiasts and experts from India and abroad.

According to Society founder-member Ashwani Lohani, the public needs to understand that steam locomotives are part of our heritage. “Even now, they evoke excitement among the young and the old. People get a feeling of déjà vu when they step into the steam locomotives which we run at National Museum every day.”

However, both the philatelic exhibition and the photo exhibition on steam locomotives would run only for a day. “As this annual exercise is held for a day, we did not want to change the structure.”

Mr. Lohani said the participants would get to understand how the steam locomotive movement began in the United Kingdom. “Two experts from the U.K. — Cedric Lodge, a steam locomotive expert, and David Barrie will be sharing their perspective. During 1970s, the steam locomotive movement started. This is the reason why 1,000 steam engines are running in the U.K. for tourist purpose.”

Veteran journalist Mark Tully, who is passionate about Indian Railways, and writer Bill Aitken and will participate in the discussion.

Presentations will be made on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway.

A steam locomotive brought all the way from Rewari and a miniature steam locomotive from Amritsar will be on display at the Museum.

The Society will also honour individuals and organisations for their contribution to the cause of steam locomotives.


MatheranTracks to be lit up with LED lamps

For a nature lover and one looking for new experiences, Matheran could just be the destination in about a fortnight.

This mountaintop dense forest will have the added attraction of a ride back downhill in the narrow gauge train after a view of the breathtaking sunset. It will be a night safari through the forest and mountains under the security of lights.

The Central Railway which manages this 22 km ride has decided to illuminate the Matheran Light Railway (MLR) track with the latest LED (light emitting diode) lamps to add a new dimension to this tourist spot of heritage importance, though convincing Unesco to grant recognition has become an uphill task.

Generators will be installed to light up the Matheran track in compliance with the directives of the Commissioner of Railway Safety. He had refused to give clearance to run trains after sunset on this 107-year-old route between Neral and Matheran without proper lighting arrangements.

For smooth operation of the LED, a windmill energy system will be put in place. It will keep the track illuminated and provide power to the stations en route and the sleepy township located 800 metres above sea level, set in the forest at the top, as the name suggests — Matheran.

The windmill will be another step towards protecting the ecology of this region. Vehicles are not allowed beyond Aman Lodge station from where one has either to trek or go horse-back or by train alone. Hand-drawn rickshaws are available for local movement.

The township survives on the Railways and this was evident when torrential rains washed away the tracks in 2005. The delay in reviving the loss-making section had pushed the people towards penury. The Railways re-laid the track in 2007 bringing tourists back to the place facing the Western Ghats, and reviving the local economy. The revenue for the Railways is just about Rs. 60 lakh while they spend Rs. 6 crore to operate the two-hour journey that curls through dozens of exhilarating slopes and sets up the challenge of the “one kiss tunnel” to its romantically inclined passengers — that is steal one if you can.

The night running of trains is part of the programme to make the section more viable, stressed Central Railway general manager Subodh Jain, and push the earnings to Rs. 4 crore annually. The track has now been prepared to be used even during the monsoon, unlike in the past, to encourage round-the-year tourism.

Matheran has no blacktop roads; the broad pathways are dusty and rocky — allowing rain waters to percolate and preserve the foliage.

Two factors have come in the way of Unesco granting it world heritage status. After the torrential rains, the steam engine was replaced with a diesel locomotive.

A fortnight ago, the Railways did experiment with the steam engine to fulfil the UN body’s conditions but found it a fire hazard with the grass and tree boughs kissing the train in several places. They caught fire and the Railways decided against reviving the steam engine as it could set off summer forest fires.

The Railway Board intends to again petition the Unesco despite the rejection of its earlier proposal in 2009 to secure world heritage status for this mountain railway.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and the Kalka-Shimla Railway are now on the World Heritage list since 1999, 2005 and 2008 respectively.

Mr. Jain however maintained that the Railways and other government agencies were taking care of the entire region with commitment, adhering to world norms to maintain the ecology of the hillock irrespective of whether Unesco extends a helping hand or not.


Diesel toy trains back in Darjeeling hills

A day after the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) contractor’s association forced the closure of toy trains, DHR on Thursday ran the diesel engine train.

On Wednesday, the DHR contractor’s association had demanded closure of the the toy train ride demanding payment of their pending dues. The pending amount is pegged at Rs 1 crore that has not been paid for over four to five months.

Tourists to the Hills were also left disappointed after the toy train rides got cancelled owing to the agitation.

All the four long distance rides from Darjeeling to Kurseong have been suspended. These trains instead have been pressed into service for the shorter but more favorable joy ride from Darjeeling to Ghoom.

Documentary on Hill railways of India bags UK award

A documentary series on the hill railways in India has won the prestigious Royal Television Society Award of the United Kingdom early this week. The three-part series —shown by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC)— is based on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Niligiri Mountain Railway and the Kalka Shimla Railway. All the three hill railways are the UNESCO world heritage sites.

Of the three films, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was directed by Tarun Bhartiya, a Shillong-based Indian director with an all Indian crew. The other two films, Kalka Shimla Railway and Nilgiri Mountain Railway, were directed by Hugo Smith and Nick Mattingly.

“The hil railways is a metaphor of life in India. The railways are unique in their own way. They flourished during the British Raj and are still running brilliantly. There are so many folk songs based on these trains. Also, the film was shot against the backdrop of the 2009 elections and Gorkhaland agitation,” says Bhartiya. “Culture of the people here is so different than those from the plains,” says Gerry Troyna, the producer of the film.

The film got overwhelming response in UK. “The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway has a character called Sita Chetri who is a porter and climbs the hill to make a living for her family of five. A widow, she wants her eldest son to study in the best college in Darjeeling, but the lack of fund makes it difficult. After watching the film, we got several mails from people willing to help her,” adds Troyna.

Troyna has made several films on the Indian Railways. His six-part series on the Great Railway Journeys in the 1980s included his journey from Mumbai to South India. The series got BAFTA nomination for best documentary series. He also won accolades for his series on documentary on the Bombay Railway, Monsoon Railway and Indian Hospital Train-The Lifeline Express.

Constructed by the British for their luxury, these hill railways have now became a lifeline for people in the hills.


Darjeeling station to be recreated in sylvan UK town

LONDON: The romance of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway will be recreated at a station in sylvan Cornwall, England as the heritage train’s oldest
surviving locomotive will ferry visitors on August 19 and 20.

Steam engine enthusiasts are looking forward to the event as the Launceston station in Cornwall will bear the sights and sounds of Darjeeling. Stalls selling Indian crafts and shehnai music will be played on the public address system during the two days.
Organised by the UK-based Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society (DHRS), the money raised during the two days of ‘Darjeeling ambience’ will be used to support the needy through education and medical facilities in India.

Managing Director Nigel Bowman said the event had been publicised nationally in the specialist railway press, and hoped it would attract lots of visitors.

“The fact that the money raised will be used to alleviate poverty in the area is an added bonus,” he said.

During the previous DHRS annual event, the station of Sukna was recreated, but this year the society has decided to transform Launceston into Darjeeling.