The International Steam Pages


Steam on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway 1999

Duncan Cotterill reports:

Introduction

This report covers a lineside photographic trip to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway organised by Mike Tyack for a group of 9 British, 1 Australian and 1 German. We had 7 full days on the line from 20 to 26 February inclusive.

Train Service

The line is currently severed in several places between Tindharia and Kurseong following major landslides during the 1998 monsoon season. The worst damage is either side of Mahanadi station where the line and adjoining road had been washed away over considerable distances. Work to repair the line is in progress but priority is being given to fully reopening the road and there still appear to be several months work required before through rail services can be resumed. May 1999 is being talked about as a possible target date and there are many signs of progress being made .... but this is India. The line between New Jalpaiguri and Siliguri has been restored following the earlier bridge washout. In the meantime the following service is running daily either side of the break:

km Station/Train No 9D 1D 4D 10D
00 New Jalpaiguri   09:00 16:20  
08 Siliguri Jn   09:30 15:40  
18 Sukna   10:02 15:03  
26 Rangtong   10:46 14:23  
32 Chunbhati   11:20 13:48  
38 Tindharia   11:55 13:13  
44 Gayabari        
50 Mahanadi        
57 Kurseong 06:40     17:45
65 Tung 07:24     16:50
73 Sonada 08:11     16:03
82 Ghum 09:05     15:05
88 Darjeeling 09:45     14:30

Timekeeping was a bit erratic but every train we expected ran and usually within half an hour or so of right time. On the bottom section the trains normal consist was 2 second class coaches plus a full brake. A single second class coach and a full brake worked the top section.

The New Jalpaiguri - Siliguri service was not checked. The early morning shuttle, trains 5D/6D, running NJP - Siliguri - NJP may still run.

Locomotives

All locomotives seen were B class 0-4-0ST's. A total of 30 were built between 1889 and 1927, mainly by North British and predecessor Sharp Stewart but Baldwin built three and another three were locally assembled at Tindharia works. A number are known to have left the line, at least 2 for preservation and a further 4 for industrial service at Coal India's Tiphong (Assam) mine. According to the Area Mechanical Engineer, responsible for the maintenance of the fleet, a total of 14 locos are still in traffic shedded at New Jalpaiguri, Tindharia, Kurseong and Darjeeling. We saw the following :-
779 (SS 1892) working - Tindharia
780 (SS 1892) cold - Darjeeling
782 (SS 1899) working - Tindharia
788 (NBL 1913) cold - Kurseong
792 (BLW 1917) working - Tindharia
793 (BLW 1917) dismantled - Tindharia
794 (BLW 1917) working - Kurseong
802 (NBL 1927) repairs - Tindharia Works
803 (NBL 1925) derelict - Tindharia Works
804 (NBL 1925) repairs - Tindharia Works
805 (NBL 1925) working - Tindharia
806 (NBL 1925) cold - Tindharia

No 794 was the only loco seen in steam on the Kurseong to Darjeeling section and may well be the only serviceable machine at the north end of the line. The status of the other two locos is unclear but both appeared to show signs of fairly recent use. No 788 was missing some of it's motion but otherwise looked intact. No 780 also appeared intact and was unique among all the locos seen in facing south.

The bottom section was much better equipped with four locos actually seen in action (Nos 779, 782, 792 & 805) and a fifth (No 806) appearing to be serviceable. There may have been further locos available at New Jalpaiguri but we didn't manage to investigate.

Normal practice was for locos to work chimney first northbound (towards Darjeeling) and cab forward southbound. At Tindharia works we didn't look too hard but we didn't see any derelict or dismantled locos apart from No 803 which appeared to be being used as a "Christmas Tree" to provide parts for Nos 802 and 804. These entered works in Oct '98 and Jan '99 respectively and were both being actively worked on. The Area Mechanical Engineer told us that loco overhauls generally took 5 months and each loco was shopped every 3 years. The works is a fascinating place and well worth a visit. In contrast to the locos themselves, many of the machine tools installed there are relatively modern but a few really ancient ones still remain in use. The lack of availability of spares means that virtually everything required has to be made on site from the most basic materials. Fortunately the ingenuity and adaptability of the staff more than equals the magnitude of the challenge they face. It is a tribute to all those involved that the little tanks are still capable of being thrashed up the mountain, day in, day out a century after they entered service.

Liveries

All locos and coaching stock seen were painted in the traditional blue livery. The AME told us that they had started to repaint the stock in a "blood and custard" scheme but had reverted to blue after protests from foreign visitors. We added our endorsement of the decision to stick with blue!

Photography

There were no real problems photographing on the line. However, when we visited Tindharia works, it was strictly on the basis that no cameras would be allowed on site.

Flights

We flew to and from Delhi with Lufthansa via Frankfurt. Delhi to Bagdogra (near Siliguri) was with Indian Airlines, returning with Jet Airways. Connections at Delhi were poor with almost 9 hours to kill on the way out and almost 11 hours on the way back. In both cases most of this time was overnight. We used the free bus service between international and domestic terminals which are several miles apart. This runs every hour round the clock. The domestic terminal and visitors' lounge at the international terminal provided relatively comfortable surroundings in which to while away the hours. A good book proved invaluable during these long waits.

Accommodation

We stayed at the Central Hotel in Darjeeling, formerly one of the town's premier establishments which had become very run down. It has recently changed hands and is currently undergoing a major and sympathetic refurbishment to restore it to it's former glory. However, it wasn't finished at the time of our visit and life became rather interesting as the staff wrestled with the hot water system, electrics, door locks etc. This isn't intended as a criticism, more a testament to the dedication of the staff who pulled out all the stops to rectify any problems we identified. I look forward to returning when it's finished.

Transport

The Central Hotel arranged two 4-wheel drive Tata Jeeps with drivers which collected us from Bagdogra, transported us up and down the line during our visit, including chasing, and returned us to Bagdogra at the end. We also had the use of a third vehicle when required. One of the hotel's staff, Mr Rajesh, travelled with us most of the time and proved invaluable for getting information, organising the drivers and even stopping the traffic so we could get clear shots. He also acted as an excellent and informative guide around Darjeeling taking us to see the sights when there weren't any trains running.

Formalities

Although my "Lonely Planet" guidebook no longer refers to the need to get special permission to visit Darjeeling, we were still required to register with the police at Bagdogra airport on the way in and our passports were endorsed. Likewise we had to "check-out" on our return. Anyone planning to arrive by train would be advised to check the latest position with their local Indian High Commission/Embassy before applying for their visa.

Weather

There was a lot of cloud about during our visit although there was usually a fair amount of blue sky as well. Visibility tended to be fairly poor with the haze from the plains often blowing up into the hills as the day progressed and the classic views of the Himalayas dominated by Kanchenjunga were absent most of the time. Local advice was that the weather was at it's clearest just after the end of the monsoon and the autumn was probably the best time to visit for the views. The hot season, around May before the monsoon, is high season for the tourist trade and should be the busiest time for the railway.

Thursday 18 Feb 1999

Group met at LHR terminal 2 at 07:00 for Lufthansa flight LH4611 to Frankfurt. We were surprised to find a 747-400 rostered on such a short hop and even more surprised to find ourselves queueing at Frankfurt to reboard the same aircraft for the onward flight LH760 to Delhi.

Friday 19 Feb 1999

In spite of an ominous announcement about passengers from London having to contact the baggage agent on arrival, immigration, baggage collection and customs were completed painlessly and we were ready to enter India at 02:50 in the morning.

Before embarking on that adventure, we had to wait for two more members of the group travelling on a delayed KLM flight from Amsterdam. They finally arrived about an hour later, unfortunately not all their baggage made it so there was a further short delay before we could leave. Before we took the bus to the domestic terminal we were treated to some unexpected train watching. The train in question was made up of at least 1000 baggage trolleys but seemed totally endless and took what felt like a lifetime to pass. A truly epic sight.

After the relative squalor of international arrivals, the domestic terminal was a pleasant surprise with nice comfy seats to while away the remaining five hours until our departure. We'd heard horror stories about people being bumped from internal flights but needn't have worried, check in was swift and hassle free and our Indian Airlines 737 left within a few minutes of it's booked time of 10:15 bound for Bagdogra. En route we had some excellent views of Mount Everest and the neighbouring Himalayan peaks.

Baggage handling at Bagdogra was delightful in it's simplicity. Instead of a sterile air-conditioned hall, we waited under some shady trees outside the terminal building while the bags were unloaded by hand and hauled in from the tarmac by a farm tractor. We then had to help ourselves to our luggage from the baggage carts. Outside the totally underwhelming terminal building (I've seen more impressive bus shelters) we were required to register with the police and had our passports stamped.
Then things went a bit wrong. We expected to be met by transport from the Central Hotel but there was nobody waiting although plenty of touts offered transport to take us to Darjeeling for a price. A phone call to the hotel ascertained that our jeeps were on their way but we'd been waiting about an hour and a half before they eventually showed up.

En route to Siliguri from Bagdogra, a westbound metre gauge passenger was seen, diesel hauled of course. North of Siliguri we ran parallel to the two foot gauge for several km and had just about concluded that this stretch wasn't currently in use from the state of the track when a southbound light engine, No 779, trundled into view. Further north, between Rangtong and Chunbhati, No 792 passed us heading downhill with the passenger from Tindharia to New Jalpaiguri. Nothing was seen at Tindharia works but No 782 was in steam outside the shed and 2 or 3 more locos appeared to be inside.

Above Tindharia the line was clear until just above Agony Point where the first landslide damage was seen. Further up several massive landslides had carried away both the line and the road for considerable distances. Priority was being given to reinstating the road and in places the track had been tarmaced over altogether.

At Kurseong, one loco was dead on shed. The southbound school train was passed just above Tung at 17:20 with No 794 in charge of two coaches. No 780 was dead on shed at Darjeeling.

Ironically, although most of the B class tanks were built by North British after 1904, none of the locos we'd seen in steam fitted this description. No 779 is the oldest active engine on the line, a 107 year old Sharp Stewart product, while No 782, another Sharp Stewart, joins the centenarian club this year. Nos 792 and 794 are both Baldwins dating from 1917.

Saturday 20 Feb 1999

An early start found No 794 leaving Kurseong just before 07:00 on the school train (booked off at 06:40) comprising just one coach and a bogie brake. We chased the little Baldwin back to Darjeeling where it arrived about 10:00.

794 on the School Train at Banglakhola

The middle of the day was spent sightseeing and eating before chasing 794 back up to Ghum with the 14:30 Darjeeling-Kurseong working. There was a lot of cloud around all day but some reasonable breaks as well. It was never clear enough to see the mountains though.

Sunday 21 Feb 1999

A repeat of the previous day as far as the railway activities and weather were concerned. No 794 did the honours once again but with three vehicles this time including a first class coach for visiting members of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society. Unfortunately, their presence hampered photography as the participants got in the way everywhere the train stopped and their linesiding bus also proved troublesome. Timekeeping suffered with the extra coach and Darjeeling wasn't reached until about 11:00 on the northbound trip.

794 on the School Train at the 'tree' near Dilaram

Monday 22 Feb 1999

A much clearer start than the previous two days. For the first time we could see Kachenjunga in all it's glory towering over Darjeeling. The light was excellent on the Kurseong side of the hill as well and we got some excellent shots of 794 working the 06:40 Kurseong-Darjeeling. From Ghum we dropped down to Kurseong where the loco on shed was identified as being No 788, missing some of it's motion but otherwise appearing complete and in good condition. From Kurseong we took an alternative route down the hill to Sukna. This was a narrow twisting road that dropped over 4000 ft in a mere 8 km but wasn't clogged with trucks or buses. Kurseong to Sukna took under an hour.

794 on the School Train approaching Sonada

We had been told initially that the passenger on the lower section ran at 10:30 from New Jalpaiguri every second day, returning the following day. Around 12:00, shortly after we arrived at Sukna, No 805 arrived from NJP and we gave chase to what we thought was the regular service train. An official of the NEFR backed up by 2 policemen approached us at the water stop above Rangtong and told us that the DHRS had chartered the train and they didn't want us to photograph it so we had to stop. We came to a compromise arrangement with the organisers where we contributed to the cost of the train and made a donation to the crew in return for permission to phot.

Ironically we'd tried to ascertain the DHRS plans the previous day so we could make sure we avoided them. One of their number told me that they had a free day in Darjeeling. On that information (or possibly disinformation?) we'd decided to cover the bottom section because they wouldn't be there. We continued chasing the special to Tindharia but the weather was getting seriously hazy by the time the train got into the hills. No 792 was waiting at Tindharia to return to New Jalpaiguri with the regular train.

Further checking after arrival at Tindharia revealed that the regular passenger runs daily at 09:00 from New Jalpaiguri to Tindharia returning about 13:15 from Tindharia. This turned out to be correct.

On shed at Tindharia, No 782 was in steam with Nos 779 and 806 both cold. The frames and boiler of No 793 were stored at the back of the shed. We arranged a works visit at short notice and found Nos 802 and 804 under repair with No 803 acting as a source of spare parts to keep it's sisters going.

Tue 23 Feb 1999

We headed down the hill to chase 794 in from Kurseong on the morning train as usual. The day started sunny but the weather deteriorated by mid morning making further photography rather pointless. The cloud showed no signs of breaking for the afternoon run up the hill to Ghum so most of us decided to ride the train for a change. What a treat and at 3 Rupees (less than 5p) for half an hour of sustained thrash, incredible value for money.

794 on the School Train approaching Dilaram

Wed 24 Feb 1999

Chased 794 on the morning train as far as Rangbuhl (at 09:05) then dropped down to Sukna (arr 10:35) to intercept 792 on the New Jalpaiguri to Tindharia train which we chased to it's destination (arr 12:25). Both trains ran in reasonably good light most of the time although it was always fairly hazy. No 805 was waiting at Tindharia with a DHRS special down to New Jalpaiguri which was followed out by 792 on the return service train. We headed back up the hill to Batasia in an attempt to catch 794 on it's return trip from Darjeeling, a journey of approx 90 mins, arriving in good time. Unfortunately, the cloud had built up and the loco had a videot from the DHRS party on the roof so it was all a waste of time.

Thu 25 Feb 1999

Basically a repeat of the previous day which started with No 794 on the school train from Kurseong which we chased as far as Sonada at 09:00. Although the light was brilliant to start with, the cloud had built up over the mountains by this time. We headed down to Sukna (at 10:30) to intercept No 805 on the train from New Jalpaiguri which we chased all the way to Tindharia (arr 12:20) in bright but hazy light. No 782 was waiting at Tindharia to return the train to New Jalpaiguri. We returned to Batasia to photograph No 794 working the train from Darjeeling back to Kurseong but were stuffed by the cloud again.

Friday 26 Feb 1999

Our last full day on the line started as usual with a trip down to intercept the morning train fron Kurseong with No 794 in charge. Once again, we chased to just above Sonada before dropping down to Sukna to find the train from New Jalpaiguri, this time in the capable hands of centenarian "Sharpie" No 782. Where else can you still find a hundred year old loco, not only in passenger service but being thrashed on 1 in 30 gradients as well?!

794 on the School Train near Sonada

After the train's arrival at Tindharia most of us returned straight up the hill to Batasia to get No 794 coming out of Darjeeling on the return working to Kurseong. Due to a political rally in the town centre, Darjeeling was choked with traffic, delaying the train by the best part of an hour before it reached Ghum in cloud again. We then had a very slow journey through the crowds back to the hotel. One of our number stayed at Tindharia and saw No 805 depart on the afternoon train down to New Jalpaiguri.

Saturday 27 Feb 1999

For the last time, we intercepted No 794 on the school train below Dilaram and chased to just above Sonada before leaving for Bagdogra airport and our long journey home via Delhi and Frankfurt. Darjeeling to Wokingham took a mere 36 hours most of which was spent waiting for flights at various airports. We did get a train ride out of it though, between terminals at Frankfurt Airport on the elevated rapid transit system. Good fun but nothing compared to the experience of thrashing from Darjeeling up to Ghum behind a B class tank!

Conclusions

Viewed on purely economic grounds, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway should have closed years ago. Its locomotives are ancient, costly to maintain and require a crew of 4 or 5 to operate, it suffers from landslides that seriously disrupt operations for several months every year and require expensive repairs, it charges ludicrously low fares, takes twice as long as the bus and most of it's trains only have the capacity to carry a handful of passengers. In short it's a complete anachronism, but that's half the appeal. There is still pressure from the road lobby to widen the road by taking over the trackbed but this would still leave a narrow winding road following a very indirect route. We were told that a project to build a completely new road on a more suitable direct alignment from Siliguri to Ghum is already underway but delayed by arguments over its financing. When it is eventually completed it should relieve the existing road of much of its traffic and reduce the demands to close the line.

Fortunately Darjeeling's business community is beginning to wake up to the fact that the town just wouldn't be the same without it's railway and its future lies probably more as a tourist attraction than as an essential means of transport. An application for World Heritage Site status has been made which should entitle the line to UNESCO funding and hopefully ensure the continued operation of this unique railway long into the future. However we did warn that whatever was done to promote the line, the essential character of the operation must remain the same or it will lose much of its attraction.

With UNESCO financing, the support of the local business community and the railway preservation movement internationally, we could still see B class tanks being thrashed up 1 in 30 gradients well into the next century.


Rob Dickinson

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