The International Steam Pages

Steam on Three Gauges

Vikas Singh reports on the start of the Darjeeling Himalayan 125th anniversary celebrations:

Kurseong 20th August 2006

Reached New Jalpaiguri by 2506 NE express, one and half hours behind schedule at 1000 hrs. I had arranged for a taxi pickup and we immediately left station for Siliguri steam shed. Nearing the shed we saw a three coach rake (FCZ 26, S 363, SLR 154) being hauled by NDM6 602 towards Darjeeling. My first reaction was that 1D was late. Later at the shed I came to know that it was DRM special. The newly appointed DRM of Kathiar division, Mr. Singh was traveling till Rangtong for inspection purpose. At the shed the following locos were spotted: 780B (in steam), 786B (in steam), 806B (dead), and 787B (dead). 802B (dead) was getting readied for 23rd August run. NDM6 601 was getting fresh coat of paint.

After spending some time at the shed we left for Sukna. On the way we stopped near the bridge on Panchanai River. For quite sometime the hill cart road and DHR shared the same bridge till a new bridge was built for the road. The old Kishanganj NG branch line had junction with DHR at Panchanai. But when the line was converted to MG, there was a new alignment through Matigara. Talked to a number of people there but nobody could point out the place where the station existed. We reached Sukna station just as the DRM special was entering the station. On the way we had seen at least six jeeps with railway officials following the special. Though the museum was open nobody in the jamboore thought it worthwhile to visit. Leaving them behind we commenced our journey.

At the Tindharia loco shed we saw 804B undergoing schedule IV POH. An under frame of A class loco could be seen there along with boiler of 93B. At the station we saw that flat wagon BKU 919 had been moved from there to Sonada. We crossed the 1D near Pagaljhora at 1155 hrs. Though I have been to Darjeeling many times, it was the first time I could photograph a DHR rake crossing the bridge at Pagaljhora. It was a three-coach rake (S-119, FCZ-121, SLR-155) being hauled by NDM6 604. The crossing with 2D happened at Mahanadi at 1225 hrs. 2D was hauled by NDM6 605 (S-86, FCZ-122, SLR-116).

We soon reached Kurseong. 805B (in steam) and 795B (dead) were at the shed. After checking into Cochrane place and a quick lunch we left for Darjeeling. On the way we saw the Salesian college. In old days there used to be a Salesian college halt and passenger trains used to stop here. At the Sonada station for the first time we saw posters on the 125th year of DHR celebration. All along at no station there was any indication of the celebrations planned for 23rd. At the shed behind the stations the following wagons were seen: Flat wagons- BKU 675 and BKU 919.Four wheeled covered wagons- C-551 (1943), C-601 (1944), C-589 (1926), C-576 (1943). The wagons had been recently painted and appeared in good shape. The interiors of the station were being done up and looked pretty good. Tea board is probably setting up a tea museum there. It is highly inappropriate that the place that gave the world famous Darjeeling tea does not have a dedicated tea museum. Apart from Tata Tea's tea museum at Munnar there is no tea museum in the country. But the stationmaster was not sure when the museum would start. After Sonada in the old days passenger trains used to stop at Jorekhola siding and Rangbull siding. Though there is no board at Jorekhola siding, there is a small faded blue and white board at Rangbull siding. Trains used to stop at Rangbull ropeway station. The ropeway had been built by British Ropeway Engineering Co. Ltd, London to carry coal to and tea from Dooteriah and Kalej Valley tea estates. The ropeway is no more in use having lost out to road.

At the Darjeeling shed 791B was in steam. 10D powered by 779B with three-coach rake (S-107, FCZ-118, SLR-153) left on time at 1625 hrs. There was only one couple in the first class coach. We then went to Windmere hotel where we were served Orange pekoe tea in Daisy's music room. There is an old Victorian age letterbox at the hotel. Though one can see a number of such letter boxes in Darjeeling area (Chourasta, Ghum station, etc) they are all made of concrete. The one at Windmere is built out of cast iron. A postman still comes everyday to collect the letters from that letterbox. I bought some DHR picture post cards from the souvenir shop and posted them there. We then started back for Kurseong. The hill cart road is in very bad shape. There is not even a 30-meter stretch that is not broken. The ride back was equally bumpy and tiring. We crossed 10D at Sonada at 1800 hrs. It later arrived at Kurseong at 1930 hrs, fifteen minutes behind schedule.

Kurseong 21st August 2006

Went to shed early in the morning. At 0620 hrs 779B was shunted into the station. It left with the same three-coach rake of previous day's 10D at 0630 hrs, thirty minutes behind schedule. Later in the day I want to see the Elysia building. On was saw the NFR guesthouse being cleaned at a frantic pace. Enquiries revealed that GM was going to stay there. A shoddy patchwork was being done on the road connecting the guesthouse to the HC road. The rest house has been given a fresh coat of paint and looks elegant. If only the same consideration could have been made for the stations as well. During the Kalka-Shimla centenary celebrations, all the stations had been painted majestically in blue and white. Even the equipments like weighing scales, ticket-punching machines, and cupboards had been painted. The brass fittings too had been polished. The entire track had been cleaned. All bridges - major as well as minor and all tunnels had their numbers freshly painted. During the week I was there I could feel celebration in the air. Alas all that is completely missing on occasion of 125 years of DHR! Maybe 23rd August would turn out to be a surprise.

The Elysia building looked grand. Peeping through the window and the doors I could see that entire interior has been done up including some basic furniture. Two gardeners were laying fresh lawn on the slope in front of the building.

Later during the day at 1215 hrs, 2 D arrived hauled by NDM 6 604 with three-coach rake (S-119, FCZ-121, SLR-155). It was late by forty-five minutes. After the train left I spent some time at the DHR archive room. At 1410 hrs 1D arrived hauled by NDM6 602 with three-coach rake (S-114, FCZ-120, SLR-151). It was one hour behind schedule. The first class coach was well patronized. I left station and had lunch at Cochrane place. When I returned at 1700 hrs I was amazed to see that the train was still there. Apparently the compressor oil had finished and they were waiting for the oil. The train finally left at 1710 hrs. The 10D later arrived at 2035 hrs.

Kurseong/Siliguri 22nd August 2006

It as raining heavily in the morning.9D left at 0620 hrs. After breakfast left for Siliguri via the pankhabari road. En route I wanted to visit the 1861 established Ambootia tea estate. But all taxi drivers at stand advised me against it as the road was in very bad shape. Along with Makaibari and Castleton, Ambootia is the third best-known estate for its Darjeeling tea. Ditching the idea we drove straight on.

We stopped at Sukna station. The whole station has been freshly painted. The tracks have been cleaned. Wooden sleepers in the entire stretch from Siliguri to Sukna has been replaced with cast iron sleepers and freshly ballasted. If only the same attention had been paid to other stations and the entire track. I was later amazed to see concrete sleepers near the over bridge. Perhaps they now want to replace the cast iron sleepers with concrete sleepers!

Later checked into my favorite hotel in Siliguri-Hotel Manila. In the afternoon went to the steam shed. The following locos were spotted there- 806 B, 802 B, 786 B, 780 B (all dead), 788 B (in steam). Freshly painted four coaches gleamed in the carriage shed. It was a pleasure to see the shed staff attending to those coaches with so much of luv and affection. The door handles were being polished to perfection and the interiors were being cleaned. The heritage coach too had received the first coat of paint. But I was sad to note that the blue color being applied is different blue now and not the original blue.

WP 7160 had been steamed up and was at the BG line in the shed. It was soon shunted back to the diesel shed. The meter gauge loco MAWD 1798 (2-8-2T) was also in the shed and steamed up. This loco had come to the shed in second week of May from Guwahati and was in a very bad condition. Slowly and carefully it was fully restored by end July. Mr. Deepak Dash who has recently been transferred from Alipurduar to Siliguri shed expressed his wish that now that shed will home two steam locos, the old diesel shed can be suitably modified into a steam shed.

I then went to Siliguri station. I had last seen the station on Sunday and was amazed to see the transformation. Every thing was clean and freshly painted. Both the FOBs have been painted the platforms have been cleaned and painted. The RPF barrack at the station too has been given fresh coat of paint. The water pipes have been painted in bright blue and white color while the water columns have been painted in red and black. Even the rubber pipes have been replaced with new bright green pipes. The drinking water taps were being cleaned. Mosaic work has been done on the exterior of the station. The garden in front where Baby Sivok was once plinthed has been cleaned up and two new fountains have been installed. The NG platform has been renovated and finishing touch was being given at a frantic pace. There is a huge deployment of police at the station but they too seem to have in given in to the "jubilant" mood at the station. Nobody bothered me while I was taking photographs at the shed or at the station.

August 23- Steam on three gauges 2006

Reached the station at 0800 hrs. WP 7161 was there on the BG platform. Named Queen of the Dooars, it had a three coach rake attached-WGSCN 17003,FC 3179,and SLR827093. The train had been named Heritage special. This rake had been used for the heritage run recently in Bombay. The entire six man loco crew was from Alipurduar division. A four-member team from Rewari shed was also there to take care of their "baby". MAWD 1798 was also in the MG platform. Built in 1944 at Baldwin loco works, it was recomissioned in 2001. Later this year in June-July the crew cab and tender was rebuilt at Siliguri shed. Named Queen of Terai it was attached to three coach rake-GS 2210, GS 2158 and SLR 4072. This train too had been named heritage special. Here too the six man loco crew was from Alipurduar division. Both the locos were garishly decorated with banners, flags and even banana plants! Devoid of any decoration the locos had looked much better a day earlier.

Soon queen of the show 802B was shunted into the NG platform. It too had been named aptly Queen of the Himalayas. It had a three coach rake FCZ 23-6 (Falcon Hurst) FCZ27 (Rangeet) and S 363 (Nankum). Here the entire three man loco crew and the four brakemen were from Siliguri steam shed.

By 0900 hrs a sizeable crowd had built up at the station. People had bought their kids with them. Many of them were clicking photographs, some of them were seen explaining to their children how steam works, and some others had their children do a round of the crew cabs. Even the large police contingent was very friendly and not at all obtrusive. It had now begun to rain and we began to fear the worst. Luckily the rain stopped by 0930 hrs, the scheduled flag off time. At 0935 hrs 1D departed with NDM6 605 and four coach rake SLR 154, S119, FCZ121 and SLR 155.

The small cultural function and speeches were soon started. But n all the din nothing could be heard. Finally at 1043 hrs DRM (Kathiar), Member (Traffic) and GM (NFR) symbolically flagged off the three trains from the dias. After traveling a short distance all the three trains stopped to give the photographers an opportunity to shoot. Then both the NG special to Rangtong and MG special to Bagdogra departed. The BG special left at 1100 hrs after the NG had crossed the diamond crossing. I had decided to go in the BG as I was doing the MG any case next day in the Siliguri-Kathiar passenger.

As I have already written in my earlier travelogue "Tea, Train and Timber" the route from Siliguri to Chalsa is enchanting. It passes over some great rivers with magnificent bridges and through Mahananda sanctuary and the famous tea gardens of the dooars. We crossed the now abandoned Gulmakhola station. The station had been abandoned because of the continual elephant menace. This is perhaps the only place in India where elephants have asserted their right with success. We crossed the Gulma station at 1115 hrs. Soon we crossed the Mahananda river and entered the Mahananda sanctuary. At two places along the track were signs asking the loco pilots to be careful, as these were places where elephants frequently crossed the tracks. Soon we were over the magnificent Testa bridge. The river was in full flow. In the first class coach in which we were traveling, I had the august company of DRM (Alipurduar) and his team of engineers. A very energetic and enthusiastic rail man, he took great pride in explaining how his team had worked tirelessly to make this event a grand success. We soon entered the first tunnel at 31 km mark and the second tunnel immediately after a few seconds. By now we had crossed over a number of small rivers. The next big river we crossed was Leesh river, which true to its style of being a mountainous river was too wide but shallow. At 1150 hrs we stopped at Bagrakot station for water. There was a huge crowd at the station to witness the run. After the Testa bridge when we had entered the tea country we could see garden workers rush out of their homes to witness the run. Children waved merrily at us. After a forty-minute stop we commenced our journey. At 1240 hrs we crossed the Oodalbari station and soon after the Ghish river. The next station was Damdim. The SM office has been recently renovated with bamboo theme and looked cute. The initial plan was that the train would stop there but it was later shelved.

At 1255 hrs we reached the New Mal Junction. A large number of school children had gathered at the station to witness the run. After the station we crossed the Neora River reaching Chalsa at 1320 hrs. The entire run was for 57 km. A small cultural function had been organized at the station.

As I had to get some carried DHR postal covers cancelled, I took a taxi and rushed to the nearest sub post office, located a good 5 km from the station. After getting the covers cancelled, I could make it back to the station just in time for the 1440 departure. The engine had been reversed and attached to the other end cab first. On the journey back, I foot plated all the way till Siliguri. Though I have foot plated this WP on earlier occasions also, this time the crew cab appeared more spacious. On the way back we stopped only at Gulma station for crossing with Mahananda express. We reached the junction at 1625 hrs.

Later in the evening we went to hotel Cinderella where Mr. Baid of DHRS had arranged a small felicitation ceremony followed by dinner. The entire top brass of NFR was there.  The GM NFR expressed hope that events like this would help promote DHR.

The entire event was very well managed and for the first time I could see that a lot of effort had gone into generating publicity about the event. NFR had placed ads in the newspapers at regular intervals and the result was that there was a huge participation from the local public.

Rob Dickinson