The International Steam Pages

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, June 2000

The following report appeared in the Indian Express Newspaper (Bombay) on 6th June 2000

Out of steam, Darjeeling toy train endangers world heritage status


NEW DELHI, JUNE 5: The UNESCO has taken a serious note of the "crude" changes made by the Railways in the toy train in Darjeeling-the century-old steam engines have been partially replaced with diesel locomotives. This follows the controversy over the constructions at the other World Heritage Site of Hampi in Karnataka.

Being run by the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), the world's first ever hill railways built in 1888 on narrow gauge was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) last year for its outstanding universal value for future generations.

The regional in-charge for UNESCO's cultural projects, Prithvi Raj Perera, has in a letter written to its World Heritage Bureau in Paris asked it to tell the Indian Government not to tamper with the original character of the heritage property which "truly belongs to the world".

"The Government of India, being a party to the World Heritage Convention of 1972, should respect its norms and should not do anything that endangers or alters the basic structure of the site, which is of immense historical value and world importance," Perera told The Indian Express. Otherwise, he warned, the UNESCO could withdraw the special status.

There have been vociferous protests by NGOs and others on the partial introduction of diesel engines there. Ashwani Lohani, former director of the Rail Museum and now a director in the Union Ministry of Tourism, who was responsible for drafting the project report seeking the coveted status for the property, is angry. "Steam traction is one of the most important components of the outstanding universal value of this rail that presents an engineering marvel. The Indian Railways, by replacing it with the diesel locomotives on the line, has violated the very ground for declaring it a World Heritage Site."

The DHR India Support Group of the Indian Steam Railway Society (ISRS) has even blamed the 'dieselisation' of the 88-km Siliguri-Darjeeling service for an accident on the tracks on June 1 that left four tourists injured. Two bogies, along with a new diesel engine, had overturned at Dhungekuthi between Kurseong and Mahanadi stations while the train was negotiating a curve coming down from Darjeeling. The main road which runs alongside is blocked and all traffic had to be suspended.

Countering the Railways' argument that the locomotives were faster, Lohani and Perera argue that while diesel was more polluting than steam, for the tourists visiting Darjeeling the real experience of the journey was in enjoying the breathtakingly beautiful landscape at a leisurely pace.

"The induction of diesel locomotives was a hasty decision taken as a shortcut to avoid the pains of floating and finalising a tender for modern steam locomotives. Two of the diesel locomotives which were already working (not so successfully) on the Matheran line near Bombay were packed off for Darjeeling and were inducted on the line after rather hurried trials," says Harsh Vardhan, Archivist and Editor of the ISRS publications.

Quoting the Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO) of the Railways, he says the existing tracks were not suitable for the 'heavy' diesel engines and, therefore, needed to be upgraded by replacing the wooden sleepers with concrete ones.

"The authorities, obsessed as they are with the diesel engines, will now go for improvement of the track and strengthening of sharp curves at a cost of millions of rupees when they can invest the same money in building new steam locomotives to retain the original character of the train," says Harsh Vardhan.

V K Aggarwal, Chairman of the Railway Board, when contacted, refused to comment on the issue.

Rob Dickinson