Darjeeling Himalayan Railway: The ‘Iron Lady’ is Back on Track
Five years after the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) went out of circulation, the ‘iron lady’ is back on track.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site awardee has only been making fragmented runs since its services were affected by a major landslide at Paglajhora, halfway between Siliguri and Kurseong on June 14, 2010, to the anguish of visitors – both domestic and foreign.
The destroyed tracks have been relaid, the track bed reinforced and the DHR is once again chugging up and down the hills of Darjeeling.
The Toy Train
Fondly nicknamed the “Toy Train”, a major part of the region’s tourist attraction was missing for the last five years, with the DHR thoroughbreds either resting in stables or making truncated runs. The comeback has therefore been received with glee by one and all. Such is the love for the engineering wonder worldwide!
To the people of the region, the DHR is much more than a recipient of the UNESCO World Heritage Site award. The rickety yet quaint carriages meandering through jagged hills, skirting a stream here, ducking behind a clump of trees there, shaving off shop-fronts next, with jubilant children running alongside the Tom Thumb locomotives, is a way of life in these parts.
The DHR’s popularity is worldwide, so much so that enthusiasts in the United Kingdom run a society after the nomenclature and had lobbied for the DHR’s inscription in the World Heritage Site list. They also organise yearly chartered trips to the region for members, contributing to the economy. That’s the impact of the DHR.
Well-Deserved Heritage Status
In recognition of its social, cultural, economic and industrial value, the Indian Railways had in 1998 urged the UNESCO to confer World Heritage status to the DHR. The UNESCO world heritage committee at its 23rd session in Marrakesh, Morocco, decided to inscribe the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway site on the World Heritage list and conferred the status on December 5, 1999, acknowledging the influence of the innovative transportation system on social and economic development of a multi-cultural region.
The Darjeeling hills and neighbouring Sikkim have a surreal charm and attract people from all over the globe. The DHR’s revival would send out a general cheer and prove a money-spinner for those in the tourism and hospitality sector.
Chugging Along Since 1880
The DHR is a repository of dreams steeped in history. It began its journey from Siliguri on 23 August 1880 and chugged up to Kurseong. That makes August 23, a red letter day in the history of the DHR.
Travelling up to Darjeeling was a cumbersome exercise in the early part of the 20th century. The Indian Railways set out to solve the problem and launched the Northern Bengal State Railway from the Ganga to Jalpaiguri in 1873. Eventually, broad gauge tracks were laid up to Damakia and one had to cross the Ganga on launches.
At this juncture came along Franklin Prestage, the man who envisaged and ultimately created the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. He set up the Darjeeling Steam Tramway Company in 1878 and started a two-foot narrow gauge line with support from the government. The Toy Train climbed up to Kurseong on August 23, 1880 and on July 3, 1889 reached its destination Darjeeling.
DHR Still Remains the Crown Jewel
The company nomenclature was changed to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway on September 15, 1889. The DHR was attached to the Assam Railway in 1950 and in 1958 it was incorporated into the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR), of which it still remains the crown jewel.
The DHR’s history is a treasure trove of events and incidents that challenge even the most fertile imagination. For instance, Kurseong was the DHR headquarters in the service’s nascent stage.
A hazy moon in the misty sky, sleepy little doll’s house cottages on the hillsides, the distant hills drawing near – only the Toy Train can reward a traveller with such unforgettable moments and sights that cannot be measured in material terms.
(The Quint is now on WhatsApp. To receive handpicked stories on topics you care about, subscribe to our WhatsApp services. Just go to TheQuint.com/WhatsApp and hit the Subscribe button.)