The International Steam Pages
Black Diamond Express DVD
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There are two 'Black Diamond Expresses' in India. The official one runs on the Eastern Railway between Howrah and Dhanbad; the lesser known runs at Tipong Colliery, in the far north-east of Assam state, along the WW2 Stillwell Road and almost on the border with Burma. I first went here (on my first trip ever with Yuehong) in 2004. You can read my account, which ends "If (I would like to think 'when') we revisit, it would be for a fortnight instead of three days. This is an absolute treasure of a narrow gauge railway..... " Suffice to say 4 years on we satisfied the dream. However, it is very difficult to convey the ambience of the place with still pictures which must be an excellent reason to buy our double DVD! These are conventional stills below to give a feel for this treasure of a railway.
The Black Diamond Express features:
As usual, the real stars are the people who work on and live along the railway.
Thanks are due to Ashok Sharma of Real India Journeys who arranged our visit. And especially the management of Coal India (North Eastern Coalfields) for their hospitality and co-operation.
The material for these DVDs was filmed by independent film producers Rob and Yuehong Dickinson during an extended visit to the railway in February 2008. It was recorded in DV-AVI format and the result is a broadcast quality film (2 DVDs, approx 55 minutes each). Like 'Logging Off', 'Sweet Spot', 'Shibanxi Heaven' and 'Battlefield Heroes' this is not just another steam video, it is a total record of a way of life that has barely changed since the railway opened.
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A film nearly two hours long about a railway approximately two-and-a-half kilometres in length: it didn’t really sound promising. How wrong I was. For Rob & Yuehong Dickinson have in recent years established a deserved reputation for producing intelligent, well-filmed DVDs on the very last narrow gauge workings in the world and “Black Diamond Express” is among their best.
The film revolves around life on the two-foot gauge railway serving Tipong colliery in Assam in NE India, a place remote enough for few enthusiasts to have visited it. But as this film shows, what a gem most of us have missed. In its present incarnation, this short railway consists of a “main line” and a branch. Its purpose is to carry the products of a number of small coal mines, both underground and opencast, to a central loading point, from where it is trucked to its destination, mostly of it going to the nearest Indian Railways railhead. The coal trains run through pleasant enough scenery, nothing spectacular, but the greatest of interest lies in the railway’s motive power, all 0-4-0STs. But what a collection.
To reach the mine served by the branch the railway has to cross a bridge of minimal strength and this duty has ensured the survival a lightweight Bagnall called David. This emerged from the Staffordshire works in 1924, but looks every bit the older design it is. On the days David doesn’t feel so well, these turns are entrusted to a small, locally built diesel, interesting enough for some, I suppose. The “main line” motive power is more familiar: two of the four famous B class purchased second-hand from Darjeeling in the 1970s, which somehow manage to lose their “toy-train” image in this industrial setting.
And that’s Tipong: 2½ km of track, some tubs of coal and four engines, two of which work at any time. Photo spots are limited, none particularly outstanding, and many of the scenes are filmed from two distinctive perspectives. The potential for tedium is, frankly, high, yet the film never disappoints. It proceeds at leisurely pace (no MTV-style cutting here), neatly reflecting the way of life in this isolated corner of India, which last saw modernisation when the colliery and the associated railway arrived. Tipong still looks and feels like the India I remember from 30 years ago, an India that is by all accounts rapidly disappearing.
The trick and success of “Black Diamond Express” lie less in its railway scenes than its loving attention to the life that goes on around it. There is more than enough excellently filmed railway action (though expect no dramatic angles or lighting) to satisfy every diehard steam buff. But we also watch as Moslems and Hindus at prayers in their mosque and temple, the latter literally a metre or two from the railway; we have time (remember that leisurely pace) to visit tea shops and almost enjoy the local fast food; we learn of industrial processes and an industrial world which has long disappeared in our own neo-liberal nightmare; we see children playing cricket and women practicing local crafts, all as our 0-4-0STs shuffle past in the background. The great achievement of the film is the total integration of the railway with its environment, and it is this that raises it way above almost anything else on the market (certainly those films with their contrived smoke effects or, say, of Eritrea where locals are, I have heard, paid to sit on coaches to make it all look just the “way it used to be” ... ).
As the unobtrusive commentary observes, Tipong colliery is hopelessly uneconomic. There is little evidence of mechanisation and nearly every operation (most of which could have been seen at Tipong or similar collieries at any time over the past century or longer) is labour intensive. In a region of high unemployment and considerable social unrest, this is perhaps no bad thing, but one is left wondering what place is left for the inhabitants of Tipong as India modernises and turbo-capitalism replaces the quasi-social capitalism currently practiced in this small corner of Assam. Not every Indian can become an IT expert in a glitzy high-rise in Mumbai.
The railway was filmed by the Dickinsons over two visits 2004 and 2008. They may well have been among the very last who had the opportunity (and good fortune) to visit and film at Tipong colliery for the latest word is of closure. If so, the colliery and its tiny railway have a fitting memorial and we are blessed with a superb DVD to enjoy in the future.