The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - India, Round 2
Part 10 - The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway 1

Terry Case writes about his travels for steam. Further tales will follow from time to time covering more of Australia, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Click here for the Case Notes Index, which includes many earlier Indian tales.

The next three tales will cover the Northeast Frontier Railway and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in particular.

On 30th September 1989, the yard at New Jalpaiguri takes on a green vista thanks to the monsoon.

Most of my visits to India were in December/January when the landscape was in drab winter colours such as on 30th December 1991:

Traveling to see the “Toy train” could be a frustrating business. In late September 1989 I found the main road and railway to Kurseong were closed due to land slips. In Darjeeling the rain was torrential. Many closed hotels attested to the lack of tourists following the insurrection which had seen the area off-limits for a number of years as the Indian army battled separatists.

I found the station offices locked and the engines at the small shed were cold. Long queues formed for buses. It was obvious there were no trains and as parts of Darjeeling were flooding; including the station. It was time abort the visit.

January 1992 was more typical with one section working, this time I found the lower section of line closed. I spent some time at Siliguri observing the MAWD class as the NFR was the last place in India to see the class at work. MAWDs were also rostered for the shuttles to New Jalpaiguri. A girder bridge in Siliguri spanned the river which is where I attempted to photograph these trains, but the sun failed to make an appearance.

Up at Kurseong, 782 is almost ready to leave the depot as the crew struggle to attach a generator, 26th December 1993.

1st January 1992 and another New Year in India. 786 (NB 1904) was seen at Kurseong depot being steamed up for the morning departure, the load was a 2 carriage set. The engine was in excellent external condition and would be thrashed in true Himalayan style up the mountain to Darjeeling. Here it pushes its train out of Kurseong station.

First though, I had time to find a café near the station where I had breakfast with shop keepers dropping in to slurp tea from saucers and eat hastily. The engine came up from the shed and shunted back into the station, where it had to be coaled. This was a protracted operation as coal was brought up from a cellar by a team of workers each carrying a wicker basket on their heads; the basket had then to be loaded into the engine bunker. At the top of the flight of steps a beggar surreptitiously stole a chunk of coal from each load that passed, no one was fooled, but when the Station Master came on duty the operation became closely supervised and the coal thief disappeared.

The fireman stirred the fire into life, the injector providing hot water for the station staff to make tea. The coaches and wagons in the yard were still covered in a layer of frost, I doubted the wagons saw any use as even coal supplies were now brought in by road.

The station had once seen up to 3 divisions from Siliguri with a freight or two to follow. At the time of my visit most staff had little to do after the one train of the day departed. The full crew of the steam train clambered on board, the sanders wearing heavy overcoats whilst the second fireman was rugged up for his trip would be spent breaking up coal in the bunker. The guard had two ticket checkers to assist; so at least 8 staff were needed to run the train.

The fireman had to crouch to fire the engine or step back to the plate above the coupling to gain a low position from which to swing his small handled shovel towards the fire. Injectors and gauge glasses were brassed up as was the brake handle and unlike many bg engines it was free of steam leaks. The crew tested the generator that would power the two headlamps for use on the return journey, or if they ran into mist. The engine pushed its carriages out of the station, clearing the points and then whistle blaring moved forward to hustle its way through the main street of Kurseong and head for Churchgate.

I was chasing in a well-kept Ambassador taxi. I noticed the frost had been quite severe in places and causing the engine to slip. Apart from a brief glimpse of the Himalayas from Churchgate they remained shrouded in cloud for the rest of the day. 

The foothills are seen below as the train shares the road.

Train and road stay close together for much of the top section.

I concentrated on using the video, capturing the frantic exhaust that can make these small engines sound like a South African 25NC! The train made frequent halts as potential passengers flagged it down at unadvertised locations. The top section is not so scenic as that from Sukna to Kurseong, but it was a test of engine and crew; though in the earlier years (I had first visited in 1976) the engines were handling four coach loads, (admittedly with lighter carriages). Twelve years earlier on 12th January 1980,  I had been chasing the bottom section using an Ambassador taxi. A postal carriage (identified by its red and blue livery) was included in the consist.

Returning to 1992, At one position I waited by a Tibetan Monastery as devotees walked around spinning the prayer wheels and then watching the train blast past with passengers wishing people “Happy New Year”. Picnickers had hired trucks and buses to take them up the mountain for the holiday; some had loudspeakers mounted playing Indian film music, picking spots for video became challenging. This is the scene descending from the Bhatasia loop to Darjeeling.

At Darjeeling, the mountain tops were visible over the low cloud as the stock was shunted on 18th January 1995.

Winter was the time for railway union elections, (staggered regional elections being necessary). Both Darjeeling and Kurseong stations had posters from the NFR Union listing demands, at Siliguri one poster called for the bg to be extended to that town.

Darjeeling was still full of posters supporting the Ghurkha rebels and demanding Independence, the price had been paid by the poor sods who had been killed or wounded leaving families grieving and destitute. The Tibetans had joined the fray, their posters calling for a free Tibet and they were protesting the arrival of a Chinese delegation in India.

Tourists were slowly returning, but the 11.00 joy ride to Ghum remained cancelled so many joined the afternoon train. I had a seat in the front coach when a large party of Spanish and Italian tourists boarded and were annoyed to find others in “their carriage”. The guard patiently explained it was not a charter, this did not placate them and several tried to eject us, serenity returned after they left at Ghum.

On both my afternoon rides the weather was cold and dull, the famous loop at Bhatasia looked a mess with rubbish blowing over the bare ground. By mid-afternoon the carriages were bitterly cold as the train rolled downhill through the mist. A diversion was passing villages where the train is used as a street car; after Sonada the train was almost empty.

The following afternoon did not get off to an auspicious start as both the driver and fireman had been drinking during the break at Darjeeling. Just before departure they had a fight in front of the passengers, the driver knocked the fireman to the ground and despite others members of the crew trying to stop him he proceeded to put the boot in. The abject fireman then pursued him wailing how he had been mistreated and wanted to kill him! 

The guard eventually grabbed the fireman and bundled him in next to me my and told me to keep him in the coach. As the return journey depends a great deal on the skills of the fireman using the engine hand brake, the guard wanted him off the footplate. The wretch groaned and whinged saying to me “You are God” (ie you put it right) and continued the theme of murdering his driver. I noticed between his fits that the footplate crew now included the guard who had taken charge of the engine handbrake, I felt somewhat reassured as the driver had not appeared to be at his best. I presumed the guard’s duties were being covered by a travelling ticket inspector. I. I hoped it was not the same one who had accepted a bong from two “passengers” as we neared Churchgate the previous night. It was not marijuana, but heroin that powered the smokers. Morale was at a very low ebb.

On my final morning I had a chance for a shot of the train at Churchgate, before leaving for the airport. The crew was the same as previous days and the murderous fireman gave me a cheery wave! No wonder the IR crews despaired of their low wages, a ticket to Darjeeling only cost 1.5Rp in 2nd, whilst my taxi driver had optimistically quoted 450Rp to go to the airport. Perhaps someone once paid that price?

To be continued...

Other Round 2 Indian Tales:

Rob Dickinson