DHR trip report
by Anirban Mukherji
Went on a holiday to Darjeeling & Sikkim with family; a much needed break from the sweltering summer heat of the plains. Arrived Darjeeling on the 14th May to find that a bandh had been called to protest the killing of a local Darjeeling Gorkhaland MLA. Life came to a standstill, but uncharacteristically devoid of violence & general tension so common to life in the plains. Hill people, I suppose are extremely patient and more content than their plain cousins.
Coming to the point, the DHR was closed for the day so we decided to take the joy ride the next day. This "Joy ride" is strictly for the tourist costing a steep Rs.220 for a ride from Darj to Ghum & back.
Camera in tow, we were ready for the ride on 15th morn. Info : This train runs with a minimum quorum of 6 passengers ( still on a loss I guess )
The tickets were issued by a cute young lady who bravely explained the salient features of the ride. Arriving at the platform we found the cute 3 coach train in deep blue livery ( they call it mountain blue since it blends with the colours of the hillside so neatly ) Our coach was #105 ( NF rly ) nicknamed Mark Twain ( I'm sure he would feel honoured to know a heritage rly named after him ) The other two were named Aravalli & Serendip; highly unrelated but memorable names. These specially built coaches ( NR - workshop Jodhpur ) have well cushioned seats in a 2 x1 pattern, 4 rows per coach, so each coach carries 12 passengers in comfort.. The tiny, well furbished & spotlessly clean toilet was a bonus.
The "power" was the oldest running "steam engine" on the DHR, engine # 779 class B ( Himalayan Bird ) built by Sharp Stewart & Co Ltd - Manchester & Glasgow, built 1892 ( before my grandpa was born ) Type was 0-4-0 ST ( ST denoting a saddle tank over the top of the boiler as against T which denotes side tanks on each side.
Engine crew consisted of the driver, the "Khalasi" - fireman and a third helping hand for all odd jobs, from oiling the aging cranks to refilling water and sealing sudden leaks in the piping.
Coaches have manual braking operated through individual steering -screw mechanism placed in each coach, unlike the Neral Matheran rakes with brake handles mounted outside the coach, this means less strain on the "brake coolies".
At 10 a.m sharp our train chugged out of the platform, the sharp & sweet whistle warning all around, since almost the entire alignment from Darjeeling to Ghum runs alongside the Darjeeling - Ghum road which is so busy that the whistle is the major & I guess the only "anti-collision device". For the record, the DHR locos are not run if the whistle goes defunct, such is its indispensability.
Our run would take us 7 kms uphill from Darjeeling 6812 ft to Ghum 7407 ft and back, so the little giant was firing on all cylinders. About a KM out of Darjeeling the train halted for refilling the saddle tank, there's an elevated water tank ingeniously located on a hill slope from where water is led by gravity to the tanks. Tanks full, our train started descending backwards, since the engine needs a lesser gradient to pick up, so having backtracked around 100 m, our Himalayan Bird began its forward march. Noted no wheel slip of the engine in spite of such steep gradients ( could be due to dry rails & coupled wheels ) Passing by the first siding on this section, we arrived at the much much awaited Batasia Loop ( km 75/1 ), Our train stopped here for a 10 min break, so cameras went clicking while the third engine - hand went busy oiling the cranks.
The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill council with NF rly have developed a nice garden and erected a war memorial for Gorkha soldiers in the center of the loop. Most of you know how the loop works, wherein a considerable height is gained by the rail skirting along the mountain with a radius of curve as minimum as possible. The best analogy is the spiral staircase concept. Read "Going Loopy" by David Barrie & David Charlesworth in "The Darjeeling Mail" of November 1998 for more details.
Sadly we missed another specialty "the Z reversing station" six of which are found between Rangtong & Mahanadi stns on the DHR.
By the way, the trains that run between the entire stretch of NJP to Darjeeling are hauled by NDM6 diesels, so it's a caution to rail fans who wish to cover the entire DHR under steam action.
After the Batasia halt, our driver blew the whistle desperately to recall travelers some of whom had ventured too far away out of wanderlust. All aboard, we chugged off towards Ghum.
Running along hill sides strewn with wildflowers & ferns, we arrived at Ghum. It was thrilling to arrive at the highest NG station in the world at 7407 ft, amidst whiffs of clouds shrouding the place and giving it a rather ethereal look. The quaint little station building has a board stating "estd 1891".
We avoided the Ghum rly museum ( no time ) and instead soaked in the atmosphere of the station and surroundings. By this time the fireman had cleared the grate and the 779 B was shunted to head the rake, this time front side leading. At the siding is plinthed the loco "Baby Sivok" another 0-4-0 ST which is smaller than the the old "A" class locos. It was rebuilt and bears a plate "Rebuilt Tindharia works 1945".
We hogged on snacks ( sweet bun & boiled eggs coated with masala ) with steaming cups of tea at the dept stall, again managed by a lovely but rather snooty young lady who insisted to be paid in full before parting with her wares.
Departed Ghum after a 30 min halt, the smoke and steam blending with the rising mountain mist. Since the return was downhill, we were on brakes most of the time, the engine whistling itself hoarse to keep away careless "Janata" off the carriage width space.
Riding along the mountain spur we once again tanked up at the same place since there is no watering facility at Darjeeling stn.
Exactly at 12 noon we trundled into Darjeeling; as I left the train I looked back with hope that this heritage masterpiece would remain forever and continue to regale rail-fans for generations to come. Long live the DHR !