A Visit to Ooty, Tipong, and Darjeeling

29 Dec. 2004 — 15 Jan. 2005

by Roy Laverick

This article originally appeared on the International Steam web site maintained by Rob Dickinson and is reproduced here by permission.

These notes relate to an Indian visit between 29th December 2004 and 15th January 2005. The group was composed of three members and we made our own arrangements.

The Ootacamund line, 30th December 2004 to 2nd January 2005

We were pleased to find that the line was open throughout, and was running in accordance with the timetable.

During this holiday period the uphill trains were very full, and a number of potential passengers were forced to take taxis because they could not squeeze onto the train. (Was this a unique Indian event?) Despite this demand, we were told that the second uphill train only runs during the summer peak season.

The lower, rack section is, of course, entirely steam-worked, with the non-rack upper section firmly in the hands of diesels. Since the uphill train departs Mettupalayam at 07.10 and arrives Coonoor at 10.30, even the most avid steam gricer must look elsewhere to fill his day until the (limited interest) downhill train leaves Coonoor at 16.05.




During our visit, which was dogged by mediocre weather, 37389/92 were seen working the passenger train, and 37391/93 were out of use at Coonoor shed. There was also a further OOU loco in Mettupalayam shed, but unfortunately no one noted its number. Ooty shed was not visited.

We were lucky to see 37395 (the oil burner) working a single-wagon coal train (plus brake carriage) from Mettupalayam to Coonoor depot on the 31st. The train left Mettupalayam at 09.00 and made good time up to Coonoor. It is difficult to make meaningful comparisons, since the coal working was probably much lighter than the passenger train, but the oil burner seemed to have a far quieter exhaust beat than its coal-fired brothers, and it certainly burned very cleanly, with little discernable exhaust smoke at any time. When we were leaving the area on the 2nd, we noted that 37395 was again at Mettupalayam shed, and it seems likely that there was to be a further freight working the following day.

This line always seems to be rather officious towards railway photographers, and consequently we had bothered to get specific written permission for photography from Indian Railways head office in Delhi. This was helpful at various points, where IR staff emerged, seemingly from nowhere, to inspect our credentials, and it also served to grant us permission for a shed visit at Coonoor.

My firm recollection is that almost 20 years ago, when I last visited this line when it was working, trains were pulled from Mettupallayam to Kallar, on the non-rack section. At this point the train entered a 'Y' and the train was pushed thereafter. The Kallar 'Y' seems to have been removed, and trains are now pushed for the entire uphill journey.

Logistics

We reached and left the area by means of the overnight train from/to Chennai.

We used the very comfortable and moderately priced Taj Garden Retreat at Coonoor as our base. To drive from here to Mettupallayam station takes about 75 minutes (against a seemingly never-ending stream of uphill lorries, even at 05.30 in the morning!) so early starts were the order of the day.

Tipong Colliery, 5th to 8th January

Details of this highly scenic line have recently been widely publicised, so I won't reiterate.

During our visit the majority of the line work was being undertaken by 796 (in green livery) with assistance provided by 'David' (in blue livery). 789 (blue livery) was being repaired in the shed, and there was another, unidentifiable 'B' class loco in very poor condition at the back of the shed. The diesel made occasional brief appearances.

The superb scenery, frequent workings (a return trip to the coal handling plant every two hours or so) and friendliness of the mine staff, made for a really enjoyable visit.




Logistics

We flew from Calcutta to Dibrugarh with Indian Airlines, and proceeded by car from there. We were required to register with the police at Tinsukia and locally at Lekha Pani, and also to pay a courtesy call on the Coal India general manager at Margharita. All these meetings proved to be leisurely, and together with delays in obtaining our vehicle and driver at the airport, plus the journey time, six hours elapsed before we reached Tipong.

During our visit we were privileged to stay at the Tipong Mine Inspection Bungalow. This had the advantage of being less than five minutes walk from the coal handling plant but conditions were fairly basic. (Reputedly there is better accommodation in Digboi, but this is over an hour's drive from Tipong). Mosquitoes are a particular problem and in this malarial area visitors should ensure that they have copious supplies of insect repellent. The Bungalow staff were very friendly and helpful, and cooked us some fine meals.

We exited the area on evening train 5960 from New Tinsukia, which should (!), after 24 hours reach New Jalpaiguri. In practice it arrived five hours late.

The Tipong visit and accompanying road transport were very ably arranged by Ashok Sharma of Delhi.

The Darjeeling line, 10th to 14th January 2005

Our prime interest lay in steam photography, and thus we chartered three special trains:

    10/1 Siliguri to Tindharia
  • 11/1 Tindharia to Kurseong
  • 12/1 Kurseong to Darjeeling

These provisions (see below for details) worked out very well, although in retrospect we all agreed that we would like to have done the Siliguri to Tindharia section twice (since it has some of the best photo locations on the line). The Kurseong-Darjeeling section was a bit superfluous since there is still plenty of steam around on this part of the line.

It was over ten years since my last visit, and the line seemed to be in good shape with high morale amongst the staff. It was disappointing though to see what has happened at Agony Point, where buildings and shrubs now largely obscure the grandeur of this location, in a way that has generally been avoided at the Batasia Loop. (Although at Batasia the newly installed cell phone masts cause interference that renders it virtually impossible to obtain an electronic hi-fi sound recording!)




My other major gripe concerns the increasing use of the term 'Toy Train'. I believe this description to be derogatory to those who originally built the line and the staff who still operate it, and implies that construction of the line was undertaken in order to provide some sort of fairground experience! Perhaps I am being over-sensitive, but it still grates, all the same!

We were impressed with the historic displays at Sukna, Kurseong and Ghum. Obviously a lot of work has gone into these, and they did much to help emphasise the deep historic roots of the line. The lavish restaurant at Kurseong station is a real vote of confidence in the future of the line, and has the potential to much improve the 'tourist experience'.

At Siliguri shed we were able to look at number 787, the oil burner. It bore all the signs of being heavily cannibalised, and looked highly unlikely to run again without a further rebuild. I hadn't realised quite how ugly it is, and whilst commending IR's efforts to keep steam running on the line, 787 was reminiscent of those once popular cartoons ridiculing what happens to projects when there is inadequate communication between users, designers and builders!

We saw no steam activity on the Siliguri-Kurseong section of the line apart from our specials. The service trains were firmly in the hands of diesels 604 and 605. We were told, however, that there is a regular steam-worked Sunday excursion from Siliguri to Agony Point. Had we known this, we would undoubtedly have scheduled our arrival for Sunday rather than Monday. Apparently this service has proved very popular with locals, and was already fully booked to the end of February.

At the Darjeeling end of the line, 'Joy Trains' for tourists potentially undertake return trips to Ghum at 11.00 and 12.50 each day. The fare is Rs 240 per person (about 3) and a minimum of six passengers are required. At this price, hoards of passengers might reasonably be expected, but there seemed to be an almost complete absence of publicity. There is a special Joy Train ticket window at the station, but pointedly it was unmanned at times when tourists might reasonably turn up to buy their tickets! Moreover, the adjacent window was manned but was concerned solely with service train tickets, and resolutely refused to get involved with the Joy Train, despite the absence of any service train customers. I say no more!

I was very surprised that the Joy Train does not utilise the loco and stock from the incoming 'School Train', which is due in at 09.10, but in practice seemed to arrive at about 10.30. Whilst it is unseemly to suggest economy measures in a report of this type, the use of a separate loco and stock for the Joy Train seems an expensive and unnecessary extravagance.

On the 11th we saw another charter train between Kurseong and Ghum, presumably returning to Darjeeling.

During our five-day visit we saw the following locos:

779 OOU, Darjeeling
780 In steam
782 OOU, Siliguri
783 Overhaul, Tindharia works
786 In steam
787 OOU (cannibalised) Siliguri
791 In steam
792 In steam
795 OOU, Siliguri
798 OOU, Siliguri
802 OOU, Siliguri
804 OOU, Tindharia shed
805 OOU, Kurseong
806 In steam

Logistics

We reached the area by Train 5960 from New Tinsukia (see above), and exited by Indian Airlines fight IC7891 from Bagdogra to Delhi.

Our special trains were arranged directly with Mr Saksena, a director of the Indian Railways Catering & Tourism Corporation, which has been given responsibility for heritage train operation. At Rs 22366 per day (about 275) these special trains represent outstanding value, and we are very grateful to Mr Saksena and his team for the excellent service that they provided.

For photographic purposes we wished to have a few passengers on the trains, and Mr Baid at the Cindrella Hotel (see below) was kindly able to arrange this for us, whilst gaining some good publicity for the line amongst the local population.

At Siliguri we were based at the Cindrella Hotel, and in Darjeeling we stayed at their sister establishment, the Cedar Inn. Both provided good food and accommodation, although the latter (probably in common with all Darjeeling hotels in winter) was decidedly chilly! Our car in this area was also provided by the Cindrella, and the excellent driver is now well qualified in the bizarre requirements of railway photographers! We thank Mr Baid for taking us under his wing and helping to make our visit so successful.

Conclusion

In 70s, 80s and early 90s I was a frequent visitor to India and was intrigued to see what impressions I formed after a break of over 10 years.

The friendliness of the people and the squalor of the urban landscapes remain unchanged. Road traffic has obviously increased immensely, and this was particularly noticeable on the Hill Cart Road and the road up to Ooty, where vehicles seriously interfere with photography, and threaten the lives of photographers! Whilst Indian Railways performed faultlessly on the return trip from Chennai to Mettupalayam, the New Tinsukia to New Jalpaiguri train was five hours late, so no change there!

As one who is imminently making his 12th visit to China (where almost all the significant steam locations have now been dieselised), the thing that really impressed me about India was the certainty of finding steam and knowing when it would run.

This is a comment that I never thought I would make about India, but only three railway locations were visited, and each was a gem. Yes! There is life after China!

Roy Laverick
30 January 2005

Material provided by Roy Laverick, Copyright © 2005.
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