Whither Steam, the Preservation Movement .... and the DHR itself?

by Terry Martin

This article was originally published by the Indian Steam Railway Society (ISRS) in its newsletter, and is reproduced here by permission, which is gratefully acknowledged. Copyright for the material here rests with the ISRS and the author(s) of the article. The ISRS is the premier organization in India engaged in preservation and efforts to promote awareness of the country's railway heritage.

This article originally appeared in the ISRS Newsletter No. 2/3, Summer/Autumn 2000.

The recognition of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) as being a World Heritage Site brings in its wake a number of important responsibilities. The railway has now been placed on an international stage, and this may be an opportune time for us to consider where the railway is going from here and how it should further take shape. Indeed, there have been suggestions of volunteer help from many who have the experience and skills of working on other narrow and standard gauge railways across the World. It would be given with a good heart and generous spirit, but caution must be exercised, for this could inadvertently cause offence to those working on the railway.

The need for a strategy is urgent, for there are still dissenting voices in high places, and no response can be mis-interpreted as an endorsement. Mr R.R. Bhandari, a much-respected biographer of the history of Indian Railway System, has unbelievably suggested that the railway should close down, with the exception of a small spur from Darjeeling for the amusement of tourists. I am reluctant to pass comment in fear of sounding impertinent, but as a senior railwayman he does have the ear of many other senior railway bureaucrats. The severe economies applied with the logic takes it beyond belief, whilst at the same time flaunts a direct and blatant contradiction with the spirit of heritage and UNESCO. If one was to apply the same reasoning, the pollution from the industry in Agra that causes damage to the stonework of the Taj Mahal would justify razing most of the monument to the ground, retaining perhaps a minaret and a sign to say where the rest once stood! I draw strength that Indian Railways understands that a nation not only distinguishes itself by the progress it makes, but by the history it honours.

The future of steam on the railway illustrates another cause for concern if the history is ignored, for that teaches us to learn from the past, and thus helps us understand the present and shape the future. The DHR was able to comfortably maintain a service in the 1930s that took 5 1/4 hours for the run from Siliguri to Darjeeling, and four bogie carriages and at least one freight wagon was the normal load. The coaches was heavy and ornate, and even during the time of the Second World War when the trains were jam-packed with soldiers, the 1942 timetable shows the Mail' was still able to depart Siliguri at 6.40 and arrive at Darjeeling by 12.12.

This demonstrates what properly maintained steam locomotives were capable of. It was not a matter of speed but time, for there were far less delays than experienced now. The volume of road traffic may well contribute to impeding the progress of trains today, although I cannot recall the train actually slowing down when crossing the road, whilst the speed was always restricted to 5 mph through the bazaars. It would however impede progress to compare the performance of an exhausted stock of octogenarian steam engines with that of a new diesel!

A new (or re-built) steam engine designed and engineered to modern principles would not need to frequently stop for water, re-fuelling or blowing up a bit more pressure, and I can tell you from my experience with owning and running vintage vehicles that an 80-year old internal combustion engine can be a lot more temperamental! The technology is now available to build highly efficient oil-fired steam locomotives that can be operated by one man. Improved operational readiness can be achieved by an external electrical heating device which can be remotely controlled by telephone and enables an unattended locomotive to be put into steam from cold and thus be ready in about 10 minutes when required for service, whilst efficient boiler insulation can enable locomotives to be kept in steam overnight.

The history of the Garratt locomotive on the DHR reminds us of the operational limitations imposed by this unique railway. Once their technical inequities were sorted out, the locomotive proved it was capable of hauling a greater payload than the four bogie carriages and wagon of the B Class. However, the mathematics of flange friction came into play with longer trains, explaining the tendency for derailment on the tighter curves. It is not by accident the trains ran in tandem or triplicate on the mountain section; it was the only practical means learned by hard experience.

Comparisons with other Indian mountain railways can also be misleading, for the Kalka-Simla and Matheran Light railways were built on their own engineered routes away from the highway (the Simla line costing over four-times per mile to construct than the DHR) and can offer unique views for the traveller. Whatever the economics are on offer, the fact is most people take trains for one of two reasons (i) as transport or (ii) the pleasure. If a train is used for transport, the motive power is irrelevant; if it is for pleasure, it can be crucial.

The spirit of adventure has always been the undeniable attraction for most visitors to the Himalayas. It is therefore the means of transport that is a vital part of the equation for the success of the DHR, and with that the sense of the journey becoming an integral part of that adventure. Returns over the years have showed that World Heritage status can bring at least a 25% increase in visitors, and the employment of new diesel traction would be seen as a betrayal of that heritage. Whatever modern internal combustion represents, it cannot be heritage! Steam traction for passenger trains is therefore important, and that is why the Festiniog, Ravenglass and so many others not only re-built their steam engines, they constructed new ones.

There in lies the reasoning behind the Welsh Highland purchasing Garratts from South Africa, the Harzquebahn and Selketalbahn in Germany having laid up their diesel locomotives, and the Silvertown and Durango in Colorado depending solely on steam. This latter railway is 45 miles long and seats are fully booked months ahead of running. A survey on the Schafbergbahn in Austria showed that 79% preferred steam traction, 3% diesel and 18% had no preference. The Swiss are as shrewd and astute as any nation could aspire to; they recently commissioned brand-new steam engines to be built for their mountain railways, for they understand that is where the best business potential lays. Turning the DHR passenger service over to diesel is simply putting a Band-Aid on the current problem and turning it into just another narrow gauge railway and not the most important steam narrow gauge railway in the World. Emotional? Yes of course it is, but then the business of the DHR must lay here and with the understanding that emotions have taught mankind to reason.

Darjeeling, Sikkim, Kanchenjunga, Tiger Hill, Everest, the Himalayas .... the pull for the visitor is irresistible .... almost. There are now quality hotels of an international standard in Darjeeling, but the journey is hardly attractive for somebody who is not an enthusiast. Travellers are attracted to the town, but what it needs is the tourist. A traveller will travel lightly and think nothing of hitching a ride and seeking the least expensive accommodation, whilst a tourist on the other hand spends money on the "Indian Experience". The DHR has the ability to turn the journey into an adventure for that tourist, and a comfortable one at that.

The reputation for an erratic service is recorded in all current travel books; it need not be so if Indian Railways are serious about attracting passengers to use the line. I have met international tour operators who are most anxious to include the DHR on their itinerary, and their customers would pay good money for the experience, but they cannot make the bookings if there is no guarantee of a train for them. It is a potentially long journey by rail to Darjeeling, but the problem can be turned into an opportunity by a stop for tea at Tindharia and lunch at Kurseong, as in the earlier days. Comfortable carriages that had a refreshment facility would attract the tour operator, and what better to convey the spirit of romance and adventure than a steam train climbing the Himalayas? The price of one ticket on such a train would probably exceed the whole of the fares taken on the existing service.

The receipts for the Darjeeling - Ghum tourist train are encouraging,

but it is still ignoring the potential of the rest of the line, for most of the unique engineering features are between Sukna and Kurseong. The tourist train should be a steam-hauled service from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling every day, and one that waits to connect with the Darjeeling Mail, which invariably arrives from Calcutta late and currently obliges its passengers, to take the bus or a taxi jeep. The station at Sukna could have the huge potential of being tastefully adapted to being a rest house and accommodation for groups and individuals arriving or departing on flights at Bagdogra. Passengers arrive daily at the airport bound for Darjeeling, and ignoring this valuable source of revenue is unforgivable. The tour operator would see a niche market with a new experience for tourists and visitors to India. A traditional steam-hauled train with comfortable carriages and a buffet car would be the perfect introduction to Darjeeling. Visitors travel from many parts of the World to take the journey behind a steam train, but it is not just to see the trees at Menzies Creek, the tulips in Medemblik or the shingle on Dungeness beach.

India has had the wisdom to judge the success of the railway by its capacity to fulfill a social need. It must be remembered it is a working railway and it is essential to maintain a service that is tailored to the needs and requirements of those who live along its route. I doubt if many of those using the service care a fig about the motive power, but just because steam technology is older than internal combustion, is not a justification for its replacement.

Internal combustion is nothing new to the DHR, and indeed the question was being discussed by the Directors as far back as 1909 whether to purchase a second-hand motor inspection trolley. It did not materialise, and the first such vehicle to arrive was a 40hp railcar in 1920. It did not remain in service for long, and it was to take another twenty years before the next serious attempt with a Bo-Bo diesel ordered from Walford Transport in Calcutta. It took two years of testing on the Howrah-Amta lines before it was despatched to Siliguri, but it was not long before it revealed its inequities. Trials in more recent years focused on employing one of the German built Bo-Bo diesels that had acquitted themselves on the Kalka-Simla and Matheran Light railways, but it was not long before it was sent back. But there may just be a case for diesels on the DHR today!

The Hill Cart Road to Darjeeling takes a severe beating. The deforestation of the land that made way for tea plantations and buildings has allowed the monsoon rains to pound the rock surface with no abatement, and over the years, much of the soil has been torn away. The sun heats the surface by day and causes it to expand, whilst by night it contracts with the cool air. The surface is loosened with this stretching and compression and becomes broken into boulders, fragments of stone and dust. The rain beats on the weakened surface, washing away the smaller particles, dissolving minerals and leaving insoluble material to be blown as an abrasive dust. Winter freezes the rain in the weakened crannies and expands, promoting the destructive action beneath the surface.

The Hill Cart Road was built in 1861 for bullock-cart and certainly not constructed for the intensity of traffic witnessed today with heavy lorries and trucks. The geology of the land and the foundations of the road simply do not stand up to the continuous pounding and stresses caused by the axle loads. There used to be a weighbridge at Sukna that limited the vehicles to 4 tons and ensure that no more than 15 lorries and 35 passenger buses operated on the road. It is no longer used and the trucks and buses thrash up the road unchecked. One only needs to look at the subsidence of the road levels and compare it to the railway to see where the culprit lays with erosion. A transfer of freight from the road to rail would provide an immediate solution. A comparable weight carried on the road would be distributed over twice as many axles when placed on a bogie railway wagon, which in turn is transferred to lengths of rail and sleepers.

There is very little freight for Kurseong and Darjeeling that would be compromised by the difference in time taken if rail transport was used. It may even give justification for a diesel hauled freight service, but even then I would have severe reservations. Diesels now operate all the trains that pass through and stop at my local station. It has not taken long for a thick film of black diesel fuel to be deposited across the track when the trains stop or slow down. I fear the consequences of this on a railway that crosses the road so many times and runs up the main streets of villages .... road vehicles will pick this up on tyres, and it becomes as dangerous as driving on ice. I cannot imagine the nightmare of a diesel-hauled train snaking around Ghum in the mists, honking at invisible diesel lorries who are honking back in the confusion and each belching out their lethal cocktail of murderous exhausts. It has very little to do with heritage.

I would like to feel that India has the confidence and the wisdom to innovate and lead with a co-ordinated strategy of regular steam passenger service and not let itself down badly~by following in the wake of others who thought diesel was the answer. Diesel traction is the answer for many railways, but not one that climbs mountains by such intimate terms with the road and the villages it serves.

The DHR has the potential to become the premier tourist line in Asia and replacing steam on passenger trains with diesel is to prise the diamonds from its crown and replace them with glass.

Terry Martin is the author of 'Halfway to Heaven', an exhaustive book on DHR's journey through 120 years.