Tea Train and Timber
by Vikas Singh
Siliguri, June 2
Reached New Jalpaiguri by 2436 Dibrugarh Rajdhani on time at 1120 hrs. Spent some time in checking out the now disused steam shed. Later checked into Hotel Manila on hill cart road, Siliguri. The hotel besides having an excellent restaurant is just a five-minute walk away from the NG shed. The shed had the following locos that afternoon- 780 and 788 (in steam), 806, 802 and NDM 6 602. 802 was undergoing schedule IV repairs and getting a fresh coat of paint. The wheels of 602 had been sent to Bonaigaon for re discing. 1002 and 792 had been sent to Golden rock workshop. At 1620 hrs NDM 6 604 bought in the holiday special (now re named as safari special) with just a single coach SLR-154. That day safari special had not a single booking. Later in the evening NDM 6 605 bought in the four coach rake of 2 D (SLR-155, FCZ-28, S III, GS-363). RA 124 (1917 built heritage coach) was in full glory in the carriage shed. I had last seen it at Tindharia workshop undergoing POH in November'05.
Siliguri/Malbazar, June 3
Went to shed at 0600 hrs to watch early morning steam activity. 788 had been steamed up for safari special. 780 was on shunting duty. It first shunted the four-coach rake of previous day's 2D. It then shunted the two-coach rake of safari special to 788 for its scheduled departure at 0740 hrs. Left the shed at 0715 hrs for Malbazar in the Dooars. It was raining lightly when we left Siliguri. The drive for the first twenty odd kilometers through the Mahananda wildlife sanctuary was enchanting. Stopped for much needed tea and 'wai-wai' noodles at a shop near the sanctuary gate. Soon we reached Sivok and stopped to see the seven spans Testa railway bridge, which is a few meters form the road. Sivok is probably the only station on IR, which does not have a road access, and one has to walk along the tracks to reach the platform. After having a good walk on the Testa Bridge and later spending some time at the station we continued our journey. Soon we were on the coronation bridge. In the past DHR actually ran across the Testa bank below the bridge. An old photograph at Sukna museum clearly shows the alignment. Though I had heard and read about the bridge earlier, I was literally spellbound seeing the magnificent bridge. A beautiful spot has been developed by Hotel Cinderella for viewing the bridge. Soon afterward were in the area of tea gardens. The first of them was Ellen Barie tea estate. Stopped for some time to walk through the garden and watch women pluck tealeaves. Unlike in Coonoor where all leaves after a certain height are cut thru a scissor cum sieve cutter, in Darjeeling area only the two leaves and bud are plucked by hand. Moving forward we passed several other tea estates like Leesh River, Rani cheeri, Kumlai, Diana, Runga mutee, Good hope, Sylee and Baggarcotte. We spent some time watching the weathering and processing process at Abhijit Tea Company's factory. The broad gauge rail l from Siliguri Jn to New Alipurduar follows the road for most part till New Maal. Decided to check out the New Maal Jn before proceeding further. The old meter gauge rail form Siliguri to Changrabandha near Bangladesh border passed thru New Maal Jn. (Siliguri- Gulma-Sivok-Bagrakot, Oodlabari- Dandim-NewMaalJn,-Malbazar-Baradighi-Neora nadi- Lalaguri-Damohani- Mayanguri Road, Bhorepati-Changrabandha).After the devastating Testa floods in late sixties the meter gauge was truncated at Damohani. When the meter gauge between Siliguri and New Alipurduar was converted to broad gauge, the meter gauge was limited between New Maal Jn and Damohani. A MG shed and washing line was built at New Mal Jn but the line never saw any train. The MG track near the station was covered under dense growth of weeds. Late in the afternoon we checked into West Bengal tourism's tourist lodge. The chief attraction of the lodge is the Raja tea estate that is just behind the lodge. In the evening we went to Malbazar station. As per details printed on the booking window, as on 1.7.2002 there were only two services- 679 UP and 680 DN.
Malbazar/ Gorumara, June 4
Left hotel early at 0430 hrs for Lataguri to get permit to enter Gorumara national park. The park is home to one horned rhinos, elephants, Indian bison, Leopard and rock python. The journey from Chalsa to Lataguri was thru several tea estates such as Toonbarie, Soongachi, Aibheel, Batabari, Baradighi and Gurjangjhora. The moment tea gardens were over, the lush green dry deciduous forests of Dooars took over. On the way we passed the now disused MG line from Malbazar to Lataguri. After getting the permit we entered the park. From the Chandrachur watchtower we were lucky to spot a herd of Indian bison. Later we had breakfast at Sinclair's retreat at Matiali. The theme of the beautifully done up dinning room is Banyan tree. On the way back to Malbazar we stopped at Chalsa station. Long time back there used to be a meter gauge line from Chalsa to Matiali. Though the section is no more Bradshaw continues to refer to Chalsa as Chalsa Jn. Back in Siliguri we checked into hotel Manila. In the evening went to the shed to confirm if I was getting steam for the booked safari. Apparently steam is confirmed for the safari only for Saturday and Sunday. I had myself seen diesel hauled safari on Friday.780 was in steam. Other locos spotted were 802, NDM 6 601 and 602. At 1600 hrs 2D arrived powered by 604 with four-coach rake (SLR158, FCZ 122, S 71, SR 116).At 1455 hrs the safari special arrived powered by 788 with two coach rake ( SLR 151 and S 106). I was confirmed that 788would be hauling the special next day.
125th year DHR celebration/ Safari special, June 5
I had booked the safari two months back. Later in association with Siliguri philatelist association (SPA) and Post master General, North Bengal and Sikkim we decided to use the safari to celebrate 125th anniversary of DHR. Though we were running against time, in a short span of twenty days we managed to get all required permissions and clearances for the special cover design and the special cancellation. We had planned to put up a philatelic exhibit on DHR inside the coach. A workshop on railways and special toy train cancellation was also planned. Members of SPA were already at the carriage shed putting up posters and setting up philatelic exhibits. We were soon joined in by other philatelists form places like Gangtok, Murshidabad, Cooch Bihar and Calcutta. At 0720 hrs the two coach rake (SLR 151 and S 106) was shunted into the station. A large number of reporters from newspapers like Statesman, Telegraph, Dainik Jagran and other newspapers were there at the station. There were reporters from news channels like Zee news, Star news, Alpha Bangla and CNBC. Senior officials form department of posts were also there. Fellow IRFCANs Samit and Buddhadev form Calcutta also joined us by then. At 0740 hrs the safari departed. SSP North Bengal and Sikkim, released the special cover commemorating the 125th anniversary of DHR. He also released a special stamp booklet on the occasion. A special cancellation too had been designed. A limited number of twenty-five covers were carried on the safari. These were cancelled at Siliguri Jn and signed by all the eight-member safari crew of loco pilot, asst loco pilot, fireman, guard and the four brakemen. They carried a special toy train cancellation and were cancelled at Sukna post office next day. The safari reaches Sukna station at 0820 hrs. A large number of people had gathered at the station to watch the exhibition. After a twenty- minute stop at Sukna the journey commenced. More people arrived at Rang tong and Tindharia station to witness the safari. The event had been covered in all major newspapers a day before and so people were aware of it. We reached Gayabari station at 1145 hrs. Most people had got down at Agony point for lunch and only a few of us went all the way till Gayabari. At 1305 hrs the 2D powered by 601 arrived with four-coach rake (S 114, S 119, FCZ 117 and SLR 154). Gayabari is the crossing point for Safari and 2D. At 1355 hrs 1D powered by 605 crossed us with four-coach rake (GS 363, S 115, FCZ 28 and SLR 155). Later 786 arrived from Tindharia shed to pull the safari till Tindharia. We left Gayabari at 1415 hrs. Here 788 was reversed and attached to safari cab first. Coach FCZ 26 which had been sent to workshop for POH was also attached. We finally reached Siliguri at 1755 hrs.
The special postal covers with cancellations were auctioned to raise money for the IRFCA server. See the 125th anniversary special postal cancellations here.
Mirik, June 6
A philatelic exhibition and drawing competition on DHR theme had been organized by SPA next day. After a quick meeting with the philatelists we left for Mirik via the pankhabari route. This route to Darjeeling via Mirik is more scenic then the Hill Cart route. It passes through some of the most magnificent tea estates like Jayshree and Thubro. The initial part of drive is through Mahananda forest reserve before the tea estates take over. After the customary boat ride at Mirik Lake and a walk through the forest we departed reaching Darjeeling at 1630 hrs. The booking window at station was closed but the station manager told me that no tickets were available for the joy ride for next two days. There are now three coaches in the joy ride and two services everyday. It was heartening to note that joy rides were running to full capacity. Later we checked into the Darjeeling tourist lodge run by WB tourism. The lodge situated near the Gymkhanas club is away from the hustle bustle of Darjeeling. Evening was spent visiting the Das studio and Oxford Book store. Late in the evening we had excellent sizzlers at Glenary's before retiring for the night.
Batasia loop, June 7
Though it was raining heavily in the morning, we decided to go to the Batasia loop. We reached the loop at 0815 hrs. The scheduled departure for 9D from Ghum is 0800hrs and I expected it to be on the loop around 0830 hrs. However the guard at the entrance gate told me that 9D arrives at the loop only around 0930 hrs. Checked out an excellent spot form the hill nearby to take a few snaps of the loop. At 0930 hrs the 2D arrived. At 1015 hrs the joy train powered by 791 arrived (FCZ 118, FCZ 112 and FCZ 105). The frame of this loco has been rebuilt at Tindharia in 1963. The loco has been rebuilt at Tindharia in 2004. After a ten-minute stop the joy train departed. Since there was till no sign of 9D we left for Ghum. 9D arrived at Ghum at 1200hrs powered by 804 ( II 107, FCZ 100, SLR 153). It was four hours late and I was told that a boulder had fallen on the track near Tung and hence the delay. Both 9D and 10D now have regular first class coach and booking can be done thru PRS.9D left at 1215 hrs and I decided to check out the outdoor exhibits at the museum. Most of the exhibits including the wagons and baby Sivok are in bad condition. A weighbridge is completely covered with weeds. The exhibits were in much better condition when I had last seen them in November. The indoor gallery however is in good shape. After getting some maximum cards with DHR stamps stamped at Ghum post office we left for Darjeeling. Rest of the day was spent visiting the post office and curio shops. Later we had excellent Tibetan lunch at hotel Shangri-La.
Darjeeling, June 8
In the morning we went to the Planters Club for breakfast but the dining room was getting renovated. So came back after spending some time at the beautiful verandah of the club. Two rare orchids were seen near the entrance gate. Later after a superb Mexican breakfast at Frank Ross caf� we left for the rock garden. The drive is through very steep road with incline being forty five degrees at some places. Part of the drive is through the Orange valley tea estate. There is a beautiful natural and one artificial waterfall near the garden. Came back to Darjeeling station at 1500 hrs. At 1535 hrs the joy ride arrived powered by 791B. Later we left for Kurseong by 10D powered by 804 B (S-107, FCZ-100, and SLR-153) at 1600 hrs. At 1607 hrs we had the first stop for water at West point. We left at 1621 hrs. At 75.13km mark the train stopped for lack of pressure. The train was reversed for a short distance and then moved forward again. Again at 75.3 km mark the train stopped for lack of pressure. Just after we had crossed the Batasia loop we stopped again for lack of pressure. The gradient on approach to Ghum station is a steep 1 in 27.8.We reached Ghum at 1712 hrs. The first class coach was fully reserved till Ghum. Here except us all passengers got down. The guard confirmed that on most days people use the first class for joy ride till Ghum. 1D powered by 604 was already at the station (I-117, S-114, S-119, SLR- 154).We departed after the departure of 1D. Soon we stopped again as a boulder had fallen on the track. We reached Sonada at 1810 hrs. There are four covered goods wagon in a shed behind the station. I could note down the number of two of them- C-551 and C-589. The four wagons can perhaps be preserved at NRM or at museum at Nagpur or Howrah. We reached Tung at 1855 hrs. By now it was pitch dark outside. We reached Kurseong at 1945 hrs, one hour fifteen minutes behind schedule. I was told at the station that 10D never arrives before 1930hrs at Kurseong. Took a taxi and checked into West Bengal Tourism's tourist lodge.
Kurseong, June 9
Went early in the morning to the steam shed. It was raining heavily. There were three locos in the shed- 805, 779 and 804 (in steam). At 0615 hrs 804 was shunted into the station. 9D left Kurseong with three rake coach at 0645 hrs. There were no passengers in the first class coach. Apart from the steam action Kurseong has lot of scenic beauty to offer. From the balcony of our room, I could see the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas. Later we hired a taxi and visited the St. Mary's hill, Dow hill and Giddapahar. St Mary's hill has Forest ranger's college, St.John's church and the grotto. Dow hill has an excellent forest museum and deer park. After the FRI museum at Dehradun, this was the next best forest museum I have seen. Giddapahar has SC Bose's house, now renovated as a museum. Subhash Chandra Bose too spent some time at this house. The house had remained disused and in bad shape till it was renovated and converted into a museum. The interiors have been tastefully done and each and every exhibit has been set up with great care and affection by Indian Museum, Calcutta. IR perhaps can learn a thing or two from this museum. Later we went to Cochrane place on the Pankhabari road for lunch where we had roasted tea salad and tea smoked mushrooms for lunch. The place is restored stately British colonial home and has twelve tastefully done up rooms. The hotel has bought out a facsimile edition of the DHR- Illustrated guide to the railway and Darjeeling. We then went to visit the famed Makaibari tea estate's factory. Makaibari is the first tea estate in the world to get Demeter certification for its bio dynamic technique in tea production. It is also the first fair trade certified tea garden in India. In 1996 at an auction by J.Thomas & Co. pvt. Ltd, Calcutta the second flush muscatel style silver tip (imperial) from this estate fetched record price of Rs.18000 per kg. Set up in 1859, Makaibari was also the first tea plantation in Darjeeling. In the factory we saw the different steps involved in tea processing such as withering, rolling, shifting, fermenting and grading. Darjeeling is known for its orthodox black and green tea. Later in the evening went to eagle's Craig view point. However due to mist we could not get a good view of the town from there. At 1635 saw a very late 2D leave Kurseong station. After enquiring I found out that one of the coaches had derailed and hence the delay. After an early dinner at the Glenary's at Kurseong station, I retired for the night with Ruskin Bond's A lamp is lit. Suddenly at 2208 hrs I heard whistle of loco. Rushing out I saw a very late 10D pass the lodge. Since it was very late I decided to check out the reason for delay the next day.
Kurseong/Siliguri, June 10
Went to the shed early in the morning. Both 805 and 804 were in steam. I was told that part of track between Sonada and Tung had sunk. Staff of 9D had reported it but perhaps good repairs had not been carried out. As a result one of the coaches of 2D had derailed. Recovery van from Tindharia had been pressed into service and later the train had resumed downward journey. That was the reason for 2D being late at Kurseong. Later during the day part of rail between Ghum and Sonada had fractured. As a result of this the spring of 804 had broken down. It took time to repair the spring. This was the reason for 10 D being so late. At 0630 hrs 9 D left powered by 805. Again as the day before there were no passengers in the first class coach. We then went to Makaibari estate to see the tea tasting process. A very kind estate manager allowed us to see the entire two hour tea tasting drill. We saw varieties such as white tea, Silver tip, Oolong and silver green being tasted. After a quick breakfast at Cochrane place we left for Siliguri via the pankhabari route. Near Sukna we saw excellent orchidarium at Mahananda forest reserve. It has a collection of 75 varieties of orchids. Also visited the non timber forest produce museum. On reaching the New Jalpaiguri station we found that the 1645 NE express was late by 3hrs. This was later stretched to four hours. We had a hard time at the station waiting room in a very humid climate with frequent power cuts. We finally left at 2105 hrs reaching Delhi next day at midnight.