20 years on the Down Darjeeling Mail

by Arnab Acharya


The orginal (BG) incarnation ran from Sealdah, through what is Bangladesh now (over Padma), Haldibari, Jalpaiguri, onto Siliguri Town, wherefrom the NG train started for Darjeeling. The route was shorter than its present 573 km run. NJP was not yet born. The MG track was inexistent.

I have grown up with the Darjeeling Mail for 20 odd years, having taken it even before my memory started forming. The first vague memories are those of a whole lot of us, my father's colleagues from the NBUniversity and their families, travelling on it. The lights were the yellow bulbs in the 3 tier sleeper, in those days. The berths were wooden. The Mail being the most prestigious train of North Bengal, it got a better rake than the others (say, the Kamrup or Janata). As it ran on a curve, I recall peeping out of the window, into the night, to see the ember glows of the steam loco, doing the huffing and puffing with its rakeload, its headlight lighting up the darkness ahead. It used to leave New Jalpaiguri in the evening, around 7/7.30 pm, I believe.

As I got into school, I remember things more clearly. It was the Pujas and we were going to calcutta. A steam literally hauled in the locked rake of the 44 Down from the yard. The loco looked ill-tempered because of the speed with which it came in, steaming all the way, as it covered the platform! Literally half the University Campus was going to Calcutta. In fact, we had a special NFR counter at the University, for that period. 'Had a gala time, not much memory beyond that. In the morning, we were late, as we got into Khana, from the Sahibganj loop, I remember seeing the electrified tracks. It was still alien to me! The crisscross of tracks, the EMUs, signals, a bottle green top-red border-black bottom electric doing the pull from Burdwan (as it was known then) to Sealdah left me awe-struck. As soon as I got home, in Calcutta, I got hold of an exercise book and started drawing the tracks, with my red feltpen, right from the lone track joining the electrified one!

That was in Class-I! Since, our convent schools had very little Puja hols, we went in Winter, then on. That charm was different. The session used to be Jan - Dec. So, the annuals would be over and we'd take the Mail soon after. (A month before, we'd start the countdown!) As the sun set, we would wait for the requisitioned car to pick us up. By the time, we reached NJP, it was dark. The Mail would be waiting for us at Platform 3 (later renumbered as Pf1). Wrapped in woollens and all, Father would see Mother and us three siblings off. The departure would be 1915 and the like, the rake being put in an hour before, without fail. There was hardly any activity those days at NJP, with only the Haldibari Passenger and the toy train from Darjeeling arriving. The Mail waited for both. C4, as the last sleeper was known, used to be hauled in from Haldibari (mainly for Jalpaiguri passengers) and attached at the end.

Even booking the tickets meant going to NJP. When I was 7-8 years old, Father would take me and my younger sister to NJP, by the MG shuttle from Siliguri Town, ~1315. We would get the tickets and take the same rake back, at 1415. Getting tickets were a pleasure journey, unlike the mad rush at the Centralised Booking at Siliguri, later. 'Don't recall seeing touts, either - not in abundance, at least!

Father would take me all the way up and down the platform. As the diesel came in and took charge, lights would come on in the coaches. As far as I recall, there were no AC coaches then. There were 4 sleepers in all. There was also this concept called 2 tier coaches, where all bedlam went on in the lower berths, while the upper berths were for sleeping (you needed to book that!). The first class was still there, to be replaced gradually by the different AC flavours. There was no vestibule, either.

Though there was no pantry, meal orders would be taken by someone in uniform. The food would be supplied around Kishanganj. We always got food from home, so no idea how it was. As the scheduled time came on, somebody would ring the iron rail, the guard would blow his whistle and the diesel would give a light tug. The platform would start slipping by. Soon, you could feel the coach in motion, clickety-clacketting out. I would peep out through the glass windows, with my hands cupped to see into the dark, keeping the light inside at bay. As the Mail gobbled up all the tracks, I could note the steams waiting at the yard, hissing, as if in cold. Mother would soon down the 'kharkhari's, followed by the glass shutters. Then on it was savouring the quick pickup by the loco. 80kph or so, I should think. When it passed a goods waiting at a wayside station, it was a racket but, a pleasure to a railfan!

Aluabari Road was some 45-50 minutes later. The low traffic ensured that the Mail had an uninterrupted run. Back then, in the late 70's-early 80's, it was a sleepy station, with even dimmer 40W bulbs to scare away the darkness. You knew it was A Rd, when the Mail slowed and halted. As you listened to the quiet, one could hear the faraway strains of Bihari religious songs ('Jai Ram, Jai Hanuman' type). Another light tug in 2 minutes and we were off. Kishanganj was larger, with a single platform though, some half hour away. By then, we would be having dinner and in the process of being tucked away to sleep. Though wishing to see the Farakka was always there, we would be deep asleep, what with the North Bengal cold and all. Chamagram - Malda Town was still with NFR, to be handed over to ER around 1982-3. The Mail was still 44 Down, soon followed up with the then-triweekly Gour Express (SDAH--MLDT). (I remember the frontpage of the Statesman showing a beaming GhaniKhan with the light, flagging it off.) Traffic was so low that, people travelling to Malda or New Farakka had to take the Mail and alight in the middle of the night. The other option was taking the Kamrup at 0100 or so, from NJP. Once, we had to do that, too! We had tickets for the Mail but, our car got late. When we reached Platform1, the red tail-light of the Mail was passing by! So, stayed up and took the Kamrup. 'Just remember dim bulbs, co-operative co-passengers... I was asleep before Kamrup left NJP outer! In fact, it was steam-hauled then, being just introduced in 1973 or so - still lower down the Mail in prestige. The Mail was the only one to get a (BWN) diesel, as far as I know, apart from the (MG) Assam and AT Mails. Assam Mail would even give Aluabari Road the pass, halting only at nearby Thakurganj!

If lucky, the glass shutter would be the only one down for long. It was a feast to just cup hands and stare into the darkness. You could see the lights of towns faraway, vehicles passing on NH31 alongside around Aluabari - Kishanganj; even, a fire in the darkness, some half a kilometre away, and, a couple of people warming in it.

Barsoi was a 5 minute halt but, the beauty was the track turning 180 degrees to get in. The Mail would slow down, unlike the SER track around Rajahmundry, where the trains just fly! It was a game to peep out, head against the bars and count back and forth. One could also get to hear the gentle purr of the diesel ahead. The Radhikapur MG track would cross the BG to join the MG from Dibrugarh, on our right. After Barsoi, the tracks went left. The BG and MG ran together till Mukuria, the next station and, then bade goodbye to each other.

At Kumedpur, a good 4 hours later from NJP, the Mail had a halt of 20 minutes, to take in the Katihar - Sealdah sleeper at the front. The funny thing is, Kumedpur had a triangular platform set. The KIR track was on the right, the NJP track on the left. After leaving for MLDT, both these combined. So, in effect, KIR - NJP meant arriving at one Pf, moving out, backing into another, reversing and then starting! The Capital-bound trains bypassed Kumedpur, after the guage conversion. However, as load increased on the Mail, the KIR coach was discontinued. The halt was reduced to 5 mins, similar to the Up direction one. The Haldibari coach was to have been taken off after the introduction of the Teesta-Torsha Express (one part coming in from Haldibari). However, the Jalpaiguri folks being vocal about their wants, saw to it that it remained. In fact, their history goes a long way. Initially, NJP was to be New Siliguri. Even tickets had been printed. They went to Court - as NJP was in the Jalpaiguri district (2 km or so from the Darjeeling - Jalpaiguri district border), NJP it became!

Malda Town would be around 2345 - 0005, sometimes before time. 'Didn't venture out but, had the pleasure of hearing "44 Down, train chharun!" (44 Down, start your train!") sometimes!

One of those rare times when you got up at night and took a peek, through the window (travelling when it was not winter), I recall whizzing past the level crossing near Pakur - with trucks waiting.

Long before the Shantiniketan Express was born, I recall 16 December (year?). It was Poushmela at Bolpur. We were travelling with Mother. There was this huge rush, waiting to get home from Bolpur. It must have been ~0400 and the whole crowd wanted to get onto the Mail. They were pelting stones, breaking glasses of some of the sleeper coaches. The people who had to alight, dared not. Repeated requests on the station microphone had no effect. This continued for a long time, before the 338 Gaya-SDAH- Fast Passenger steamed in, to our rescue. The crowd jumped onto it. 44 Down left quietly. That left quite a mark on us siblings. Next winter on, we would ask Father, if we would be going through Poushmela!

On a lighter note, there was this lady who was travelling to Bolpur, to Vishwabharati University. Manjulika-Aunty, one of Father's colleagues, was, travelling to Calcutta. As Bolpur was even before the crack of dawn for 5 minutes, the V-bound lady wore one of her slippers and one of M Aunty's and got off. Unfortunately, M Aunty had just bought those slippers!

Morning was heavenly, especially in winter. If the Mail was late, you caught the sleepy and charming stations like Noadar Dhal, Pichkurir Dhal, Guskara... Either way, before and after Bardhaman, watching the lazy vermillion dawn, through the hazy mist was a treat. There would be small water bodies ('pukur's) wherein the sun reflected. A couple of coconut and 'supari' palms next to them... everything else was hazy beyond that. The Mail, needless to say, would be travelling at 80 kph or so.

After Bardhaman came Gangpur and Shaktigarh. Soon after, the Main line deviated. Here, there was a large level crossing, later replaced by a flyover. In the crossing days, it was a feast to see a huge array of vehicles piled up, waiting for the Mail to pass!

Till the point Bardhaman was reached at early dawn, the Mail had class. Just a 15 minute halt, the diesel changed to a ASN WAM/1 and we'd be off. Most people would be sleeping tight. Apart from some who alighted. There would be daily commuters brushing their teeth hurriedly, grabbing a cuppa, the green-yellow EMUs waiting, with announcements being made in the background. The station neons were still on. About 1984 onward, or if the Mail was abnormally late, it was a mess. Arrive at 0600 or later and, the Mail would get held up to let pass the Calcutta-bound Delhi-Kalka, Amritsar Mails. (DLI-KLK would just fly and I'd wonder if we were moving! Looking at the other side confirmed we were!) Worse, all hell would break loose, starting from hawkers to ragpickers, beggars and what not! The hawkers would pull the chain to go from one coach to another. It was amazing how the Mail would be later than the 1.5 hours given to cover from Bolpur to BWN, a distance comfortably covered in 45-50 minutes, with the BWN - SDAH- worse. There would even be announcements scolding the 44 Down's driver, "If you don't start your train, your green signal will be changed!" It would still stay put, Kalka would come in, 44 Dn would start crawling, knowing only too well that it'd soon have to give way to the Kalka! Way back in 1978, the arrival at SDAH- was 0645, which soon stretched and came to 0815 for some time, before stagnating at 0845. Similarly, the departure from NJP stretched back to 1845. The other fallout was, this became a haven of smuggling rice and Nepal goods. Cross Dankuni into the CCRly (DKAE - SDAH-) and, the chain pulling would start. The Railway police were hand-in-glove with these. Before Dakshineswar some of the smugglers would get down, others around Dum Dum. Once, sometime in 1979 or so, when we were travelling in the ladies coupe, some smugglers came in and asked for their stuff. We were surprised as this guy took off the roof and started getting out cassettes, umbrellas, etc. When he was done, he took off his shirt, packed in it and went off. As late as 1984 or so, they would even be bonafide passengers on the 3TR! It was sick, with the Railway police helping them openly, as early as Kishanganj at night! At times, the Mail had to act as a duplicate for some EMU gone bust! That meant we stopped all the way to Sealdah, including an unofficial 'Paglagarod (Mental Asylum) Halt', near Dum Dum Jn.

Aluabari Road, Kishanganj, Dalkhola, Barsoi, Kumedpur, Malda Town, New Farakka, Pakur, Rampurhat, Sainthia, Ahmedpur, Bolpur, Bardhaman, Dakshineswar, Bidhannagar Rd is what stays now. However, Dalkhola came in around 1979-80, Ahmedpur around the same time. Even Bidhannagar Rd (then Ultadanga, before Circular Rail came up) got added around 1987 or later. The irritating part was, the full rake didn't fit in, with 1 coach on the bridge and half of the rake outside the platform! Only 8 coaches or so fitted in, as B Rd was designed for EMU's.

The best part of the Mail was its dependability. I've seen it run 19 hours late, but cancelled, rarely! Once, the floods were pretty bad in North Bengal. As usual, the train schedule was haywire. There was a breach of track, after NJP, towards Assam. As a result, the Tinsukia Mail was leaving from NJP, instead of New Bongaigaon. The only other train running was the Darjeeling Mail. Again, even a minor derailment left this stretch with a hiccup that lasted way beyond 24 hours. Once it so happened that the train I was on, arrived at Sealdah at 1130 or so, much after the scheduled 0845, while the previous day's arrived at 0400, some 20 hours late. As we were proceeding to SDAH-, announcements at BWN told us the 43 Up was leaving at 1000. We met it near Dakshineswar. While we were crawling, it zipped at 90 kph or so, the air howling between the 2 rakes.

RAC came in the late-80's. The funny thing was, even if you got your berth at Barsoi, say, the TTE charged you all the way from NJP!

With elections coming, GhaniKhan extended the Mail to Jalpaiguri. Which meant the rake went to Haldibari as a Passenger in the afternoon, turned round, came as the return passenger till Jalpaiguri, had its doors opened, started as the Mail from Jalpaiguri at 1730 - though halting like the Passenger everywhere! The halt at NJP was 25 minutes, 1830 - 1855. The idea was to get into the traditionally-Left Front sympathetic bastion. 'Did not work! The rake was the worst, with a dirty one arriving with jhalmuri and other packets littered on the floor, as the short distance guys alighted at NJP. The berths were horrible, made of wood strips. The best rake was given in the early 90's, with a light blue livery, light yellow at the windows, with cushioned sleepers. By then, it had an ACCH, a 1AC-2AC combo, a 2AC. The FC was still there, I guess. The red mailvan added colour. Herein, it was similar to the then-Poorva, or Deluxe Exp - in having both ACCH and 1AC. In 1983 or so, it had a Raj livery 2AC for some time. 'Vaguely recall seeing '101/102' on its side, but, not too sure.

In 1987, I travelled on Holi, when the rake was unusually empty. Some deranged guy got up on the electric loco at Dakshineswar and burned himself - mistook the overhead wire for a bus rod, we were told! That delayed the otherwise on-schedule train.

For trains may come and trains may go, it still remains the lifeline of North Bengal, with a quiet prestige of its own, holding out against all the Kanchanjungha - Kanchankanya - Uttarbanga's - call them helper trains or offloaders, what you will! It has its own, dedicated (shall we say?) following, who try first for the Mail, then the other options. In the pre-computer days, Counter 3 at the Centralised Booking was dedicated to the Mail, exclusively. Needless to say, the queue was the longest!

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