Calcutta & DHR

by J F Andrist


After a proposed tour to Burma got cancelled due to some MOD (!) clearance problem for the visit of some areas, Calcutta and the DHR were quickly selected by three British friends, my (patient) wife and myself as an alternative destination. Here is a travelogue which should be of interest to some of you :

Saturday 26th

My birthday and we had arranged for a cruise on the Hooghly through some contact in the Calcutta stevedores community. We went downstream past Kidderpore docks, the grand SER (ex BNR) headquarter + housing complex, interestingly situated on the left (Bangladesh) riverside, while the BNR track ended on the right side near the present "new" roadbridge; we went all the way down to Budge-Budge along rather green and unconstructed shorelines, with a few industrial sites cropping up from time to time, all in the same "Raj industries" style, with a grand balconied mansion facing the river, surrounded by all kind of sheds and workshops.

Some are very well maintained (Shalimar Paints), others - usually jute mills - rather decaying in the usual Calcutta "decrepict" look... The further from Calcutta, the higher the number of brick kilns and chimneys.

The traffic on the Hooghly was light but on the way back, with the tide nearing its peak, we followed two container feeder vessels back to Calcutta while enjoying a scenic sunset. We went past and under the busy as usual Howrath bridge before turning back to our mooring point.

Sunday 27th

After the inevitable "can't be done" reply to our initial enquiry, we had managed to hire our own tram for a ride on the city system, best done in the quieter traffic of a Sunday morning. We were at the picturesque if shabbily maintained control room house at the centre at Esplanade by 08.40 for a scheduled 09.00 am departure.

The tramway traffic was quite busy for a Sunday morning, with most of them looping around the Esplanade. Our own tram finally arrived, # 275, a well maintained (at least the interior) but otherwise absolutely normal tram. Our departure was delayed after the breakdown crew (one or two heavy trucks and an old 4 wheels "catenary" workcar seem parked ready for intervention at all time near the control room) started checking our boggies/brakes and found something "just needing some care"... which was done promptly amidst the usual crowd of onlookers.

Finally we left for Kidderpore through the Maidan, then to the small Kalighat shed through which we went, then on to Tollygunge where the end of the line is a large loop through the shed area, some of it in a jungle full of old tires, disused buses and tall grases. Our car reversed into the shed for teas and samosas, but the staff was quite concerned about our not exploring the shed. Then we went to Bollygunge which has a nice loop through a one way street (good pictures positions from a nearby overbridge), then on a long and by now warm stretch past Park Circus, along the main workshops (name forgotten, Nonapur or something like this), which we did not enter, past Sealdah and into a shed near that station, where we looped in and found it to host a number of interesting workcars, obviously built from early 4 wheeler tramcars.

This rather neglected and full of scrap shed had a lot of staff hanging around, who immediately reacted when they saw our photocameras, but we took our pics while arguing with them... and departed back to Esplanade via some narrow and pictureque streets of the old Calcutta. By then we had been 4 hours on the run in our rather noisy tram and the road traffic was building up. So it was OK to be over with our charter. Arriving at Esplanade we saw an old 4 wheeler car, painted faded green, used for watering the rails (dust control ?) and the "emergency repair" crew nicely agreed to run it round the loop twice for us, but somehow the very interesting "catenary maintenance" car in oxide red with an open control stand was not be moved... A German tram enthusiast joined us when the water car was doing his rounds. He was on a "all day ticket" @ Rs 7.00 which is issued only on Sundays and apparently only at Esplanade; a real bargain for tram fans. He had witnessed two derailments during his morning rounds. The track is clearly very decrepit and the whole operation seems to be run on a shoestring, but with a fair level of efficiency, when nothing goes too much wrong.

Yet it is a question mark why the shed staff feels allergic to cameras ? These sheds have a large number of rather idle looking staff even on a Sunday; perhaps they could make some money for the company by tidying up their sheds, selling off all the scrap that lies around, with the added bonus that their working environment would be improved ! Apparently there were renewed efforts recently to close down whole or part of the system, but the people of Calcutta want their trams to survive and are ready to fight for it. On a previous business visit to Calcutta, we had seen new overhead wire being hung along the Maidan, so some work and renewal is going on, but on that same trip we also saw crews with trucks dismantling the remains of the most famous line, over the "old" bridge to Howrath station, the most scenic line (and quite useful for passengers too) is no more !

One of our British friends had a very large and very detailed map of the system and its sheds, apparently issued / sold by the British tram enthusiast society. Even the staff in the control room were quite impressed by it; indeed the whole control room did not even have a single / simple map of the system !

A very interesting morning and early PM, which showed us that Calcutta had many interesting buildings and sights.

Monday 28th

Plane to Bagdogra and on to the hotel at Siliguri. The Brits had told us that the Sinclair was closed for renovation, our man in Calcutta told us "its open for business", but finally it turned out that there was labour troubles and we were refered to hotel Cindrella, further up the road. According to an advertisement in the lobby, the owner of the hotel, a Mr. Baid, seems to be the chairman of the DHR association (I am a bit confused, how many associations are there for the DHR ? one in India, one in UK and one in Australia, it seems; hopefully they work in good understanding and cooperation ...) So I will mute some of my comments on the hotel, which is unfortunately one of this concrete new built where the lift cannot move without every room knowing about it and no door be closed without a loud noise all over. It was promptly baptised Hotel SLAMDOOR, but was well occupied with about 30 visiting from Europe with the (UK) DHR society and all the locals.

We hired a Maruti van and proceeded to Sukna to watch the down train which duly arrived only 20 minutes behind the advertised. but at what seemed "On Time" in the unofficial running timetable, because it sat for a good five minutes in the station for no apparent purpose. We caught a few pictures further down the line and at Siliguri Junction station (MG + NG) where only the NG platform has some charm... Then we lost the train through the rather slummy Siliguri town while we headed for NJP which is also a rather soulless place, with the MG and NG "cul de sac" station both past their best days. Only the BG is very busy. Both MG and NG make a large U around a huge petrol depot; the MG activity being apparently mainly fuel rakes plus a few passenger shuttles to Siliguri Junction.

The incoming trains had no 1st class coach and we were rather keen to get one on the next morning up train both for comforts and "crowd control". After enquiry, we were told that 1st class was not provided on all trains, but we could check with the station superintendent, which would be back in "about half an hour". So we decided to walk up to the NG shed, about 500 meters and at the point where both the MG and NG start going around in their U. The place is a typical Indian NG shed, but with trees and all the usual paraphernalia, is certainly the place with most character around the large NJP station area. A friendly shedmaster, staff and 3 engines in steam added to the plus side ! But while we came down towards the shed, a large yellow "thing" behind the shed was a bit of a mystery. It turned out to be a "GOTTWALD" crane with its train and a flat car which was carrying the second diesel engine allocated to the DHR. The unloading was first said to be likely to take place "around 10 tomorrow AM", but then we also heard that the (very well maintained) crane had a problem and maybe the whole exercise would be postponed. The 1st diesel was in the shed and the shedmaster told us that the trials had been OK and that only the Railway Minister was to find time to come for the inauguration for the service to start... Both diesels are painted different colours and it reminded me of the comments of Mamata in the railway budget about "colourfull new diesels" being provided for the DHR !

Also we heard that diesel use would be concentrated initially on the lower section (up to Thindaria or Kurseong ?). If not true do not blame me, but obviously those who want to experience steam on the lower reach of the line should make their travel plans fast... Returning to the station, we went to the office of the superintendent, who was a very urbane Mr. Roy who told us that the available 1st class coaches were booked for a special for the DHR Society running in two days time. We had seen a beautiful saloon coach in the yard and asked him "How much for the saloon to be added to the train?" A bit startled by that (too direct) Western approach, he replied that he would speak to his superior and could we call after 8 PM please. We called at 20.15 and were told that sorry, but not a such short notice, there are procedures... but he would see to it that we have enough space the next morning, this being anyhow not the high season.

For a long trip (at best 09.00 till 18.30), the comfort and price of a first class seat, plus space, should be considered, especially if you are travelling with your better half and family and do not want the whole "fun ride" to turn into a drama. So be warned that only some rakes have a first class coach and that it may possible to arrange and make sure it is there on the day you travel, if the "proper procedures" are followed. What they are I let you, dear Indian friends, find out; you are better prepared and used to these arcane matters than us firenghees....

Tuesday 29th

Out at 07.30 for the ride to NJP, where two tickets for Darjeeling were bought in a few seconds for the princely sum of 44 rupees. Then to the shed to watch the steam engine and train being prepared. The Gottwald crane had disappeared but the second diesel was still on its flatcar.

While the train engine had propelled its train back to the shed the day before, the "shunt" engine was now in front of our train. which was two 2nd class coaches and a brake/second in which myself and wife took our quarters to pre-empt the rush to board the train when reaching JNP station. At 08.20 the service train left the shed and trundled to the station / platform where a modest crowd had no problem in finding enough accommodation, even if some seat had windows with woodpannels, an utter nonsense on such a scenic / "run for the fun of it" line.

Part of the DHR Society group joined the train there for a ride to Sukna, where a bus would propel them faster up the line for a Tindharia workshop visit. Promptly at 09.00, the train left, went around the U and slowed for a washout bridge on the MG line, which was now diverted onto the NG girder, both line being very close side by side rather than 3 rails. This Siliguri Town to NJP line was opened in 64 only and goes through rather depressing urban wastelands, in fact all the way to the bridge over the Mahanadi river, at the entrance of Siliguri Junction, which has 3 rails and is protected by signals.

A large MG yard and shed at SJ seems to be slowly returning to nature and the MG activity seems slow. At Sukna (1st water stop) the group left the train and we had the coach to ourselves. The incline starts right outside Sukna and the next section to Ramtong (or is it Rangtong?) is - in our opinion - one of the most scenic, going through an unhabited forest of large trees, at time in sweeping curves. The first loop was on this section but has now gone after a landslide in 91/92 and can hardly be recognised. Ramtong is a picturesque "corrugated iron" station. The trains stops for about 10 minutes, then proceeds for a short distance to stop again at the 2nd water stop. It gets very slow there.

After that its a fairly long run through the first zigzag and first loop at Chungbati through the second and third zig-zags, past Tindharia works, to a stop for loading oildrums at Thindaria running shed, where the small 040 T bearing a plate with a name "BABY SIVOK, if I remember well (my pics are not developed yet) and "reconstructed 1999", was cold in the shed but had obviously been steamed. No manufacturer plate but she looks like a typical large "Orenstein & Koppel" engine of German background, especially her cab, rather than being of British ancestry and design.

The train then moved a few meters to Tindharia station for the lunch stop, then further up to Tindharia yard where our engine was detached and replaced by "Mountaineer". The whole complicated and time consuming procedure is due to the fact that the yard is on the flat while the station has a (low) incline. Then the whole train returned to Tindharia station. By now we were half an hour down on the schedule. They have committed the sacrilege of letting a typical concrete bungalow be built at Agony Point (loop 2) and our train stopped at the nearby unnamed siding and reversed into it to let the down train cross, which took quite some time to arrive and was reasonably filled (inclusive the 1st class coach).

Then a fairly uninterrupted ride past Gayabari station and zig-zags to a watering point close to the Paglajora torrent which had a big washout in 98, then on to Kurseong via Mahanadi. From Kurseong and its famous market, the line is most of the time on the road and in a semi-urban environment. By Tung and its water stop, the light was falling, the delay was increasing and we switched over to the car of our friends who had chased the train and - being members of the DHR society - had gone and visited the (rather empty we were told) workshops at Tindharia.

We allowed ourselves the luxury of the Windamere hotel in Darj. which was very cold but with attentive service. For DHR members, there is a special "club room" with railway literature and copies of the very well done and informative DHR Society quarterly magazine. Interesting day; I even forgot to check with my office about the budget !

Wednesday 1st March

Rest day after a very cold night, but still we are - in the rain - at the station for the arrival of the "school train" due at 09.45, but at 10.15, cold and rather miserable in the mist, we give up and go shopping (for " long johns "...), for a warming tea and for book rummaging at the Oxford bookshop on the mall.

Apparently a truck had broken down on the narrow road near Sonada, all the traffic was going around it through the tracks inclusive the trucks and the train was stopped till the gauge alignment could be checked. We heard it whistling into Darjeeling a good two hours late... Afternoon at leisure with as much fire in the room chimney as possible.

Thursday 2nd March

Madam decides to take it easy in Darjeeling while self and a friend hire a jeep for a look at the lower / preferred part of the line. We are off at 07.15, but its a long time before we meet the school train. Either he is late or the schedule has been changed. Today it comes with a second class coach full of "wooden windows", one of the "Ghum tourist train" deluxe coach which was at Kurseong and is repatriated back to Darj. and a van. Not a very good passenger to train weight loadrate. We take the steep shortcut down to Gatabari and catch up with the DHR Society steam special at Tindharia, till where they came up yesterday before returning by coach to "Slammdoor" hotel at Siliguri. They have a two first class coaches in it, of which one is a round ended observation coach and a brake van, which was derailled later in the day when they reversed in a siding for a crossing with the down train ! We go down to the running shed, where we see some black smoke and yes; it's Baby Sivok in steam and running. She is parked at a bad place for pics and we ask the crew if she can be moved to an open space in the yard, which they do oblige, but going through the turnout, the engine almost jumps off the rail... She is scheduled to follow the DHR Society train to Agony Point for pictures, but we decide to move on for the up passenger in the woods over Sukna.

We reach about 15' before the train is due, select a spot and wait and wait.... Off to Sukna to check whats happening. The station is dead, but through our driver we understand that the train will come in about 20'. It does so after more than 30' and we go back to our photo position andndo a few more shots till Rangtong, though the engine does not seem in its best form. The train is now close to 2 hours late already and the sun is OK for a picture at a bridge over a small ravine just above the waterstop abovbe Rangtong. .There the train stops, takes water and and sits for ages... some of the passenger stop a bus and desert the train. It finally moves off with a much reduced passenger load. We let it go up the line, rather struggling... and move down the road to our next target, which is returning to Darj. via Kalimpong Road and chase for remains of the Teesta Valley branch. By the way, the engine did fail before Tindharia, left the train and moved up alone to the running shed, where after much further delay, another engine was sent down the line to retrieve a train which wass now very empty, even the foreign backpackers having swirtched to jeeps and buses!

Back into the traffic mess at Siliguri up the road to Sivok (some bridge abutments remains) and the levelcrossing of the MG line and its large bridge on the Teesta River, but otherwise very little evident remains of the track. Some buildings obviously of railway ancestry further up at Kalighora but we almost missed the loop at Riyang station., saw some bridge remains in the Rayeng Nadi river near the Riyand station S formation, so we went back into the village where, through our friendly driver, an old lady described the track formation.

Then on to Kalimpong Road / Giellekhola Station, in a rather daunting river gorge location, especially under the light rain, but hardly anything to show that this was the terminus of the line (closed 1950 after washouts). We returned to Darj. via the Darj. - Kalimpong road, high on the ridge and mostly in the mist. It was night when we reached there, but the DHR Society special which had left Tindharia about 10 am, had just arrived.

Friday 3rd March

Back to Bombay today and just the (also late running it seemed) school train crossed before Kurseong, which had the usual traffic mess. We took the direct road down away from the railway and to Bagdogra airport where all the flights seem to be congregated on three days a week and within three hours on that day. Add a malfunctioning X-ray machine, slow security check-in and late flights and you have one of this grand mess which somehow seems to be a inevitable occurrence when travelling in India; this in a military airport ! Calcutta airport is much better but also much warmer as is Bombay ! Sorry for being so long but a few more comments :

The DHR Society (UK) has issued a very detailed and large map of the railway, last amended in 99. It has all the track details, as well as loops and zig-zags; a very useful piece of equipment if you ride the line. - The DHR seems to have a lot of well wishers all over the world, is World Heritage listed and has active Preservation Society(ies) at its side. But it needs urgently some tender loving care on the traffic side on the spot in North Bengal, being NJP or Siliguri or Darj. What we call in French "l'exploitation" (operations ?) seems rather chaotic and unreliable. The locals have given up the train, or ride it free for short distances. So it leaves only the tourists, and some army personnel (do they or the army pay any fare ?), who make use of the train. 9.30 hours of ride (minimum) is probably too much for anyone but the most zealous railfan or "could not care less" backpackers. Anyone of more than 40 is also likely to wish something more comfortable than a narrow and straight-backed moleskin covered hardwood seat. Coming into Darjeeling at night (the power often fails there...) is not a pleasant experience, so if the diesels bring some time reduction, it should be ultimately a plus for a railway who needs to be much better operated to really be more than a backdrop toy and improve its disastrous operating ratio.

Anyhow, after two previous visits (1977 + 1984 or 5), when we could not ride the up train for some reasons (in 77 short visit by car, 84/5 nothing was moving except a Darj. - Ghoom special for our group of disappointed railfans...), we have made it with steam in the last few weeks of its total reign on the DHR!

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