French help for beleaguered Darjeeling toy train

Monday, 30 June 2003, 07:00 Hrs
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KOLKATA: Help is at hand for the crumbling heritage toy train that chugs up the hills of Darjeeling.

Unesco has roped in France to lend money and technical expertise to revive the train.

A weekend workshop attended by a five-member French delegation in the hill resort in West Bengal saw the visitors promising to draw up a master plan for the toy train, a Unesco-designated heritage property.

The French hope to share their experience in maintaining the Train Jaune, a 63-km mountain rail service in France's Languedoc region.

Jerome Arnaud, the head of the French delegation, said they could help develop a heritage railway park around the 72-km-long Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) that would include improving the toy train stations, maintenance, security and operations.

Paris-headquartered Unesco has an understanding with France on helping designated world heritage sites whenever needed.

DHR was accorded world heritage status in 2000 for being an engineering marvel, but Unesco is unhappy that the Indian authorities have phased out the toy train's antiquated steam engine and now use modern diesel locos.

According to sources in the Northeast Frontier Railway, which operates the Darjeeling service, Unesco has even threatened to withdraw heritage status because of this change in a fundamental feature.

Indian railroad authorities did away with the slow-moving stream engines and replaced them with small diesel locomotives in an effort to cut down on the travel time.

DHR is turning out to be a white elephant for Indian Railways, which says revenues generated are way below maintenance costs.

The biggest reason for tourists shunning the train for the journey to Darjeeling is that it takes seven hours to cover a distance that by road can be travelled in half that time.

Diesel locos have cut the journey by two hours, but still haven't managed to attract many passengers.

DHR's annual cost for running the toy train is 90 million, but revenues generated are just 4.5 million.

The railways have reportedly decided to stall all plans of expanding or upgrading the toy train service owing to the lack of funds. It wants groups like Unesco to adopt DHR.

Railway authorities are even trying to sell off the toy train that runs between the town of Siliguri and Darjeeling, nestled at a height of about 5,000 feet.

DHR, started in 1880 by the British colonialists, was the fastest means of travel to the Darjeeling hills till 1920, but with the advent of motor vehicles it was rendered only a tourist attraction.

Today the toy train ride is part of the itinerary of a select group of tourists, mostly foreigners.
Source: IANS
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