One of the world’s oldest mountain railway systems is ending the very practice that helped sustain it for decades – cannibalism.
The Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) will be signing the ‘death warrant’ of this practice on Friday through an agreement with a public sector undertaking for supplying new ‘antique’ spares to revive a fleet of narrow gauge steam locomotives, also called Iron Sherpas.
The Guwahati-headquartered NFR controls the 138-year old Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), popularly called toy train.
In railway jargon, cannibalism means killing one locomotive and using its parts to run another in better shape. This practice has helped DHR survive with a depleting fleet of steam locomotives whose makers had shut shop or switched to manufacturing something else 60-65 years ago.
But cannibalism and replacement of unusable steam locomotives with diesel variants had a downside. These violated the conditions of conservation the DHR needed to adhere to as one of UNESCO’s prime world heritage sites.
The 78km DHR from West Bengal’s New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling had earned this tag in 1999.
Downgrading it could have had a domino effect on the 46km Nilgiri Mountain Railway and the 96km Kalka-Shimla Railway that were later clubbed to form the Mountain Railways of India World Heritage Site.
The only other standalone Indian Railway property with the World Heritage Site tag is Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai.
“We managed to salvage old steam locomotive layouts and manufacturing designs at DHR’s Tindharia (habitation near Kurseong) workshop. Experts from the Ranchi-based Heavy Engineering Corporation Limited (HECL) studied them for almost two years to develop the technology to produce the vintage parts,” an officer of the NFR said, declining to be quoted ahead of the formal inking of the agreement with the PSU.
The DHR, he added, faced the prospect of being dropped from the world heritage site without the steam locomotives giving a feel of the mountain railway system’s old-world charm.
The possibility of DHR’s demotion had made Indian Railways sign a find-in-trust (FIT) agreement with the UNESCO in January this year. The deal entails a comprehensive conservation management plan (CCMP) that the UNESCO will prepare for the DHR on payment of $533,332 in Indian rupees.
The absence of such a plan, clearly defining the role of all stakeholders, for so long was a violation of the conditions that the UN’s cultural agency had set when it declared the DHR a global heritage site in 1999.
All such sites are required to have a functioning management plan.
The plan goes beyond the role of the NFR in conserving its property along the 78km stretch the Darjeeling toy train travels. It includes other stakeholders such as the civil administration responsible for the road running alongside and people living in houses flanking the track.
The settlement at Darjeeling began in 1828 with British interest. By 1835, it was separated from Sikkim for establishing a sanatorium for physically impaired servants of the East India Company. It then consisted of a monastery on observatory hill clustered with about 20 huts and a population of about 100 people.
Planning for Darjeeling town began in 1839 with the construction of a hill road connecting Siliguri, Pankhabari, Kurseong and Darjeeling. By 1840, Darjeeling had about 30 buildings and a few respectable houses.
Tea bushes were brought in by the British from China and tea plantations began spreading rapidly from 1857. To meet the expanding requirements, a new road fit for carts was planned in 1861. It came to be called the Hill Cart Road.
Work on the DHR began along the Hill Cart Road in 1879.