The Railway Budget 2012 emerged as a major damper for Darjeeling with the world heritage site Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) failing to feature.
"We are utterly disappointed that this world heritage has failed to draw the attention of the Railways. We had pinned a lot of hope on the railway minister who is from West Bengal. However it seems that he is unaware of the deplorable condition of the DHR. The DHR (including locos, coaches, infrastructure, and service) is in urgent need of a through overhauling to raise it to international standards. International tourists visit Darjeeling for the DHR experience," said Suresh Periwal, North Bengal and Sikkim Chapter President, Indian Association of Tour Operators.
The Darjeeling to New Jalpaiguri Service of the DHR has been suspended for the past two years owing to landslide near Tindharia. Only the Darjeeling to Kurseong and Siliguri to Rongtong sections are operational.
"This clearly depicts the lack of will and the apathy towards the DHR. The railway tracks could have been cleared within this time. They could arrange for trans-shipment in the area where a bridge has been damaged near Mahanadi. Nothing has been done in the past two years. The Minister should come to the Hills and see for himself the pathetic condition of this world heritage." demanded Periwal.
Many coaches and locomotives have been stranded at Tindharia and Siliguri (on the other side of the landslide) and cannot be brought upto Darjeeling. This in turn has led to the taxing of the age old locos, already losing steam.
There is a shortage of coaches also which has led to the cancellation of the Kurseong Safari (a Public Private Partnership project between the Railways and local outfits.) The Kurseong Safari which was introduced in 2009 was then an instant hit. It has however been discontinued since 2010. Though the Railways have not cited any reason for this, it is believed that the service was terminated owing to lack of coaches.
At present from Darjeeling Railway Station three joyride services to Ghoom and back along with a regular Kurseong service (to and fro) are operational. From Siliguri there is a daily joyride service "Jungle Safari" to Rongtong and back.
"Never before have we witnessed such tourist rush even during peak winters. The number of trains being chartered has gone up. The DHR services are in great demand," said a senior railway staff.
Despite DHR services generating heavy demand, this world heritage is plagued by numerous perennial problems. The basic amenities like toilets and drinking water are missing in the heritage DHR stations. Work on the upgradation and revamping of the Darjeeling Station has been on since 2008 and is yet to be completed.
"While TMC Supremo time and again has vowed to transform Darjeeling into Switzerland, her Railway Minister forgot to give the DHR the much needed boost. This year sops did not rain on Darjeeling as the TMC has already achieved its goal. Banerjee in the capacity of railway minister had rained sops in Darjeeling eyeing the West Bengal Assembly elections. She has just made a fool of the Hills. All this is nothing but political gimmicks. Most of her assurances including the Software Park just remains on paper," alleged KB Wattar, District Secretariat member, CPIM.
Incidentally the DHR was declared a world heritage site by Unesco on November 26, 2000. In the year 1879 work started on the DHR, then called the Darjeeling Steam Tramways. The stretch from Siliguri to Kurseong was opened on August 23 1880. The Siliguri to Darjeeling track was inaugurated on July 4 1881. The name of the rail company was then changed to Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Company. At present it does a 88 km stretch from Darjeeling to New Jalpaiguri.