While the rest of the country is eagerly waiting for the Railway Budget, for Darjeeling the wait is already over. The world heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) has hiked fares from February 18.
The fare for the steam loco joyride has gone up threefold. The diesel joy ride service and passenger train fares have been doubled. The fare for the 14 km steam joyride which earlier cost 400 has been hiked to 1165. The fare for the diesel locomotive joy ride which was also 400 will now be 695. A charter service from one station to the next which earlier used to cost 22,000 has been hiked to 55,000. A sudden and hurried hand written notice pasted next to the ticket counter at the Darjeeling railway station, dated February 18, proclaims the revised fares for all trains and requested passengers to pay the difference of enhanced fare at the station.
“The hike is not sudden. We had been planning it since a year. However, fare enhancement involves a complex process which takes time. There is no separate budget allocation for the DHR so we have to make it self sustainable,” said Narendra Mohan, area officer, DHR. He added that 70 passengers had availed the DHR joy ride on Wednesday with only two cancellations.
There are three joy ride services at 10:40 am (steam); 1:20pm (steam) and 4:05 pm (diesel). The 16 km to and fro ride which takes 2 hours, starts from Darjeeling station to Ghoom (the highest narrow gauge station in India) via the Batasia Loop. After a halt at Ghoom station where passengers visit the DHR museum, the train returns to Darjeeling.
The area officer suggested a simple solution for those who found the fare too steep. “Let them go by diesel passenger train,” added Mohan.
DHR sources not willing to be named feel that it is an attempt to recover the 8 to 9 Crore loss that the service incurs annually.
With deteriorating services, lack of maintenance and upgrade of rolling stock, the fare hike is being seen as a major setback to the DHR.
“The takers of the DHR ride are mainly middleclass domestic and budget foreign tourists. The high-end foreign tourists usually charter rides. The Railways should realise that the DHR is not just a railway service but a tourism product which is a value addition to Darjeeling and this region. Nowhere in the world is the cost of a tourist product hiked to more than 20%. The hike will have a negative impact. At this cost, a middle class tourist can stay a day in Darjeeling. The tourists now will either forgo the ride or shorten their stay in Darjeeling and take the trip. The fare hike has been done without consultation with the stakeholders who promote the DHR services,” stated Raj Basu, secretary general, DHR India Support Group, talking to HT.
The DHR India Support Group will be writing to the director, DHR to reconsider. The sudden hike has invited flak from tour operators.
“It is a conspiracy to close down the DHR as there will be no takers at this rate. They are trying to implement European fares with Indian services. They do not offer anything in the joy ride, not even a bottle of mineral water. Even the seats are uncomfortable,” remarked KK Gurung of Himalayan Travels.
Gurung stated that he had plans to charter a train everyday from April 27 to the first week of June for his clients from India. “I had already negotiated with the DHR and they had offered me rates of 40,000/- per charter. Now with the revised rates it will cost us a lakh for each charter. We are planning to forgo the charter as we have already started marketing the rates based on 40,000,” added Gurung. “I had plans to take the joy ride but with this rate I have decided to take the diesel passenger train instead. For such a steep amount the DHR is offering very little,” said H Malakar from Kolkata.
Even the diesel passenger services have not been spared with the rates nearly doubled. A trip to Ghoom which earlier cost of 20 has been hiked to 30, the fare from Darjeeling to Kurseong has been hiked from 30 to 60 by diesel passenger train. There are two services from Darjeeling to Kurseong at 10.15am and 4 pm along with two services from Kurseong to Darjeeling at 7am and 3pm.