Darjeeling’ steam engine toy trains grounded after labourers strike work
The trains pulled by coal-fired engines are preferred by most of the tourists as the puffing beauties accentuate the old-world charm to the rides. Steam engines are the soul of the DHR.Updated: Sep 13, 2018 10:41 IST
Darjeeling’s biggest tourist draw – the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) or the toy train – has come to a grinding halt after labourers including those hired to work as firemen in the steam engines struck work over unpaid salaries.
The workers stopped work from Tuesday, putting the brakes on the UNESCO World Heritage site railway.
“The joy rides by steam engines have been stopped from Tuesday as the labourers are not working. The development has brought a bad name to the world heritage site,” said N K Narzary, director of DHR. “If the situation does not improve, we will have no option but to blacklist the contractor and appoint a new one,” he added.
Narzary claimed that the contractor did not submit the bills on time.
The toy trains are pulled by both steam and diesel engines, but it is the steam engine train that commands a premium price for tickets for a joyride between Darjeeling and Ghoom, a distance of 8 km along a mountainous terrain through human habitations and tea gardens. A fireman’s job is to shovel coal into the engine’s furnace.
The trains pulled by coal-fired engines are preferred by most of the tourists as the puffing beauties accentuate the old-world charm to the rides. Steam engines are the soul of the DHR.
“The steam engine joy rides are fully booked and we are convincing the tourists to take diesel engine joy rides in absence of the steam engines. We are also refunding the tourists,” said Narzary.
According to the prevalent practice, DHR engages contractors to supply coal to the locomotives. The contractors employ labourers.
“We have not been paid our salary for August, and the contractor has remained incommunicado,” alleged Kishore Sunam, who has been working as a labourer loading and unloading coal under the contractor for the past 19 years.
The 10 labourers who are posted in Darjeeling and work as firemen are usually paid by the second day of every month. A labourer is paid a maximum amount of Rs 8,500 per month.
“This time the contractor Pramod Chettri promised us to pay the August salary by September 5. We had agreed,” said another labourer Manu Rai.
The railways run three joy rides by steam engines and one by diesel engine during off season. During peak tourist season, the rides by steam engines go to nine trips a day and three by diesel engines.
Pramod Chettri the contractor could not be contacted. He employs about 40 workers.
For joy rides, every day the contractor supplies coal worth Rs 25,000 to the railways.
The DHR suffered damages during the 104-day strike in the Darjeeling hills demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland. Two stations at Ghayabari and Sonada were set on fire.