Darjeeling: Are the motorists in Darjeeling risking their lives along the tracks of the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), also known as ‘Toy Train’? Over the course of the past few days, two photos involving the World Heritage Site have gone viral, once again putting a question mark on motorists’ safety and the railways.
While one picture showed a train driver stopping the locomotive and getting down to remove a bike, apparently owned by a policeman, the other had a car getting crushed by the engine of a Toy Train.
The pride that Darjeeling shares with its colonial past comes alive in the form of the Toy Train, which was labelled as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1999. The 2-ft-wide railway track snakes through the hilly terrain beginning from the plains of New Jalpaiguri to reach Ghoom, India’s highest railway station, in Darjeeling.
A viral photo of the train driver removing a police two-wheeler from the railway tracks had gone viral on May 5. The post generated a lot of reaction on social media with many calling it ‘only in Darjeeling’. A day later, in what appeared to be a red Maruti Suzuki Alto, a picture of the car getting crushed by the Darjeeling Toy Train did the rounds.
These two images generated a lot of debate on social media. While the train driver was able to stop and remove the two-wheeler in the first picture, why was a vehicle in the second incident not given a heads-up, some users said? Many even said that when a picture of a potential hazard went viral, why didn’t the authorities concerned at DHR use the photo to issue a warning or notice?
Even worse, across its route of 88 km from elevations of 100 m to 2,200 m above sea level, the train is marred by houses, constructions, vehicles, occasional landslides over the monsoon season and a fully functioning market along the tracks. But the ‘Sapno ki Rani’ of Darjeeling faces derailments, among other issues, with the recent being exactly a month ago, on April 6, along the Kurseong route. Accidents have taken place in the past, which have injured or killed passengers, which mostly include tourists and locals along the tracks.
The clustered construction and population overflow in the hills could be the other reason to be blamed for such conflict of turfs. The shanties along the railway tracks are cheaper than elsewhere, drawing more people towards them. Along with them come the vehicles, with two-wheelers comprising the most.
While the viral photo generated attention, the police could not or did not ascertain whose two-wheeler it was. “When men from law are the ones who violate the rules, what would the common folks look up to?” asked some users.
The other issue pointed out by most of the drivers and historians of the DHR was that the braking system of the famous train is troublesome with most of them not functioning properly. Some blame the cold, some blame the old engines, but despite it being a UNESCO heritage, the solution has not been meted.
In November, 2018, a four-day workshop on conservation and maintenance of DHR and its related assets was held as part of the preparation of the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) with representatives of UNESCO organising the workshop along with railway officials, local community groups and technical experts. An agreement was also reached between the Union railway ministry and UNESCO with the ministry reportedly paying Rs 4.2 crore to the latter for the plan.
During the workshop, the UNESCO representatives apprised railway officials and local community groups on how the tracks should be maintained and conserved and their preparedness in case of any disaster. “Once the CCMP is ready, we will follow its manuals in every case, right from conservation to repairing, so that the heritage property is conserved in the best-possible manner. That is why UNESCO has been assigned to prepare it as they have experts in this field. The workshop was necessary as locals as well as our employees posted in DHR, right from NJP to Darjeeling, should know about the plan and the processes that should be adopted for conservation,” a senior railway official was quoted as saying by media reports then.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway has been part of popular culture, including Bollywood. Who doesn’t remember Rajesh Khanna teasing Sharmila Tagore along the route and singing the famous song Mere Sapno Ki Rani in the 1969 film Aradhana? Relatively newer films such as Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, Parineeta and Barfi! too have highlighted the Toy Train and its picturesque route in some form or the other.