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Monday, 19 June, 2000, 14:45 GMT 15:45 UK
'Toy train's heritage safe'
Darjeeling Hill Railway
The vintage train is now pulled by diesel locomotives
By Probir Pramanik in Darjeeling

Indian Railways have said that the famous 111-year-old Darjeeling "toy train" will not lose its heritage status because of a recent decision to introduce diesel engines.

The British-built 84-km long rail link connects the plains of north Bengal with the Darjeeling hills and is a Unesco world heritage site.

Hill residents feel their day is incomplete until the little beauty shows up blowing its shrill whistle

Hiren Tamang
New diesel engines are being used to supplement the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway's (DHR) vintage steam locomotives.

"With the steam loco... no longer commercially viable, its tremendous tourism potential is what its owners - Indian Railways - are looking forward to cash on," a railway official told the BBC.

Cherished train

But not all agree.

"With the steam engines being phased out now, a 114-year-old tradition has finally has come to an end," a local hill resident, Hiren Tamang, said.

"It's so much a part of the mountain scenario that hill residents feel their day is incomplete until it shows up blowing its shrill whistle," he said.

Toy train at Kurseong station
Embedded in the psyche of the local people
To keep these memories alive, the railway authorities have decided to modify the whistle of the diesel engines to make it sound like that of the steam loco - a sound deeply embedded in the psyche of the local hill people.

Nostalgia apart, sipping the famous Darjeeling tea and savouring the breathtaking view of the Himalayas on board one of the refurbished trains will still be worthwhile.

"So travellers can expect a more luxurious coach, serving nothing less but the champagne of teas and other frills during the journey - reminiscent of the Raj days," a Railway official said.

The replaced steam locos - the last of which was imported from Britain over seven decades ago - will, however, not be totally phased out.

We have tried our best to keep alive the memories

Railway official
"Two century-old steam iron-maidens along with one similar iron-maiden called Linda, recently brought over from Ffestiniog Railways in Wales under an exchange programme, will be spruced up," the official said.

"Since these beauties were still in fine nick, the DHR has decided to use their services for two shorter routes - one between Darjeeling and Kurseong - a 28-km run and the other between Darjeeling and Ghoom, one of the highest railway stations in the world," he said.

Glorious tradition

Since its inception in 1880, the Darjeeling toy train has ferried millions including, viceroys, heads of states, kings, queens and commoners.

Darjeeling Hill Railway
A breathtaking train ride
"We are also setting up a well-equipped railway museum displaying several rare artefacts of the toy train in particular and the Indian railways in general, at a cost of nearly 2 million rupees," the official said.

"With this we have tried our best to keep alive the memories of such a beautiful tradition," he said.

The railways are hopeful that with the diesel-powered locomotives being able to haul more coaches, the number of passengers will grow substantially.

The aim is to attract more foreign tourists and a numbers of additional steps are being taken to develop facilities in the region.

Hotels, the laying of new tracks and planting of more trees en route to provide a greener overview along the entire 84-km journey are some of the ambitious plans.

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14 Apr 00 | South Asia
India and Pakistan keep rail link
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