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Chugging Along In The Queen Of Hills

Chugging Along In The Queen Of Hills

The Queen of the Hills

Despite teething troubles, the magnificent Toy Train in the ‘Queen of Hills’ has been chugging along, scripting its golden history

By Prasanta Paul

The saga of the Indian Railways is steeped in romance but in sheer excitement, no segment can match the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways(DHR). Having puffed its way into the folklore and folk songs of the three hill sub-divisions of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, the Toy Train has provided magnificent backdrops to some of the memorable musical compositions of Bollywood and Tollywood.

If Sharmila Tagore giggled and blushed out of a general coach of the toy train as a jeep-riding romantic Rajesh Khanna regaled her with Mere sapno ki rani kab ayegi tu in the 1969 blockbuster Aradhana directed by Shakti Samant, Saif Ali Khan and Vidya Balan charmed the audience with another popular number Kasto Mazaa hai lelaima in the 2005 superhit Parineeta.

The two Bollywood numbers were shot 36 years apart; but in a way, they have helped document the changes that have overtaken the toy train over the years. If the carriage Sharmila Tagore was travelling in, was conspicuous by its mundane appearance, Saif, unlike his mother, was leaning out and looking at the spectacular view of the hills from a brass-handled delux heritage coach that has recently been added to DHR to attract tourists, both domestic and overseas.

While Aradhana’s song was filmed at an average altitude of 3,800 ft along the 20-km stretch between Tindharia and Kurseong for over a month, Parineeta was shot at 1400 ft through the lush green Mahananda Reserve Forest between R0ngtong and Sukhna.

The Rongtong Station
The Rongtong Station  |  Pic Credit :

Not only that, shooting of these iconic blockbusters also reveals another aspect of DHR. Aradhana was shot at a time when the toy train was in robust health following introduction of 40 new coaches in place of the old and creaking wooden ones.

Recalls B L Dikshit, a retired inspector, “Aradhana and Parineeta typically represent the high and low of the toy train. If the former reflects DHR’s golden days, the latter was shot at a time when the toy train was ailing.”

If Mountaineer, an 1899-born steam loco No. B-782 hauled the coach of charming actress Sharmila Tagore, Saif Ali Khan’s heritage coach was pulled by Hill Bird No. B-779, another vintage loco manufactured in 1889.

Bollywood apart, toy train figures in a number of popular Bengali films and serials. For old timers, the Bollywood song sequence arouses far memorable nostalgia than the Tollywood counterpart.

In fact, the film-wallahs still prefer to frequent Queen of the Hills mostly for shooting song and dance sequences and toy train’s captivating charm is so irresistible that it inevitably figures in one or the other film or serial.

Toy train Darjeeling

The DHR can boast of a chequered history; it was in 1879, the Darjeeling Steam Tramway Company was formed that began laying narrow gauge (2ft) track alongside Hill Cart Road in Siliguri. The Britishers who were hunting for a hill resort for spending the summer in leisure, fell in love with Darjeeling at first sight.

Men and machines took little time to be ferried in for a jump-start to the dream project of the British; within a couple of years, the 82-km track-laying was completed and Darjeeling Tramway was officially inaugurated on July 3, 1881.

However, it was rechristened as Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Co and the toy train in its maiden year of operation, ferried as many as 8,000 passengers and 380 tonnes of goods. The DHR had a narrow escape when a massive earthquake wreaked havoc in the hills and adjoining North Bengal; but the railway track and the mountains along which the track moved, remained largely unaffected.

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During World War II (1939-45) DHR received a shot in the arm as there had been a significant rise in military movement and the locomotive fleet increased to 39 and a five-coach ambulance train was introduced for recuperation of injured soldiers.

During World War
Pic Credit :

It was only after Independence that DHR was absorbed into the Indian Railways in an official ceremony on October 20, 1948. Assam Railways including DHR became part of the North Eastern Railway in 1952 and from there on, DHR was transferred to the North Eastern Frontier Railway (NEFR) in 1958.

The first major international feather to have capped the DHR was UNESCO’s gift of the World Heritage status to it in 1990. The recognition catapulted toy train’s popularity across the globe, with a significant hike in international tourist arrivals.

However, prolonged unrest in the hills due to the statehood agitation robbed much of DHR’s charm with agitators setting ablaze some heritage stations.

As dust of the agitation settled, a new programme of modernization of works and track was announced by the railways in 2006 that coincided with the completion of 125 years of DHR. Since then, the vintage Toy Train has been on a topsy-turvy journey, struggling to recover the funds invested to revive and maintain its golden history.



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