Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Darjeeling (un)limited

Train Times goes global with a look at the work of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society (DHRS). Winners of 'Best International Achievement' at last year's Community Rail Awards, DHRS Chairman David Barrie shows the impact the society is making on the lives of those served by the railway ...

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) is probably the most famous narrow gauge railway in the world, offering spectacular views and a journey that is unrivalled in atmosphere.

Since first opening in 1881 to develop the hill station of Darjeeling, the railway has attracted enthusiasts from around the globe. In the days of the Raj, the coming of the railway not only reduced the journey time by several days, but travellers were whisked through the daunting jungle - home of wild tiger and malaria spreading mosquitoes - in a few short hours. In addition, the tea bush flourished to the Darjeeling climate and the railway found itself busy transporting tea and other goods in addition to plentiful passenger traffic, the previous alternative being a bullock cart.

The building of the line was achieved in less than two years, its original 51 miles criss- crossing the track known as the Hill Cart Road 180 times in order to gain height and to lessen the gradient, which rises from 300 feet above sea level to 7,407 feet at the summit- twice the height of Snowdon. The Sight of a
Victorian steam engine pulling its train around a spiral or reversing up a zigzag In order to gain height, or perhaps inching through a crowded bazaar, remain the iconic Darjeeling image.

The railway's fortunes were promising, even with the regular wash aways that occurred during the monsoons, when sections of track slid down the hillside, resulting in a whole new alignment having to be built. However, by the early 1990s, taxis had taken over, reducing the trip to Darjeeling from eight hours by train to just three by car. Goods traffic had also been lost to the road. Owned by Indian Railways, the line wheezed on because that's what it had always done - progressively more unreliable and trapped in a time warp.

In the mid 1990s, DHR fans around the world, fearing the railway might close, began to think seriously about its future. In 1997, the DHR Society was founded by a group of rail enthusiasts based in the UK. It quickly gained an international membership and crucially the ear of Indian Railways, who decided that the railway should be preserved for future generations. A fillip was the granting of World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1999. Then began the rejuvenation of the DHR, with the building of new coaches and locomotives and a promising future. It was at this point that a very interesting development occurred.

The town where the DHR starts is Siliguri and in 2001, an influential businessman, Rajendra Baid, made contact with the DHRS. As Chairman, I met him in a small hotel room in Earls Court. We spent the evening talking and soon found that our views melded. With the line now more secure, the Society became directly drawn into the community aspect of the DHR. Initially, this was because we were part of visiting tour parties, but guided by Rajendra, we saw that much could be done to help those who live in the area, which even by Indian standards is a poor region. We saw the hardship, the lack of healthcare, schooling and employment opportunities and resolved to do something about this.

Ably assisted by his son, Vivek, Rajendra devised a number of projects, for which we in the UK raised the funds, via everything from selling DHR DVDs to giving talks to interested groups and even buying local handicrafts and selling them in the UK. As such, our charity arm, the Darjeeling Railway Community Support, set to. We started small but last year alone raised £5,000; every penny (or should that be rupee?) spent on the projects, overseen by Rajendra and Vivek, who also raise funds internally.

To give some idea of where the fundraising goes, to send a doctor to a village for a day to treat everyone costs £50. To buy a sewing machine transported by DHR train to a remote village and training someone to use it costs £30. That person then not only has a job, but can train others. Aside from making their own clothes, the surplus can be sold at market. In one village, there was a teacher who struggled to teach the children because there was no school, so they met in a bus shelter. To find a suitable building, renovate, equip and rent it for a year cost £300.

But don't think that this is all one way. like us, the people we help want to achieve things and make something of their lives; they just need the opportunity. In one village, some youths constructed DHR model engines and coaches to sell to tourists. It was also realised that more people would visit if the railway looked smarter, so the local communities began planting shrubs and painting and tidying stations. Another project pioneered by Rajendra was the training of guides for the tourism market !

Whilst Rajendra was busy extending his projects working his way up the line, another of our UK offshoots, the Education Group, forged bonds with a number of Darjeeling residents and became directly involved with the schools. Money was raised in the UK and funded competitions amongst the children to design a DHR poster, write a DHR poem, perform a DHR play - all activities designed to allow the children to see the importance of the DHR in the fabric of their lives. A reward would be to have a day out on the DHR with a picnic lunch - something they could never afford.

So to some 12 short years, not only has the DHR been transformed, but so have the lives of a growing number of communities who live along the line. All this has been achieved not only by Indian Railways, but many dedicated individuals from two continents - ourselves in the UK and Rajendra and his team in India. By continuing to work closely together, the future for the unique Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is brighter than ever.

For further information about the work of the DHRS, please contact David Barrie at david@Well· or visit their website at

If you want to contact Rajendra Baid, President of DHR India Support Group,Siliguri, you can email :

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