Third time is a charm
Right after checking in at the Mariott (It is BYOB as they are not licenced to serve alcohol), which is located across the main road from the DHR Shed at Siliguri Junction, I walk out onto the bridge crossing the northern end of SJ station and catch a picture of the down train (604, 163, 906AC, 116) pulling in at 16:01. The bridge allows a good view over the DHR shed area and I am happy to see the open gate and smoke rising form at least one engine. Nobody challenges me when I walk through the gate and I am absolutely free to roam among all the rolling stock in the yard. 782 is under steam and being serviced to be ready to haul a charter train the next day. 791 is loaded with coal, an operation to be savored, as every piece is manually placed and replaced to make sure the max amount of fuel gets on board and nothing tumbles from the rocking engine once she is under way. 01 is cold, but I am assured to be in working condition. Diesel 603 is jacked up, all service doors open and its wheels away from her make for a good picture. 600 is in a rather sorry state with its engine cover removed and the rusty ventilator giving it the look of a rotary snowplow. For the record I try to take pictures of as many of the coaches that fill the yards tracks. They are in varying states of maintenance, from spank AC coaches to more or less inviting but serviceable, decaying, rotting or falling apart.
Next morning I get up early enough to see the British group off on their steam charter at 9am at Siliguri Junction. In front the station building – which is under reconstruction – sits 787 on a pedestal. She must have quite recently got a paint job. My search for a detailed timetable is as fruitless as on the web. All stations sport the same poster that gives the departure and arrival times for each train without any timings for intermediate stops. 08:56 the extra (791, 118,105) pushes in from the depot, is duly admired, photographed, videotaped and boarded by 33 enthusiasts. With only 25 minutes delay it makes a dynamic departure and rolls out towards Sukna and the hills.
I make it to an empty platform at New Jaipalguri at 9:55, just in time for my 10:00 departure. 8 minutes later the up train finally pulls in from the depot in SJ. Diesel 604 uncouples to refuel and get to the head of the train that is formed by 163, 906 AC and 116. I get into 116 with its open windows so I can take photos and stick my head out, something that does not work in AC class. Occupancy is low with 3 to 4 passengers per coach. With 34 minutes delay we get under way, to cross a road at the end of the station and get stopped not half a mile from the platform. 22 minutes later the token is delivered by foot and we can cross the mainline whose trains have priority. At 11:15 our tiny train breezes through Siliguri Town just to grind to a stop in front of the shared bridge outside Siliguri Junction 5 minutes later. Again, three mainline trains pass before us. After 55 long minutes, we head out onto and over the span and arrive at Siliguri Junction at 12:22. It took us 1 hour 48 minutes to cover less than 4 miles! I do not complain, as there is so much to see on the mainline and along the DHR track. At SJ additional travelers are boarding, so the occupancy doubles to about 40%. Rumbling on through the outskirts of Siliguri cars and scooters that have to be moved, stubborn cows, dogs and pigs stop the train repeatedly as we rumble through bazars and then speed along the Hill Cart Road towards Sukna where we reach at 12:57.
After a short stop at Rongtong we catch up with the steam extra above the 3rd reverse. Good old 791 has obviously developed some ailment – somebody mentions injector failure – and got stranded. At first our crew tries to push with the train attached, but that does not get us far. We roll back to a more level stretch, the brakes get set and inhibitors placed behind the wheels. Our diesel pushes the still puffing 791 up to the Tindharia workshop. Waiting for the engine to come back leaves enough time to study the immense concrete retaining wall that has been built to shore up the landslide that threatened to pull the workshop down into the valley. After some time 604 is back to collects us and gets us to Tindharia station where the down train (605, 1907, 158) crosses us at 15:25. At Agony Point enthusiastic Indian tourists cheer us enthusiastically and take at least 1’000 pictures as our train screeches through the tight 360° turn.
I realize that we are approaching the Pagla Jhora landslip area as the train suddenly slows down. The line takes a short but steep dip as the tracks cross this obviously still unstable stretch. Huge steep and walled in concrete steps attempt to tame the waters that can pour down the barren hillside in monsoon times. 16:33 we make a quick stop at Mhanadi and off we go further up into the mist and clouds that shroud the tops in the late afternoon. The train makes it into Kurseong at 17:09, just 10 minutes before its scheduled arrival in Darjeeling. As night falls quickly I switch to the backup car that is trailing me at Sonada and make it to the Windameer, my dinner and bedroom well before the train gets into Darjeeling after 20:30.
To have time to snoop around the depot and station I leave the hotel at 7am. To my utter astonishment, I cannot get a breakfast, nor a hot tea at that time. Beautiful sunshine and a sensational clear view of Kanchenjunga make more than up for it. Diesels 601 and 604 are already busy shunting in front of the station to get the down and the toy trains ready for the day. The Himalayan Princess is on display in the shelter of the station canopy. Huffing and puffing draws me over to the shed. 780, 805 and 795 are stored cold on the rear track, blocked in by a heap of ashes that spills across the tracks. Four workers are curiously watching me, warming their hands in their pockets on that chilly morning. The front track is occupied by 779 (cold) and 786 and 795 steamed up for the days work. Backbreaking work keeps two women and an old man busy as they shift coal from a truck to storage. The 8:00 departure time passes by and we (604, 163, 906, and 116) finally get moving by 8:35.
To the surprise of my finger on the shutter, we rattle through the Batasia loop and run nonstop to Ghum where we reach at 9:01 after battling our way through several traffic jams. Diesel 602 with her Kurseong to Darjeeling morning run, consisting of coaches 86 and155, is eagerly waiting for us to clear the line, as she should reach her destination Darjeeling only 4 minutes later. The rolling stock on display at the museum looks clean and is obviously repainted regularly. I change over to my car to get some pics of the moving train. Sonada station looks good from the outside and the new roof is shining in the sun. On the track behind the building, I find coach F93 in a truly deplorable state. Door and windows are open and expose the inside to the whim of the elements. Climbing to the backside, I find one of the poles on the side of the door completely rotten and it is falling apart. If action is not taken very soon, this car will just disintegrate.
The small Loco shed at Kurseong is busy this morning. The whole team is swarming around 804 who is to haul the steam extra over to Darjeeling. The British group used their cars to get from Tindharia to Kurseong and somehow their coaches got there overnight as well. As steam is venting from various valves six hands try to fix a problem with the driving gear at the same time. On the adjoining track 788 is sitting with part of her right hand driving gear disassembled. The sidings between the shed and the station are still used for parking, but the main track is free and 788 plows through the heavy traffic on its way up to the station with a lot of furious whistling and the help of traffic police officers. By this time, the station yard is quite crowded and some complex switching starts to unfold to get 788 to the correct end of her train and 604 reassembled with her load. As some of the stumps are rather short 116 is being replaced with 160 on the down train. Some 50 minutes after arriving my train finally continues the run towards the valley.The crossing with the up train, pulled by 605, happens at Tindharia station at 13:40. At Rongtong – 14:50 – I leave the train for good as the many curves and forest stretches below offer some good opportunities for photos and video sequences. With a last take of the train arriving in Sukna I say good bye to our charming DHR. It is 15:18 – just three minutes past the scheduled arrival time in NJP. As my guide asks whether I will be back some day, my answer is ‘never say never again’.
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