Darjeeling waits for Mamata magic

Probal Basak & Shine Jacob / Kolkata/ Darjeeling February 25, 2011, 0:22 IST

I will turn Darjeeling into Switzerland!This was one promise which the Railways’ minister Mamata Banerjee had made to the people of Darjeeling before the last Lok Sabha elections. Amid flooding poll sops for West Bengal in her Budget speech, if the Trinamool stalwart forgets the toy train, it might sound death knell for the iconic service of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DJR) — which is in the UNESCO’s world heritage list.

For the last eight months, the toy train service between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling is partially suspended following a landslide and the authorities have no clue when the narrow gauge route will be revived.

On Friday, when she delivers her Budget speech, people from North Bengal will be expecting magic which can only bring the toy train back on track. “We want the minister to include the development and expansion of toy train services in her Budget. All the tourists coming here want to have a ride on it. For the last eight months, nobody is asking for that package and with the pace at which Railways is working, it seems services may not even start this year,” said Samrat Sanyal, President, Eastern Himalayas Travel and Tour Operators’ Association (EHTTOA).Meanwhile, the Railways’ is passing the buck on to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways blaming that they can start work on the track only after the National Highway-55 that runs alongside the track, which was also damaged during the landslides, is repaired.

“The track passes alongside the road only, even the road transport connectivity is disrupted here. Restoration of tracks will take place as soon as the road construction is complete. The department has already given tenders for the work and expect to complete the track repairing with in two months once the road is cleared,” said S Hajong, spokesperson of the North Eastern Frontier Railways.

The Darjeeling District Magistrate Mohan Gandhi, who chaired one of the meetings for renewal of the routes, said, “Work on the road has started and it will take another three months to be completed. Then it’s upon the Railways to restore the train service.”

The train, which covers an 88-kilometre stretch from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling passes through places like Siliguri, Sukna, Tindharia, Gayabari, Mahanadi, Kurseong, Tung, Sonada and Ghum. But since the landslide in June, the train covers only a 35-km area from Kurseong to Darjeeling only.

However, UNESCO officials are considering this just as an ‘operational issue’, which has to be sorted out by the railways itself. The DHR, which started in 1881, was included in the World Heritage Site list by UNESCO in 1999. Indian Railways had sanctioned Rs 1.2 crore for a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for the DHR in 2009, which is yet to be implemented.

“It will take more than a year to start services again. Problem is, officials are not taking decisions faster. Ultimately, the region is suffering from it. I hope ‘Didi’ will do some magic,” said a distressed staff at the narrow guage shed in Siliguri.

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