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Since 1st March, 1999
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Heritage huff and puff as hill toy chugs down death tracks

Shimla, April 20: Like smoke curling lazily from a candle, the Hill Puffer chugs its way up through the mountain mist, almost touching the whispering pines and deodars.

Ahead, a lantern burns green — a signal that the track is clear. But for how long'

The vintage toy train has been snaking up the Kalka-Shimla track for nearly a hundred years, but the little procession of seven coaches that fit in about 200 people could be headed towards their last bend unless the clamour for heritage status translates into a real effort.

“The train, once the town’s lifeline, has lost commercial value and is running huge losses. But we don’t want the government to stop the service,” says B.S. Malhans, co-convener of Intach in Himachal Pradesh and president of Save our Shimla, an NGO.

Malhans, who has been trying to persuade the Himachal Pradesh government to seek heritage status for the train like its Darjeeling cousin, says the track is an “engineering marvel” that needs to be preserved. “It is also home to some of the finest bridgework in the world,” he says.

Even the Guinness Book of World Records says the track is the “greatest narrow gauge engineering feat in India”.

Malhans has finally managed to garner support at the local and even at the central level to save the toy train from becoming history. The NGOs he is associated with have planned a series of functions that would culminate in a five-day march from Kalka to Shimla from November 5 to mark 100 years of the train. The construction of the track was completed on November 2, 1903, though the route was opened to the public only on January 1, 1906.

On Friday, a senior official from the rail museum in Delhi was in the town to “educate” the government on how to proceed to get world heritage status.

For those who have travelled by the train, the romanticism is hard to miss.

At 25-30 kmph, the word “hurry” has been left far behind in Kalka, where the toy train begins its 96-km-long journey through 103 tunnels and over 889 bridges. On the way, it curls past 919 curves, crosses 19 stations and five level crossings.

“I come here every year by train. I have been coming here for over 15 years now. The journey is exhilarating,” says Debashish Ganguly, a resident of Durgapur in West Bengal.

Bengalis happen to be the most loyal commuters. They come for “historical reasons”, feels Malhans. “While Calcutta was the capital of the British, Shimla was the summer capital. That connection continues and the majority of Bengalis prefers to come and leave by train.”

However, Lord Curzon — who had seen to it that the track was made operational before he left Shimla in 1903 — had returned by tonga. “As we came, so we go,” he is believed to have said, alluding to his journey to the hill capital.

If the journey is unforgettable, so is the story of laying the track.

It is said the British engineers sought the help of a commoner, Bhalku, who had long matted hair infested with lice, which he used to feed by pouring sugar and flour over his head.

Bhalku claimed that the track should take the route revealed to him by God who communicated through the insects in his beard. He would march with a long staff over the hills and legend has it that the engineers, in awe of his supernatural powers, built the track exactly according to what Bhalku said.

After its completion, Bhalku was awarded the title of zamindar.

The longest tunnel through which the track passes is 1,144 metres and takes three minutes to cross. The tunnel — and the station here — is named after an engineer, Barog, who sacrificed his life building it. The grave of the engineer lies 1 km from the station.

Barog had started building the tunnel from both ends — one point between Barog and Solan and the other beyond Saloghra, but failed to align the two ends. If he had succeeded, it would have been the longest railway tunnel in the world.

Another interesting aspect is the track’s communication system — lanterns, which stopped and gave the green signal during the British regime.

The first sketch of the track, which rises from Kalka at 640 metres and winds its way up to Shimla at 2,075 metres, was made in November 1847. The project was revived in 1885 but nothing came of it. Another project report prepared in 1887 also failed to kick off construction. Finally, a survey of the terrain in 1895 paved the way for signing the construction contract on June 29, 1898.

At the foothills, is a breathtaking view of the Kushalya river and the tiny stations with neat gardens and gabled roofs. Chilly air jabs passengers the moment the train nears Jabli, 1,240 metres above sea level.

Three loops near Taksal, Gumman and Dharampur offer superb views. The ascent is steady and each coach seems to groan as the train puffs across green meadows, fields of capsicum, and red-roofed chalets, while gurgling brooks flow under stone bridges.

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