| The toy train chugs along the Sukna forest. Picture by Avijit Sarkar
Sukna, Aug. 23: As the sun beamed through partings in clouds, the toy train rolled out of the quaint Sukna station today on its journey up the rain-soaked mountains much the same way it had exactly 122 years ago.
The three-coach train looked like a caterpillar as it puffed its way up, smoke billowing from the snout of its steam engine trailing the history of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
Snotty-nosed children in rags ran alongside as the train inched forward. Gaggles of girls standing on tracks indistinguishable from the muddy road scatter, giggling and waving at the passing train.
On a wet morning in 1880, the colonial-era train had begun its journey as the sole carrier of hill people. Not much has really changed in the years gone by, right down to the train’s steam engine with an in-built water tank, wooden coaches and curiosity of the people living along the 88 km route from Siliguri to Darjeeling.
But it’s no longer the sole transport for people living in the hills. The narrow-gauge, slow train has outlived its utility, losing out to buses and jeeps that ramble up and down the Hillcart road. Today, it survives as a relic of the past, ferrying tourists up and down the once-forested hills.
“The Darjeeling Himalayan narrow-gauge line is a unique example of mountain railway engineering. It is amazing that it is still pulled by engines more than 100 years old,’’ said V. Nanda, general manager of the Northeast Frontier Railway, looking out at the tracks snaking its way into the forest.
Nanda said the railway is trying to engage international organisations in keeping the trains chugging. “We are in touch with members of the DHR Heritage Foundation and the Darjeeling Himalyan Railway Societies in England and Australia.”
It was 9.15 am when the decked-up train carrying senior railway officers and the media pulled out of Sukna, its horn tooting. It traversed the moss-ridden Sukna forest, before overcoming the obstacle of a Z-shaped track. Then courageously, it climbed up a rise and took a dip as the tracks sloped.
It was to go to Kurseong, as it had 122 years ago. But a landslide, which had buried the tracks under mounds of debris at Paglajhora came in the way. Before terminating its journey at Tindharia, 22 km from Sukna, one-and-a-half hours later, it pluckily took the curvy “agony point”, as the sharp bend in the tracks is known.