Hill rides lose steam as haulers skip work

Delay in salary pay affects DHR

By Vivek Chhetri in Darjeeling
  • Published 13.09.18
Steam locos at DHR station in Darjeeling. File picture

Darjeeling: The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway couldn't operate steam engines for the past two days as six coal haulers and four cleaners refrained from work as a contractor failed to disburse salaries.

The steam rides from Darjeeling to Ghoom and back are the main attraction of tourists. The DHR has been unable to operate toy trains between NJP and Darjeeling since the first week of August because of landslides along tracks.

Tour operators are perplexed.

"Booking for steams opens 120 days in advance. The century-old steam engines are cancelled because we hear that payments were not made to few labourers. What kind of image are we sending to the world? The world heritage DHR is among the most famous attractions in Darjeeling. May international tourists visit Darjeeling only for a DHR ride," said Suresh Periwal, the managing director of Clubside Tours and Travel.

Clubside, which has been into the business since 1948, had 39 foreigners who had booked for steam engines these two days.

A coal hauler in Darjeeling said: "We usually get our salary on the second day of the month. However, for this month, we have not yet received our salaries and that is why we decided to stop hauling coal onto steam engines since yesterday (Tuesday)."

Coal hauling job has been outsourced to a contractor. The six coal haulers get a monthly salary of Rs 8,500 each, while each cleaner earns Rs 4,500 per month.

The DHR authorities had to cancel the steam joy rides from Darjeeling to Ghoom and back.

"The steam engine fare will be refunded. We are, however, requesting people to take a ride on the diesel engine and are increasing diesel rides as on demand," said a DHR source.

Steam engines are nearly century old and capture the essence of the heritage ride, while diesel engines are relatively new entrants in the DHR.

Ashish Gargash, a tourist from Odisa, said: "We wanted a ride on a steam engine but finding no option, we are forced to take a diesel ride."

On Tuesday, the DHR authorities ran two diesel engine rides. M.K. Narzary, director, DHR, said: "There is an agreement (with the contractor) and they have to follow it. We have to look into the rules."

Later in the evening, a person who identified on phone as Dipak Chhetri brother of contractor Pramod Chhetri said: "My brother is sick and I was looking into the affairs. There were some issues regarding demand for puja bonus but the matter has been solved and coal will be hauled tomorrow."