Off track in hills for 13 hours
Sixty foreign tourists on an all-inclusive $1 million (around Rs 7 crore) India tour package that included chartered coaches in the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway claimed the train had left them behind and derailed in bad weather later, forcing them to take cars and complete a five-hour ride in 13 hours.
The ordeal unfolded on Saturday when a hailstorm lashed the hills. The team took 10 hours to be driven from Ghoom to Darjeeling, only 10km away, and could check into their hotel in the hill town only around 4am because of a snarl caused by the storm.
Farokh Engineer, one of India’s best-known wicketkeepers who was part of the group, questioned the DHR’s ways. “This is a very high-profile tour…. not three or four but a seven-star (category) trip. Such visitors expect nothing but the best.”
The travellers from the US, UK, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and other countries started their 15-day trip from Mumbai on February 6, covering Udaipur, Jaipur, Delhi, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra and Varanasi. The tour is to end in Calcutta.
Their expectations ebbed when they left Varansi for New Jalpaiguri. “The timings were excellent in western India but when we came east, it became awful. We reached Jalpaiguri four hours late,” said Tim Littler, president, Golden Eagle Luxury Trains, a UK tour operator that organised the 15-day trip. The tour is named “Darjeeling Mail”, given the novelty of the DHR.
The delay meant the team had to allegedly chase the Darjeeling toy train from Tindharia, from where their chartered ride was to begin. The group drove up further and was “forced” to board the train close to a fountain near Mahanadi station.
The railways said the group’s local contact, who had booked the tickets, had not informed them about the tourists’ delay and told the train staff to leave.
N.K. Narzary, director of DHR, said: “We had no reason to move the train from Tindharia without being given the go-ahead.”
Nevertheless, the team headed towards Darjeeling and stopped for an hour at Kurseong where, according to them, the rail staff took “40 minutes too long” to service the steam engine. The train had barely gone 2km from Kurseong when two coaches derailed. “We suggested detaching the coaches but permission was hard to come by, it seems,” said Littler.
Such derailments are not unusual on the hilly terrain, rail officials said. “Even if there is a derailment, the trains are put back on track within two hours,” said Narzary. Engineer and the others were put in cars but they were later caught in the storm-triggered jam near Ghoom.