India's ailing Shimla toy train hopes for boost from centennial

by AFP/Baldev S. Chauhan, Nov 22, 2002 | Destinations: India / Shimla

SHIMLA, India, Nov 21, 2002 - Faced with heavy losses, India's famous toy train in the northern Himalayas is marking 100 years on the tracks, with preservationists hoping the anniversary will turn around its cash problem.

Inaugurated by British viceroy Lord Curzon in November 1903, the once steam-engined "Hill Puffer" chugs down 96 kilometers (60 miles) from Kalka in the mountains to Shimla, the summer capital of colonial India.

But ironically, a 1996 decision to heavily subsidise tickets to attract more tourists has devastated the route's finances, even though it has brought in more visitors who like the British colonial rulers want to escape India's sweaty summers.

A one-way ticket on the narrow-gauge route can now run as low as 50 cents, leading to losses of about 100 million rupees (two million dollars) a year and open talk of shutting the relic down.

"The route is undergoing major losses," said the Shimla station manager, Praveen Kumar.

Hoping to save the fixture from extinction, Indian Railways and preservationist groups are appealing to UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, to give the toy train world heritage status.

The status was already given three years ago to another celebrated British-era mountain track, at Darjeeling in eastern India.

"The Indian Railways was planning to dismantle train services on this track due to losses," said B.S. Malhans of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.

"World heritage status would bring in a lot of resources and help carry out long overdue maintenance operations on the line."

When work began on the toy train in 1889 it was considered an engineering marvel. It rises from 650 meters (2,145 feet) above sea level to a breath-taking 2,100 (6,930 feet).

The train passes through 103 tunnels, 969 bridges, 919 curves and 20 railway stations.

US travel writer Paul Theroux, who rode on the track in 1974, wrote of the experience:

"The rail car's speed was a steady 10 miles an hour, zigzagging in and out of steeply pitched hill, reversing on switchbacks through the terraced gardens and white flocks of butterflies.

"We passed through several tunnels -- outside the car there was a sheer drop, hundreds of feet down."

But despite the romance of such journeys, India's 63,000-kilometer (39,000-mile) railway system has been ailing for years due to unviable routes and artificially low fares.

Efforts to reform the railway system have met fierce political opposition. With a 1.6 million-strong workforce, Indian Railways is the world's largest employer.

Hoping to recoup losses, the railways has allowed hotels and film crews to charter trains on the Shimla-Kalka route at about 2,000 dollars for a two-way journey.

But one such deal ended in near disaster in December 2001.

A Canadian film crew had chartered a classic steam-engine train on the route. A spark shot out of the engine, setting fire to the dry winter grass. The gusts of the helicopter only fanned the flames, and crops around the tracks were destroyed before the fire could be put out.

Since then, the steam-engine toy trains have been permanently retired.

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