Vintage Indian steam train to chug again on Himalayan route

by AFP/Baldev S. Chauhan, Jul 21, 2003 | Destinations: India / Shimla

A vintage steam engine will again chug its way up a north Indian Himalayan railway track dating back to the days of British colonial rule, a top official says.

Himachal Pradesh state tourism minister Vijay Singh Mankhotia said the train, nicknamed "the hillpuffer", was being revived on the popular Kalka-Shimla route to mark centenary celebrations. He said the inaugural train will leave on November 9, 2003 and initially run once a week.

The toy train on the winding track from Kalka in the plains to Shimla in the high mountains was launched by British Viceroy to India, Lord Curzon, on November 9, 1903. Shimla was then the summer capital of India and Curzon one of the most formidable British viceroys to rule the sub-continent. When work began on the train in 1889, it was considered an impossible engineering challenge.

The track has been described in the "Guinness Railway Book" as "an engineering feat". It passes through 103 tunnels and 969 bridges to rise to a breathtaking 2,100 metre (6,890 feet) altitude at Shimla.

Indian Railways and other groups interested in the train's preservation have appealed to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to grant it world heritage status. UNESCO bestowed such a status three years ago to another celebrated British-era mountain railway track, at Darjeeling in eastern India.

B.S. Malhans, a senior functionary of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) at Shimla, said railway authorities were even contemplating stopping all train services on the track because of losses. Nearly half the fare is subsidised by the railways and the cost of a second class journey is only twenty rupees (40 cents), nearly one-fourth that of a bus ticket. "World heritage status would bring in a lot of resources and help carry out long overdue maintenance operations on the line."

The steam engine train ran regularly on the Kalka-Shimla route until 1976, when it was mothballed and the engine kept as a showpiece in a railway museum. Strapped for funds, three years ago, the railways pulled it out of retirement and allowed hotels and film crews last spring to charter the steam engine train for two days on the route for a lucrative 2,000 dollars. The experiment soon failed and the train withdrawn after a Canadian film crew's helicopter fanned an engine spark which had fallen on the dry mountainside grass, creating a roaring fire which destroyed a huge area.

The decision to ply the steam engine once again is being seen as a bold gambit aimed primarily at getting world heritage status. "Not only will the resumption of the steam engine bring back lovers of vintage trains from around the globe, but will also attract world attention from heritage agencies to preserve and promote this heritage railway track," said INTACH member Ajit Butail.

* * * * *