It was a pleasant summer day – bright sun, blue sky, puffy cumulus clouds and an occasional gentle breeze. There was a flurry of activity at the station as the coal-fired locomotive of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway huffed and puffed. Its murky smoke mingled freely with the chai, samosas and sel rotis, amid occasional cries of “chai, chai”.
Everything at the station – Buddhist prayer flags, a lively Indian bazaar, chai and an original Darjeeling Himalayan Railway engine, together with the weather – gave it the appearance of being in Darjeeling, except for one minor detail: there were no Himalayas or lush tea gardens in the far distance. For this was no Darjeeling station, but a replica in an idyllic English town.
On a May bank holiday, some six years ago, I witnessed Bedfordshire’s Leighton Buzzard Railway transform its Pages Park station into the Darjeeling of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. It was an “Indian extravaganza” organised by the United Kingdom-based Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society. The star of the day was 19B – an original Class B steam locomotive and the only Darjeeling engine ever to leave India. Never mind that the two geographies have little in common, everyone played along – those who had been to Darjeeling, those who hadn’t, and I, who hailed from Darjeeling.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was built between 1879 and 1881 to connect Siliguri, which lies at the base of the Himalayas, with Darjeeling. For several decades, the narrow-gauge railway was the region’s lifeline, transporting people and materials over eight hours and 88 kilometres, negotiating six reverses and five loops on the way. It played a key role during the Second World War, ferrying military personnel and materials to camps around Ghum and Darjeeling.
Increasing reliance on the faster road transport rendered the line redundant. In 1992, the Indian Railways had begun preparations to close it down but was forced to back down in the face of resistance from locals, who were led by Sherab Tenduf-la, the owner of the historic Windamere Hotel. In 1999, Unesco accorded the train a World Heritage status, arguably giving it a degree of protection. Today, in spite of annual losses of about Rs 9 crore, Indian Railways runs the DHR services daily, though it is largely tourists and steam heritage enthusiasts who show any interest. Locals prefer to zoom past in cars, buses and taxis – understandable, given that the train takes eight hours for the journey completed by road in three hours.
Like the DHR, the Leighton Buzzard Railway – it turns 100 this year – operates on a narrow-gauge track. It started operations soon after the First World War to serve sand quarries in the north of the town, and lost its relevance after the miners took to road transport in the 1960s. For over 50 years now, it has been run by volunteers as part of the Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway Society. On weekends and holidays, the society organises special events, offering steam- and diesel-hauled joyrides between Parks Page and Stonehenge Works stations, covering a distance of 4.8 kilometres.
The DHR steam locomotive, 19B, is owned by Adrian Shooter, CEO of UK’s Vivarail and president of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society. It was built in Glasgow in 1889 and served the DHR until 1960, after which it was sold off to Elliott Donnelley, a private buyer in the United States. After Donelley’s death, it was displayed in a museum, where it was damaged in a fire. In 2002, Shooter bought it, shipped it to the UK, got it restored, built DHR-like coaches and set up a railway – Beeches Light Railway – in the garden of his home in Oxfordshire. Every once in a while, Shooter’s 19B visits UK’s narrow-gauge railways as part of events organised by the DHR Society. A book chronicling its journey, from its birthplace to to Shooter’s garden, was recently published by the Society.
So how did the idea of recreating the DHR in Britain come about? Blame it on beer. “What the heck – take Minffordd station and turn it into Sukna,” Paul Lewin, general manager of Ffestiniog Railway, is said to have remarked after a few pints in a Darjeeling hotel in 2004. He was in the town with a team of trustees to seek possible collaborations with the DHR. Lewin and Peter Jordan, the tour manager of the DHR Society, worked upon the idea and in 2005, Minffordd of Ffestiniog Railway in Wales was converted to DHR’s Sukna station for a day.
That May day, a very flat Leighton Buzzard tried its best to emulate Darjeeling. Replicas of prominent road signs along the Siliguri-Darjeeling Hill Cart Road, visible from the windows of the train, were on display at the station. “Beware, monkeys may steal your sandwiches,” announced a sign in English and Bengali. “Hurry Burry Spoils the Curry”, “If You Love Your wife, Divorce Death”, “Better Be Late Mr Motorist than the Late Mr Motorist” were some of the others. “Be Gentle on My Curves” – entreating drivers to slow down – had been modified with a touch of propriety to “On My Curves/Mind Your Swerves”. Local Nepali families added a traditional culinary flavour to the event with their perfectly round sel rotis, or ring-shaped sweetmeats made of rice. A lively bazaar sold knick-knacks from India.
The charismatic 19B, with Shooter at the wheel, trundled through the countryside before ending the ride at the Stonehenge Works station. At the level crossing – quite contrary to what one might witness in India – the train stopped to let the cars and buses pass before crossing over.
Two months later, I found myself at the quaint Heyford station in Oxfordshire, in search of 19B. Shooter picked me up from the station, and we drove to his home in, well, an Ambassador that Shooter had imported from India in 2003.
As we entered Shooter’s three-acre garden, I could see traces of Darjeeling. The tree-lined dirt track through which we drove was alongside the narrow-gauge rail track of the Beeches Railway. This was meant to resemble Hill Cart Road back in Darjeeling, where the rail track runs on the side of the road, criss-crossing it occasionally.
Beeches Railway runs for more than a kilometre in Shooter’s garden, forming an 8-shaped loop around his art-and-craft style house at Steeple Aston. The loco shed is a replica of Kurseong’s DHR loco shed, and the only station of the railway is called Rinkingpong, after a road in Kalimpong. “I love all things machine,” Shooter, a mechanical engineer by training, said as we sat in a community hall masquerading as the office of the Rinkingpong station superintendent.
“As a young boy I read about the two-feet-gauge Ffestiniog Railway in North Wales, which always had a spirit of innovation and was the first to adopt many new things in the 19th century,” said Shooter. “The DHR, which was built in the knowledge of what Ffestiniog had achieved, continued that tradition.”
Every year, Shooter organises an open day for people to take rides on his railway. Unfortunately, this May will be the last such ride at the present location – he is moving from Beeches. “We are going to sell the house and land for development,” Shooter said in a recent email interview. “But we have already found a new place and, with a bit of luck, the railway will be installed there by April-May next year. The line will be a little longer and will also run right alongside the high speed Great Western Railway, where trains will whizz past at 200 km/h.”
In 2018, a team of DHR officials visited Beeches and other steam heritage railways in the UK as part of a programme to get first-hand lessons in conservation. “We really appreciate his [Shooter’s] work, and the contribution of the DHR Society in promoting our little train,” said MK Narzary, the Kurseong-based director of the DHR. “It takes a lot of involvement to do something like that, to run a railway purely voluntarily. Their activities work like an advertisement for us.”
Raj Basu, secretary general of the DHR India Support Group in Siliguri, too acknowledged the work done by Shooter and his community. “They not only popularise the DHR globally, but also get tourists to the train every year,” he said.
Narzary is pleased that the popularity of DHR is on the rise and ticket sales increasing. It may never regain its past glory, but it still occupies a pride of place in the hill station. As Shooter sees it, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway may not have “such a vital role for the local people”, but it serves them nevertheless – “by being a magnet for tourists both Indian and international”.