The unthinkable has happened: for the first time in its 137-year-history, the toy train, which climbs more than 2,000 metres from the plains of Siliguri to Darjeeling’s hills, will have an air-conditioned compartment from next month.
Railway officials say they are responding to tourists’ demand for greater comfort but environment scientists and climatologists see in this an irrefutable proof of climate change. “An air-conditioned commute to Darjeeling was unthinkable till a couple of decades ago but not any more. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has clearly stated that heat stress and temperature rise are certain. We have all been experiencing discomfort till halfway up the journey but refused to link it to climate change,” Jadavpur University economics professor Joyasree Roy said.
She is among the network of scientists who shared the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the IPCC in 2007.
AC coaches from April, no fare change
Kurseong and Kalimpong have already became unbearable without fans in summer. Climatologists, who have been raising the alarm about climate change, now say that the sight of an AC coach trundling into Darjeeling station will be “surreal”.
Railway Board chairman Aswini Lohani said this would happen in April.
“Some tourists I met pointed out that the first-class service in the long-distance journey from New Jalpaiguri (NJP) to Darjeeling was not good enough. So we decided to introduce AC coaches from April. There will be no change in fare,” said Lohani.
Old-timers say much of the charm will be lost in the AC compartment with sealed windows. “Part of the charm of travelling to Darjeeling has been in feeling the weather change as one gained altitude. From a slight nip to chilly, the transformation within hours is amazing,” executive Sandeep Ghosh, who visits Darjeeling at least twice a year, says.
The toy train climbs more than 2,000 metres in its eight-hour uphill journey. Multiple zigzags and loop lines on the narrow guage along the 87-km route make this feat possible. This unique railway line along with British-built B-Class steam locomotives and the stations make up the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which has a World Heritage Site tag from Unsesco.
The train that will have the AC compartment will be powered by diesel locos. The vintage steam locos are currently used only for a joyride between Darjeeling and Ghoom.
lans are also afoot to introduce second-class coaches in the diesel joyride to make the fare affordable so that budget tourists can avail of the service. At present, an hour-long, 16-km trip on board the train powered by the steam loco from Darjeeling to Ghoom and back costs Rs 1,300.
Lohani said the Railways would also attempt to revive the sixsteam engines. Among other value-added service that Railways intends to introduce include railway buses and charter services from NJP to Darjeeling.“We will introduce two buses each with seating capacity of eight to 10 persons that can be chartered. It will be similar to the service in Shimla,” the Railway Board chairman added.