Hill strike halts Toy train

ANURADHA SHARMA

A group of foreign tourists alight from the Deccan Odyssey. Their ride on the toy train was cut short because of the Morcha strike. A Telegraph picture
Siliguri, April 23: The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s ongoing strike in state and central government offices in the hills has pulled the chain on the toy train, causing the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) to lose Rs 30,000 a day.
The political party claims that “tourist facilities” have been kept outside the shutdown’s ambit, but the DHR, a Unesco world heritage site and arguably one of the biggest tourist attractions in the hills, has not got the relief. Apart from the eight-hour ride up the hills from New Jalpaiguri, even the short trips between Darjeeling and Ghoom have been cancelled.
DHR director Subrata Nath said his request to Morcha leaders to allow the toy train to run was turned down.
“They (the Morcha leaders) said they would allow only the Darjeeling-Ghoom joyride to run, but under a condition,” the DHR director said. “They asked us to operate the service without opening our stations and offices. They must understand that it is not possible to run a train that way. The tickets have to be issued, the locomotives need to be serviced and a lot of back-room work has to be done.”
The railway official added that in emergency, the trains have to be taken to the Tindharia workshop, but that too has been shut down by the Morcha.
“We are losing out on about Rs 30,000 daily,” Nath said. “This is the peak season, a time when our trains are fully booked with the daily earnings sometimes shooting up to Rs 40,000. But for the past 10 days, we have had to withdraw all our services.”
The Morcha strike began in the Darjeeling hills on April 14.
Nath added that a couple of chartered-rides have had to be cancelled already. “And given the uncertain situation in the hills, we are not accepting any bookings for this month either.”
The Morcha leaders stood their ground.
“We allowed them to operate the Darjeeling-Ghoom joyride by keeping one office open,” Morcha general secretary Roshan Giri said. “They said they could not operate that way. But we cannot relent because it is not possible to allow them to keep all their offices and stations open when all other government offices are closed. We cannot make an exception for the railways.”
Visitors to the region are the worst sufferers. As Raj Basu, the president of the Eastern Himalayan Travel and Tour Operators’ Association and a member of the DHR India Support Group, said: “Only tourists would like to spend eight hours on a train journey from Siliguri to Darjeeling, when it takes only three hours by road.”
The DHR director said the New Jalpaiguri-Darjeeling-New Jalpaiguri diesel service has seen a jump of 15 per cent in 2007-08 compared to the previous year. “In fact, our overall earnings from the DHR was gradually increasing, a clear fall-out of the toy train’s growing popularity, but the strike has brought it all to a grinding halt,” Nath added.
A group of foreigners, who are touring India on the luxurious train the Deccan Odyssey, today had to be content with an 8km “joyride” on the toy train between New Jalpaiguri and Siliguri junction. Their original booking was for the Tindharia-Darjeeling (55km) stretch.
“Since the railways have a flat charter rate for all stretches regardless of the distance, this alternative does not work well for tourists,” said a tour operator. The rate varies from Rs 20,000-30,000 depending upon the kind of coaches one chooses and whether one approaches the railways directly or through a tour operator.
“The toy train is not just about business,” Vivek Baid, a member of the DHR Support Group said. “It is our heritage and is very close to the hearts of the people. All of us must be careful that we do not do anything that will harm the symbol of our tradition, heritage and pride.”
The Morcha begged to differ. “Our agitation is not having any adverse effect on tourism,” Giri said. “Tourists are coming in huge numbers and we are extending all cooperation to them.” (The Telegraph)

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