Darjeeling ‘Toy Train’ may lose its world heritage status if action not taken

Unesco wants Indian Railways to develop a ‘Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan’ for British-era railway

Kolkata: Darjeeling Himalayan Railways (DHR), better known as the ‘Toy Train’, that runs between Siliguri and Darjeeling, could lose its World Heritage tag if it is not brought under a separate management within the Indian Railways.

Speaking on the 136th foundation day of DHR on August 23, Unesco expert Paul Atkins said, “The Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan (CCMP) for the DHR has been recommended so that a separate management structure within the Indian Railways can be developed for this world heritage site. The Indian Railways have responded positively and we expect it to be implemented within the next 18 months.”

Then known as the Darjeeling Steam Tramways, this route was opened on August 23, 1880. The day is commemorated as the foundation day of the DHR. The DHR was declared a world heritage site by Unesco on December 2, 1999. It is the second railway after Austria’s Semmering to have this honour bestowed upon it. It was also Asia’s first ‘industrial heritage’ site to be inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage List.

The CCMP is about creating a core and buffer zone that will be fixed for the 78km-long narrow gauge rail which runs between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. Guidelines will have to be prepared for maintenance of its beautiful steam locomotives, machinery and historic stations like Kurseong. Even its intangible heritage like craftsmanship will be documented.

The plan will look into every detail such as the wall colour of the stations, benches and even the old lamp posts. It will ensure that the colonial-style special architecture of DHR’s 11 stations are not disturbed. A repair and maintenance manual for them will be prepared. Same will be done to the steam locomotives, their wagons and machinery. The craftsmanship of these will also be documented.

Two global NGOs — International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and The Industrial Committee for Conservation of Industrial Heritage (TICCIH) — are assisting Unesco experts on the project with a budget of over more than half-a-million US dollars. Atkins said that more than 50 per cent of what was listed in 1999 has disappeared.

“It was in the original Unesco ‘Decision Document’ (1999) to select it as a World Heritage Site, which included the clause for an ‘adapted management plan’. It also mandated the creation of a buffer zone along the length of the railway and a local conservation unit,” Subrato Nath, Executive Director (Heritage), Railway Board, said.

Railway officials say this is a living heritage site which ferries passengers even today which is adding pressure to maintain it the way Unesco wants. However, the fact is that numerous landslides, flash floods and earthquakes have damaged the DHR railway line over years.

Also DHR has failed to educate local residents about the importance of the railway line and hence it has been subjected to neglect and encroachment from the public.

“We will implement all practical and feasible recommendations of the Unesco committee to preserve this heritage,” said N.D. Bhutia, director of DHR.

By Archisman Dinda


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