The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, warned by UNESCO that it could lose its status as a world heritage site, has found fresh hope of restoring the link that can help retain that status.
New Railway Minister Sadananda Gowda has written to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, according to Darjeeling MP S S Ahluwalia, who adds Gowda has sought her “cooperation” in restoring the disrupted service. The Centre would allocate the funds, while the ministries of railways and road transport (the road too needs repair) would have to work jointly on the project, the MP says quoting from the letter, dated July 23.
Built between 1879 and 1881, the 81-km, high-altitude line ran the famous Darjeeling “toy train” between Darjeeling and New Jalpaiguri and remains the only Indian railway with the UNESCO world heritage tag. It has fallen into disrepair, with landslides in Paglajhora in 2010 having dismantled 8 km of the tracks. The service continues between Mahanadi and Darjeeling at one end, and between New Jalpaiguri and Gayabari at the other.
Last year, UNESCO warned the West Bengal government and Darjeeling Himalayan Railway that the world heritage site tag would be withdrawn unless the service was restored. Subsequently, Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was allocated Rs 88 crore for restoration but the link between Mahanadi and Gayabari remains suspended. The road between those two points, too, has been snapped.
Ahluwalia then took it up again. “I wrote to the railway minister explaining the situation. He has responded and also written to Mamata Banerjee to cooperate in the restoration, and to the road transport ministry for support in rebuilding the road between Mahanadi and Gayabari,” said Ahluwalia.
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DHR sources said restoration work had started after the warning but was stopped due to bad weather and labour problems in the area. North Bengal Development Minister Gautam Deb said, “We requested the central government to start restoration and allocate funds. The UNESCO team’s report said it was a highly seismic zone and the track could not be restored unless the road is rebuilt first. But the Centre did not make any effort.”
Former minister of state for railways Adhir Chowdhury blamed the state government: “After Railways allotted Rs 88 crore, the Bengal government failed to use the funds.”
According to Narendra Mohan, area manager of DHR, a pair of “jungle safari” trains runs between NJP and Gayabari while four pairs of trains run between Mahanadi and Darjeeling almost regularly. Chartered trains run on the operational track on request.