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With railway minister Piyush Goyal keen on increasing the speed of toy train running on the Unesco World Heritage Kalka-Shimla narrow gauge rail line, residents of Shimla and those associated with tourism industry fear any such increase might end the charm of the journey as slow speed of train provides travellers ample opportunity to enjoy the scenic beauty of hills and lush green forests while moving along the serpentine track.
The 97-km railway track between Kalka and Shimla has over 900 sharp curves besides 102 tunnels (of the original 103) and 988 bridges. The railway ministry’s bid to increase speed of the train to cut journey time to three hours faces serious obstacles in form of sudden curves along the entire stretch.
An eight-member team from Taiwan Hills Railway recently accompanied additional divisional railway manager (Ambala) Kuldeep Singh to inspect the heritage tracks as the Northern Railway is mulling introduction of Talgo Trains to reduce the running time. The ministry is examining the possibility of running Talgo Trains which are running in the hilly areas of Taiwan for several decades now.
A five-member team from Kalka railway station on November 28, 2018, conducted a trial run of the special train having 7 rakes to decide on relocation of signals in the event of the train’s speed being increased.
Sources said the team carried out measurements at the entry and exit point of each station from Taxal to Shimla to see how much time it would take for the engine to come to a halt. Divisional railway manager, Ambala division, Dinesh Kumar, said the Commission of Railway Safety has accepted their request for conducting a speed trial and they are now awaiting intimation from the Research Design Scientific Organisation (team for carrying out a physical trial for granting approval.
Earlier studies by railways had found raising the speed of the train unfeasible. Toy train on Kalka-Shimla narrow gauge line runs at a speed less than 25km per hour and there was a proposal to increase the speed to 45-50 km per hour, but when the study was carried out by the railways, it came to fore that curves on the entire track are biggest hurdle for increase in speed, sources said.
Experts in the railways said that present speed cannot be increased until major changes are made in track or coaches by the research and design centre.
Sanjay Sood, owner of Shimla’s oldest Devicos restaurant and former president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Northern India, feels any increase in the speed of the Kalka-Shimla train would spoil the basic idea of a “joyride” for tourists. The existing speed gives ample time to visitors to enjoy the picturesque journey that makes for memorable photographs, he added.
“Instead of fiddling with the toy train's speed that can ruin the joyride, the Government of India should lay a new broad-gauge line between Kalka and Shimla to run faster trains. The Britishers had laid the rail line over a century back. What has the Indian government done after the Independence,” he asked.
Shimla-based hotelier Surinder Thakur said slow speed of the toy train was itself a charm for the tourists, especially foreigners, and increasing the speed besides being risky would also kill its charm. “We should not forget, people take this train journey as a joyride,” he added.
Shimla-based writer and historian Raja Bhasin feels that even if speed needs to be increased then it should be done by taking into account the safety of passengers. Bhasin was a victim of increased speed on this track when two coaches of the train derailed at Taksal near Parwanoo on September 10, 2015.
“I had just finished my lecture to a group of 35 tourists from the UK while heading for Shimla from Kalka and had occupied my seat, when suddenly a loud noise occurred and before we could understand what had happened there were cries of injured people all over and two were lying dead,” said Bhasin while recalling the horror. He blamed the increased speed for that accident.
He said that at present it takes around five hours to reach Shimla from Kalka and cutting short the journey by one hour would be a good idea provided safety of passengers is not compromised and all precautions are taken. Besides increasing the speed, seats should be made more comfortable and a premier segment should be added to the train, he added.
Preserving Heritage on Kalka-Shimla Tracks
The railway ministry has decided to redevelop and conserve heritage on all stations of the Unesco Kalka-Shimla rail line and will to launch a Vistadome coach - especially designed coaches with glass rooftop - soon.
Under the proposal, which will be implemented by the Ambala division, 10 stations on the line where the trains halt will get better passenger facilities such as new washrooms, reconstruction of flooring, improvement of lighting, installation of more benches for travellers. Sources said that special instructions were given to the officials that heritage equipment at various stations should be conserved properly.
Amarjeet Sharma, senior section engineer incharge Kalka said the Vistadome coach will be available for the passengers soon after the fare structure is finalized by the railway ministry.
The route from Kalka goes to Taksal, Dharampur, Solan, Kandaghat, Tara Devi, Barog, Salogra, Totu (Jutogh), Summerhill and finally Shimla.
Ashish Sharma, chief inspector of repairs at Kalka, who conducted the trial of the Vistadome said the coach is fit to ply on this section as no technical and mechanical issue was found.
Divisional railway manager (Ambala division) Dinesh Kumar said the railway ministry has hired the Chandigarh College of Architecture as a consultant and its team will be working to revamp the stations on the World Heritage track along with the railway team.
A team of the Chandigarh College of Architecture along with the divisional railway manager of Ambala has inspected Kalka and Barog stations and discussed their revamp. There are two teams — one for Kalka and the other for Shimla — and each team comprises four students and four teachers each.
The Ambala division will, after consultation, decide how to preserve the heritage along the heritage track by adding more facilities for passengers. The railway ministry is focusing on facelift of Kalka, Shimla and Ambala stations by making these more passenger friendly.
Giving examples of heritage article that needed to be protected, the divisional railway manager said benches at different stations on this section have details about the North West Railway headquarter, Lahore, mentioned on them. (Kalka Shimla Railway was managed as an independent unit from the NWR office in Lahore till 1926 during the British Rule). These also have antique electric switches.
A ticket counter at the Kalka station, which was constructed during the British Rule, is not in use and the division is now revamping it for the use of the passengers. There is a luggage room for class 1 and 2 of British time period which the authorities are converting into a small museum at the station for the tourists.
Assessment Of Infrastructure
In July 2013, Himachal Pradesh had demanded a fresh survey of tunnels and bridges on this track to assess their condition.
The then Congress MP from Mandi Pratibha Singh had met the then railway minister Mallikarjun Kharge in New Delhi to demand a fresh survey of railway overbridges and underbridges on the Shimla -Kalka line to assess their strength. She had also demanded reconstruction of various bridges on this track and a technical assessment of all the tunnels on the track. She was concerned that the over 100 years old ifrastructure could have deteriorated due to continuous use.
This article first appeared on timesofindia.indiatimes.com
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