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© Neena Bhandari, Indo Asian News Service

Sydney, Oct 26 (IANS) : An Australian professor's childhood fascination for trains combined with academic conviction has made him a passionate campaigner for some of India's most romantic mountain railways.

Robert Lee, an associate professor at the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney, has been instrumental in two Indian railways - the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway - winning World Heritage status in 1999 and 2004 respectively.

Come October end and Lee, who is also a consultant to Unesco's International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), will submit his evaluation report on whether the 104-year-old narrow-gauge line that meanders its way from Kalka to Shimla meets the criteria for World Heritage listing.

The 96-km journey on what is endearingly called the "toy train" takes five hours, winding in a series of graceful curves at a speed of 20 km per hour. What adds to the charm is the magnificent landscape as the track climbs, clinging perilously to steep cliffs.

Lee, who was recently in India to inspect what he calls "spectacular engineering", said: "The grade is very steep and there are 102 tunnels and numerous bridges. The engineering is extravagant with massive stone viaducts. Some with four tiers of arches look like Roman aqueducts. It's a masterpiece."

The British government opened the metre gauge track in 1903. He said: "Gandhi famously travelled on it to see the then viceroy, Lord Irwin, in 1930 and Nehru took it to see Lord Mountbatten."

Lee has written three books on railway history: "The Greatest Public Works" (1988), "Colonial Engineer" (2000) and "The Railways of Victoria" (2007). "Next, I am planning to do a book on Asian railways," he said.

Comparing the Kalka-Shimla train to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which opened in 1881, Lee said: "The Darjeeling roadside tramway is not as expensively engineered but is a marvel of sorts."

The treacherous 83-km stretch from Siliguri to Darjeeling is covered in about eight hours. One can almost hop on and hop off along the zigzag route offering some of the most amazing sights from the snow-capped peaks of Kanchenjunga and rhododendron-covered slopes to tea gardens and lush valleys.

According to Mark Twain, a trip on this train "is the most enjoyable day I have spent on the earth" and few will beg to differ.

Bollywood films have also realised the attraction of this toy train. The steam engine hissing away, seamlessly blending with the shrill whistle and the clatter of the carriages came alive on screen most recently in "Parineeta".

The other train in the south, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, connects Udhagamandalam or Ooty to Mettupalayam. The 46-km stretch is covered in four and a half hours at perhaps the lowest speed, averaging 10 km per hour.

Lee said: "Indian Railways nominated the three trains. They are not profitable ventures, but are being protected for their heritage value. Given the resources available, Indian Railways are doing a great job."

He suggested adding interpretation sites along the route of these trains. A large volume of the traffic on these trains is domestic travellers and few foreigners.

As these outstanding examples of bold, ingenious engineering continue to bring alive every child's fascination with toy trains, whether this third engineering marvel will find its way on the World Heritage list, we will know in July 2008 when the results will be announced at the Icomos meeting in Canada.

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