Meet Franklin Prestage
By John D'Angelo
I can’t talk about the device I’m using too much as I don’t want to take time away from my interview with Franklin Prestage, but I do need to give you an overview of what it does. When I was working in Manhatten in the late 1900’s, I assisted a woman who turned out to be a Time Tourist from the future. I don’t have the time to go into the details of what happened, but as a result of my helping her, she gave me a gift.
The device she gave me looked like a digital watch with a keypad on the band, but due to nano technology in the future it had the computing power of a thousand Cray computers and had the ability to transport the wearer in time! Traveling in time had one major problem that needed this computing power. You needed to travel accurately in time and space. You see, the earth spins on its axis, orbits around the sun and the sun moves through space at the same time. The orbit of the earth is actually more like a corkscrew through space, and if you are going to travel backwards through time you must be able to locate properly where your spot on the earth was and where the earth was in space at the time of your arrival. The “watch” handles all these computations, and in addition it moves you through fourth dimensional space-time. Under the laws governing the use of this watch, you may only spend 24 hours at your destination before being returned to your own space-time.
I decided to use the watch today to go back to the year 1881 and interview Franklin Prestage, General Manager of the Eastern Bengal State Railway.
Mr. Prestage had just completed constructing the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, an amazing feat of engineering. The DHR linked Siliguri to Darjeeling via a twisted and climbing 2-foot gauge railway that wound its way through the hills of the Himalayas. I really wanted to interview him, and after I researched where he would be on the day he finished the railway I gathered my list of questions, keyed in the space-time coordinates, and pushed the transport button.
There was the normal humming sound and my surroundings disappeared for a second, and then, there I was. I was standing in Darjeeling in the year 1881. It was a pretty quiet village at the time since it would grow after the railway started operation, but there were lots of people hustling and bustling around finishing up the last pieces of track. I recognized Mr. Prestage right away as he was holding a chart and going over it with one of his assistants. I walked over to him and introduced myself. I didn’t go into details about time travel, for obvious reasons, and I just told him I had come from America to interview him. After we talked for a bit, he agreed to have a gin & tonic with me and spend an hour talking to me. When I looked at him, he reminded me of Mark Twain. I had met Mark Twain a few months ago, but that is another story. Franklin seemed to have an amount of boundless energy inside of him, and I think that if he could he would have liked to have run the line to the top of Everest!
JD: Mr. Prestage, I want to say congratulations on the completion of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. This is a major accomplishment! Can you tell me why you decided to take on this project?
Prestage: Forgive me if at times I appear somewhat reticent. I am unused to dealing with persons from the press, but as you have come from England’s sister country I will do what I can. As you are aware, as General Manager of the East Bengal Railway Company it was incumbent upon me to further the growth and profits of my employer.
The original path to Darjeeling, I hesitate to call it a road, was little more than a rock filled goat track that precluded the use of horses, and many coolies laboured up and down the track carrying travellers and goods,
When the Hill Car Road was constructed, quite an achievement I must say, it followed a longer but less difficult path to Darjeeling, which allowed the use of horses and bullock carts for transport. Even so, the time for the journey was still about three days and most uncomfortable, enough so that it deterred all but the most ardent traveller from undertaking the journey. I conjectured that with the gradient of the Hill Cart Road joined with engines of adequate power, travellers and goods could be transported in less time and at a reduced cost while still making a profit for my company.
I and my staff did a considerable amount of work to determine if this was indeed possible. We concluded that it was, and made a representation to the Railway Board seeking approval. This was originally given, and then withdrawn, but eventually I did get the assent of the Board.
Young man, if I had not had that approval, we would not be conversing now. I surmise that your next question will be why I chose twenty-four inches as the gauge of track. Yes, I will have another jhota peg, my mouth is quite dry from talking.
JD: Boy, may we two more please? Sir, that is exactly what I was about to ask you, why was a two-foot gauge chosen by you?
Prestage: Twenty-four inches gauge was chosen for a very simple mechanical reason. Wheels on engines and carriages are fixed to their axles. When negotiating a bend in the track, it can easily be seen that the outer wheel has to travel a greater distance than the inner wheel. This effect is rendered greater as the gauge increases and thus any railway has to design its tracks to minimize the slipping that must occur as the wheels traverse the curved rails. They normally do this by increasing the radius of the curved track. The Indian railways are built to a track gauge of 5 foot six inches. There has been some discussion about metre gauge but nothing has come of it yet.
In its passage up the hill, the cart road bends in and out of the deeply riven flanks of the hill sides, and perforce, my railway had to follow. To have done otherwise would have entailed increasing the slope of the track beyond the capacities of normal locomotives. We could have opted for an even smaller gauge, but my final decision was that a gauge of 2 feet was the best compromise. Experience gained during the building of the Railway has shown that this was the correct decision.
Using this gauge of track also entailed the use of smaller and lighter engines, which in turn allowed me to use smaller rails that were less costly than the rails of the main line railways. This kept my Board happy. Smaller and lighter engines are less costly to purchase and run, thus leading the way to greater profit.
JD: I think you made a very wise decision there, Sir. By the way, I think I should explain to our readers that you prefer the use of the word traveller over the word traveler because you strongly feel it’s the proper way to spell it. I am happy to oblige you. Now, getting back to your experiences in building the line, I understand that at times you became very frustrated with the extreme grades you needed to have the line climb. In fact, I have been made to understand that you almost gave up, but your wife gave you an idea. Would you like to talk about that?
Prestage: I must confess that I was quite stumped at one point of the ascent where I needed to gain height more rapidly than the limiting gradient would allow and I confided my dilemma to my dear wife. She pondered a while, then stood up, asked me to dance and waltzed me across the room into a corner. I was quite perplexed, and then she told me what she was thinking. She said “If you can’t go forwards, then move backwards until you can again go forwards” I saw immediately what she was meaning and thus the zigzags or reverses came about.
I was forced to devise another stratagem where the line of track had to circumvent a particularly sharp outcrop. This entailed creating a climbing loop, which had the effect of allowing the line to traverse the sharp corner and gain height at the same time. Perhaps you may have seen these on your journey to Darjeeling. Loop number three after Tindharia is a good example of why a gauge of two feet was the correct choice. This particular loop allows a train to rise 40 feet, and while doing so requires it to negotiate a curve of 44-foot radius, totally impossible in any wider gauge. I am content that I have been able to create this line with a modest ruling gradient despite the difficulties that faced me.
JD: I see that your rolling stock seems to be very limited in design. Your railway uses one passenger car and one baggage car design, and a simple wagon for freight. Was this your idea?
Prestage: There has been considerable discussion about my choice of passenger carriages. It is my firm belief that these should be of a simple design that is easy and cheap to make, and to this end the passenger carriages are a simple trolley design with some protection from the weather. I foresee that it will be possible to allow the more adventurous passengers to descend the line on a trolley using only the power of gravity, with their speed moderated by means of a hand or foot brake. Baggage can be conveyed using the same type of trolley.
JD: I have to say that I think they are quite beautiful in their lines and I think they will be a design that will stand the test of time. Can you tell me about the locomotives?
Prestage: The locomotives I have chosen, eight in number, were made by a well known British company, Sharp Stewart, and I have every confidence that these will perform admirably. These engines are simple in design and the local craftsmen should be quite able to handle their care and attention. I believe that the maker is calling these a C class locomotive. My experience of those so far delivered confirms my assessment.
JD: Those locomotives are absolutely amazing to see in operation, Sir. They seem to have the climbing ability of a mountain goat, but they must take a beating on every trip! How did you decide where to place the facilities to maintain them?
Prestage: When determining where to establish the repair workshop and railway offices, I decided that these would be constructed within a horseshoe bend below Tindharia. This satisfied my two concerns. These were that as the managers would naturally be British, I wanted to protect them from the fevers endemic in the Terai forest and on the plain below, and also as Tindharia is at almost the middle point of the railway, it seemed to be an advantageous position.
JD: Now that the line is complete and running, how do you think it will affect Darjeeling and the surrounding area in the future?
Prestage: What do I see for the future? I can see this Railway providing a service to Darjeeling that will allow the town to grow and prosper. It is possible that tea may be grown here, and because I can not envisage any development that could surpass the steam railway, the greatest invention in the history of man, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway will continue to provide this service for all time.
JD: Sir, I see my time is up, and I will have to be returning to my own country. But before I go, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me about your wonderful creation. I think your railway will become famous around the world and will be used well into the 21st Century, possibly for all time.
Prestage: It has been my pleasure. As I said before, for an American, you are a likeable chap, and yes, I will have another drink before we part. Then I must get back to my Railway. I believe the Governor is due to arrive soon.
We did have that one last drink in the cool mountain air of Darjeeling. I then shook hands with a great man and watched him rush back to his work. Fare thee well, Franklin Prestage, you will not be forgotten!
For those of you who are interested in the railway that Franklin Prestage created, visit the Trainz Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Project web site: http://darjeelingtrainz.com You will find photographs and information about the route plus additional links of interest.
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©2006 John D'Angelo. All rights reserved.