The Darjeeling-Himalayan Mountain Railway
In the most easterly part of the Himalayas the mountains rear up abruptly towards Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. This has given rise to a unique railway system; the Darjeeling-Himalayan Mountain Railway, It has earned itself fame as one of the most spectacular railway journeys in the world. When my son Scott and I decided to visit Kalimpong a few years back it was never doubted that we would make the trip via Darjeeling on the ‘Toy Train’. We were not disappointed.
The journey was a delight as the scenery changed gradually: from the dense green of the Terai Forest to the almost alpine landscape of the Himalayan foothills. The Terai, which is the rapidly vanishing jungle region at the base of the eastern Himalayas, surprised us with a road sign warning of elephants crossing the road (one I’ve never seen in Milton Keynes). For the first fifteen or twenty miles the incline was hardly noticeable, however that soon changed. As the track became steeper we entered a series of tight loops, one is known as the ‘Agony Loop, for it is both very tight and very steep. The incline is at times one in twenty-three which I am told is as steep as one can get in a railway system. As well as extra water the trains carry sand to spread on the track to stop slippage. As we ascended we were regularly treated to glimpses of the River Teesta and as we made progress in our 51 mile journey, the snowy peaks of the mighty Himalayas came closer and eventually took over the northern skyline. Most of our readers are familiar with the sight, but it had been almost sixty years since I had left Kalimpong and my son Scott had never been. I have seen the Swiss Alps and the Zagros range but the Himalayas are really serious mountains. The range includes half a dozen mountains that are only slightly smaller than Everest and dozens that are much higher than any of the European peaks.
It is not only the natural scenery that captivated us, we loved the villages and we glimpsed one of the Tibetan monasteries that have sprung up on the mountainside. An amusing feature of the ride was the small boys who hitched a lift on the side of the train, the smiling faces that were to become one of the lasting memories of the Himalayan foothills. We had the chance of taking refreshments at Tindharia where the small diesel that had brought us up from Siliguri was replaced by one of the original steam locomotives. Several people were readying the train and even though we are not railway enthusiasts we were fascinated by the process of firing up the furnace and experiencing the smells, steam and smoke and the tootings and ‘chuffings’ that are unique to a steam railway.
A few times we seemed to be passing through people’s back gardens. There were 176 level crossings so we competed for space with regular road users especially in the villages. The trains whistle was rarely silent as a consequence. We took First Class which was only Rs. 350 or around six pounds or nine dollars at the time. It was definitely the better of the two carriages; the journey took around eight hours, if we had taken the jeep we could have arrived five hours earlier.
The railway took three years to build and was completed in 1881. It was originally described as a tramway. I believe the early passengers had to 'rough it' in what was little more than a canvas covered trolley with simple wooden benches for seats. When I first saw how narrow the track was I was a bit worried, the rails are separated by only two feet (60cms) which is less than half that of a conventional railway system. The extremely narrow gauge is necessary to allow the train to get round the tight bends and loops. In its heyday there were 50 or so trains, I saw three or four so the number has dwindled. Over the years the little trains must have carried millions of passengers and perhaps a million tons of goods. In one of its best years over 50,000 tons and 250,000 passengers were transported. The prosperity and early development of the Darjeeling district and the tea industry owes much to the little railway.
The difficulty in taking a railway up mountains is considerable and we were told that the challenges encountered gave rise to an innovation in railway engineering; the chief engineer was poring over his drawings on evening and complained that it was just impossible to get up a particularly difficult stretch, it just couldn’t be done without excavating a long tunnel. His wife who was looking over his shoulder suggested that the train could zigzag up the incline! At first he laughed at the idea, but later on it was the method adopted and ’the reverse’, as it is known was invented. A Loop is a means of gaining height by circling back on itself then crossing a bridge.
The engineering achievements in building the railway had to be matched by the train itself, they were built in Scotland by Sharp Stewart of Glasgow. A feature of the train is the saddle-like object sitting on top of the boiler; this is an extra water tank. The extra weight of the water als helps gain some the traction on steep inclines.
The railway and locomotives have a much better chance of surviving now that the UN is supplying funds and support, how long they can last is anybody’s guess but I hope that future generations will be able to experience the ride. I am quite optimistic as there are some skilled people available locally; professional renovations have been carried out on at least one of the locomotives in south India. One of the locomotives was returned to the UK via a period in an American museum. Now in a museum in Oxfordshire, for a short time it saw service on the Ffestiniog mountain railway in Wales.
In 1999 the railway was designated a ‘World Heritage Site’ by the United Nations. If any of our readers is keen on railways and would like to find out more, they can get in touch with the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Heritage Foundation which is a non-profit organisation; details can be found on the Internet.
We enjoyed our trip very much and would urge everyone planning a visit to that part of the world to take the toy train; the scenery and atmosphere are unrivalled, additionally I know of no other steam train conservation project in India, so giving them your business will help keep the very special and unique part of India’s heritage alive.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Heritage Foundation:-
The Internet is an excellent resource for information on the DHR, try Wikipedia first.