Darjeeling Himalayan Railway has been on my wish list for a long time. Train journeys have always fascinated me. As a child I have travelled across the country on trains with my parents. Now that I do not get to use trains so often, they are a prominent part of my nostalgia. Apart from trains that work as a mode of transportation, India offers trains that define the ultimate luxury experience and trains that take you back in time with their steam engines. A few years back, I was fortunate to experience the luxury of Deccan Odyssey for 7 nights. This time it was the joy ride on Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – a UNESCO World Heritage Site
My sole purpose of visiting Darjeeling was to experience a ride on Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. It is one of the three Mountain Railways of India, along with Kalka-Shimla Rail and Nilgiri mountain Rail that are designated a UNESCO world heritage site status. It is interesting that the three living heritage railway lines are located in 3 different corners of the country. While Darjeeling Himalayan Railways & Shimla-Kalka Rail traverse through the Himalayan Hills, Ooty train traverses through the Nilgiris. I had traveled on both Kalka-Shimla and Nilgiris – though much before my blogging days, it was Darjeeling Rail that was being elusive. I missed it last time I was in Bhutan and Sikkim, and now I realize that I must have just brushed past it.
I was reading the UNESCO website for Mountain Railways of India – this website gives the reason for which a particular site has been included in the UNESCO list. The 2 prime reasons for Mountain Railways of India include:
Excellence in Engineering
You have to see the Batasia loop on the Darjeeling-Ghum track to understand what it means. These trains go uphill and at places the gradient is too steep for train to pull. Engineers working on the Railway systems devised an innovation that included building loops or zig zag tracks so that the length of the track increases and the gradient can be gradually increased . This also makes the train ride very smooth for the riders. So, it is the technical genius that the homage goes to.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway goes from an elevation of 100 meters to 2200 meters in just about 78 kms.
Impact on socio-economic life
Train connectivity made travel to and from the hills easier. It brought a cultural exchange between the people of hills and plains. This in turn led to exchange of material goods and over a period of time they each influenced and became a part of each other.
Riding the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
I got the first glimpse of Darjeeling station and the steam engine parked there as soon as we drove into Darjeeling. Next day morning we had nothing else planned except exploring the heritage train and its companion stations at Darjeeling and Ghum. Since we could not book our tickets online, we reached a good hour earlier – there was no way we could miss the ride. Our hotel guy kept assuring us that there are hardly any tourists and we would easily get the ticket. Well, we did get the ticket but we also learnt that all the joy rides on toy train run full all the time. After ages I filled the railway reservation form and got a paper ticket.
Minimal changes have been done to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway since its inception in 1881.
Steam or Diesel Engine Ride to take
We wanted to ride the steam engine but then I realized there is Diesel engine that just follows the steam engine one. I saw a good opportunity to click pictures of steam engine while in action from my train. I did manage to click these small videos of the steam engine that was a sheer beauty to follow. Steam engine emitted so much smoke & soot that I am not sure if riding it would have been as pleasant an experience.
Mahatma Gandhi & Mark Twain are among the famous people who rode this train.
As we waited for the trains to arrive from their earlier trip, I admired the steam engine being prepared in the loco shed. Tourists, most of who were foreigners starting arriving at the station. Station itself is a heritage building as the ‘Stick No Bills’ sign would tell you. I wandered around the station clicking pictures and making sense of the place. There are pictures of station and the train as it used to be when it was launched way back in 1881. I tried hard to visualize it but it was impossible for the place now is so damn crowded.
In fact the train track is pretty much on the road and sometimes too close to the houses, shops, buildings. Till I was aboard the train, I had doubts that the train can move without touching these spaces. However, once I boarded the train, I realized how narrow it is.
It remains a wonder that the train system is working still after 135 years and serving the people of the region.
As the steam engine chugged in the station, everyone gasped in awe. Everything else faded as the beauty rolled in – it was like watching an era walking into your lives for next 2-3 hours. Blue engine had a marking calling it ‘Iron Sherpa’. A small red board declared its no – 805. After the steam engine toy train left, we boarded our Diesel engine bound coach. It was a cramped space that seated 28 people in each of the 3 coaches. But then how much space do you expect on top of a 2 feet track. Train pulled out of the station and we were all ecstatic. We made the traffic on the road stop quite a few times.
We made people standing out in front of their houses and shops, move in to make space for the train to move. There were children who waved to us, but most adults just wanted the train to move so that they can get back to their work.
There was valley on one side and the city of Darjeeling on the other side. Sometimes the city was too close for our comfort, but then the view on the other side made up for it.
Train stopped at Batasia Loop for about 10-15 mins. This is the loop that the railway engineers had built to negotiate a steep gradient in the hills. It is interesting when you go under a railway bridge and then turn around to go over it. In the center is a war memorial built to pay homage to Gorkha soldiers who laid their lives in various wars. War memorial is surrounded by manicured lawns. Batasia Loop is a good vintage point to see the Kanchenjunga range of Himalayas – you must pray for a clear day though.
A information board here talks about the films that have been shot at Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
Darjeeling station is obviously as old as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, however it looks nothing like its original version. There are information boards that show the vintage pictures of the Darjeeling station.
The station in the picture looks far more enchanting than the current one – which is definitely a run down version of the original one even after you discount the vintage factor of the old black & white pictures.
Another board draws the detailed route of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway from Darjeeling to New Jalpaiguri – specifying the altitude and distance from Siliguri. Incidentally, the headquarter of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is Kurseong and not Darjeeling or Siliguri.
Ghum Station is the destination for the joy ride of toy train at Darjeeling. Train halts here for 30 minutes to let you see the museum and enjoy the Ghum station. The station itself is a heritage building and houses the DHR museum on its first floor. In bright yellow and red colors, this small platform will remind you of many film scenes that have been shot here. As we walked around the station – again observing the steam engine train that was just ahead of us – it was like being a part of a dream sequence. Mountains, valleys, a busy bazaar were all around us – the wondering tourists.
Ghum Station is India’s highest Railway Station.
I walked up to a post box that had the UNESCO world heritage site boards around it.
When I turned around to walk towards the Ghum Station, I saw it sandwiched between the two trains and proudly announcing its date of birth – 1891.
The single room Ghum museum takes the visitor through the times that Darjeeling Himalayan Railway has seen. It establishes the need for rail line by explaining how many different type of transportation people had to take or lets say negotiate to reach Darjeeling from the plains. To cut down that time and add convenience – Darjeeling rail line was established. It incidentally runs parallel to the Hill Cart Road and would eventually face competition from the buses that used the same road but reached faster. Information boards explain the technical aspect of train. There are paintings of stations, track and loops that bring alive the initial days of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. There are newspaper articles written about the railway and its famous passengers.
There are various Darjeeling Himalayan Railways Logos. One of the logos dates back to 1879 – shows that the logo was conceived well before the launch of the railway in 1881.
Hill Cart Road gets its name from the horse carts that used to run on it from Siliguri to Darjeeling. It is now National Highway No 55
To me the most interesting element was the old style tickets that came on a cardboard of the size of matchbox. I wish the authorities issued the same kind of tickets for this joy ride.
Video of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
Watch this 3 minute video, We captured during our tour.
What I want more from Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
A board at Ghum Railway station said – there are two unique railway experiences in India – Himalayan Railway and Deccan Odyssey. I was happy that this ride completed both the experiences for me. However, there is a lot more that I want the railway ministry to work on making this an unforgettable experience for visitors. I am sure it would also help them generate some revenue.
- The tickets like I mentioned earlier can be old style – that can work as joy ride souvenirs for tourists.
- A tour guide on board, who will acquaint the visitors with history of the Himalayan Railways in India. They can also give a walk through of the stations, museum, engines, train routes and the trains . A good storyteller can take the experience to another level.
- I want the Darjeeling station to be cleaner. If the visuals from the train can be cleaned that would be great though I understand it is not an easy task.
- It would be great if some refreshments can be offered to the tourists. Old style station chai would also do.
- The shops at both Darjeeling & Ghum station can also be run vintage style.
- Please have souvenirs and mementos designed for the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway that visitors can buy and take back with them. Least of all you need to have a small booklet that gives all the information about the railways.
- Online booking of tickets should be allowed on IRCTC or the Indian Railways website.
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