The mountain railways of India are the quintessential example of innovation used in connecting highlands with the rest of the country. It comprises three railways – the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Kalka Shimla Railway and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is located in West Bengal. The Kalka Shimla Railway lies partly in Haryana and partly in Himachal Pradesh whereas the Nilgiri Mountain Railway is in Tamil Nadu.
All three railways are collectively recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The heritage routes are especially famed for their refreshing rides through mountains where one can breathe in the fresh, unpolluted air. Go through this post for a rundown of the mountain railways of India.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR)
Fondly known as the toy train, the 88 km long narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway connects Darjeeling with New Jalpaiguri. The locomotives traverse several zigzags and loops on a 2 ft (610 mm) gauge track.
It begins its ascent from around 330 ft at New Jalpaiguri to 7,200 ft at Darjeeling with Ghoom as the highest altitude train station at 7,500 ft.
History of DHR
Darjeeling, one of India’s serene hill stations, belonged to the Kingdom of Sikkim in the early nineteenth century. It was acquired by the British in 1835 for setting up a sanatorium.
Owing to its year-round cool climate, Darjeeling became a summer retreat for them. However, connectivity between Darjeeling hills and plains of Siliguri was limited to only horse-cart service.
In 1878, an agent of the Eastern Bengal Railway, Franklin Prestage made a proposal to the Government of Bengal for creating a rail link between Siliguri and Darjeeling.
The construction started in 1879 after the proposal was accepted by the lieutenant governor of Bengal, Ashley Eden.
It was a monumental task to build a railway track in the hilly terrain of Darjeeling using conventional techniques. So, loops and zigzags were created for trains to climb steep gradients on the slopes.
There are three functional loops – Batasia Loop, Chunabhatti and Agony Point. Batasia Loop is located below Ghum and is counted amongst the best places to visit in Darjeeling. It comprises a flourishing garden with a War Memorial in the middle.
The Siliguri to Kurseong route was opened in August 1880 and by July 1881, it was extended till Darjeeling. DHR was also used during World War II for transporting war supplies and army.
It was purchased by the Indian government in 1951. Since then, Indian Railways has been managing it.
In 1962, it was extended beyond Siliguri to connect with New Jalpaiguri. Of the three mountain railways in India, Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was the first one to be recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1999.
Why Take A Ride
- It is one of the most scenic train journeys that you can ever take. On its way to Darjeeling, the train meanders through gorgeous hamlets brimming with lush hills and tea estates. From New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, it is about 7.5 hours long journey.
- If you don’t want to take the full trip then book 2 hours joy ride (roundtrip) between Darjeeling and Ghoom. It provides an opportunity to explore the highest train station in India, the Ghum Railway Station. Here, you can visit the Railway Museum that exhibits artifacts related to DHR.
- This vintage ride is offered on steam locomotives that are well preserved since colonial days. As the train moves slowly, you can capture amazing photographs of the surroundings from the moving train.
- With its exciting curves, loops and zigzags, DHR is considered an engineering marvel of its time. The forward and reverse movement of the train is a thrilling experience for anyone taking this heritage ride.
- It also halts at Batasia Loop for 10 minutes. You can enjoy astounding views of the snow-laden peaks of Mt. Kanchenjunga from Batasia Loop.
Kalka Shimla Railway (KSR)
Shimla, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, was the summer capital of colonial India. The Kalka Shimla Railway was built by the British to link Shimla with the Indian Railways network.
It is a narrow-gauge railway line with a track width measuring 2 ft 6 inches (762 mm). From Shimla in Himachal Pradesh to Kalka in Haryana, the train journey covers about 96 km.
History of KSR
With Shimla (then Simla) becoming the summer capital of India in 1864, the British administration needed to move their entire bureaucratic set up to Shimla every year between October to April.
Nonetheless, the idea of connecting Shimla with the railway network didn’t materialise until 1898. The contract to build Kalka Shimla Railway Line was awarded to the Delhi-Ambala-Kalka Railway Company by the British Empire in 1898.
It took almost 5 years to construct the railway track and train services commenced in 1903. The trains running on the Kalka Shimla Railway line are affectionately called the toy train.
On its way from Kalka to Shimla, it traverses 102 tunnels, 869 bridges and more than 900 sharp curves. There are only diesel locomotives on this route as steam locomotives have been phased out.
This hill railway finds mention in the Guinness Book of World Records for the steepest ascent during its 96 km journey from Kalka (2,100 ft) to Shimla (6,800 ft). It earned the status of UNESCO world heritage site in 2008.
Why Take A Ride
- Kalka Shimla Railway is one of the iconic mountain railways of India. It offers a thrilling ride through tunnels, viaducts and steep curves which is rare during a regular train journey. The travel time varies between 4 to 6 hours depending on the train taken.
- Trains on this route cross the highest arch gallery bridge of the Indian Railway, known as Kanoh Bridge. Set at 23 meters (75 ft) height, it is a 4-tier gothic-style bridge with 34 arches. You can witness striking vistas on the surroundings and the bridge itself when the train passes through this stretch.
- The Indian Railways offers tourist coaches and special trains on the Kalka-Shimla route. Some of the popular tourist trains are Shivalik Deluxe, Deluxe Rail Motor Car and Himalayan Queen. The tourist coaches are comfortably furnished to make the train travel a memorable experience.
Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR)
Renowned as India’s only rack railway, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway connects Mettupalayam with Ooty in Tamil Nadu. It uses rack and pinion arrangement to climb steep gradients and is considered a great feat of engineering.
Trains on this 1,000 mm meter-gauge railway begin their climb from 1,080 ft in Mettupalayam to 7,350 ft in Ooty, trundling a distance of 46 km.
History of NMR
Nilgiri Mountain Railway was built by Britishers to connect highland towns with the lower plains so as to escape stifling heat during summers.
The first railway line of NMR was opened in 1899 that linked Mettupalayam with Coonoor. It was extended further to Ooty (Udhagamandalam) in 1908.
Initially, the Madras Railway Company handled the commercial operations of NMR and subsequently, it was purchased by the South Indian Railway company.
It became a part of the Indian Railways post-independence. The Southern Railways is responsible for its day-to-day operations and maintenance.
In 2005, UNESCO recognised it as a World Heritage Site. Since then, it is included in the list of the mountain railways of India.
Why Take A Ride
- The train journey from Mettupalayam to Ooty is an unforgettable one. On the Mettupalayam-Coonoor route, it has quaint steam locomotives and beyond that, there are diesel locomotives till Ooty.
- As the train starts chugging along the tracks, you get rewarded with awe-inspiring visuals of nature featuring dense forests, charming tea gardens and deep valleys.
- Traversing through 250 bridges, 16 tunnels and more than 100 curves, it offers an exciting ride that you would cherish lifelong. It takes around 5 hours to reach Ooty from Mettupalayam.
How To Book
The mountain railways of India form a part of the National Railway Network, managed by Indian Railways. So, you can book tickets online through the IRCTC website on any of the heritage routes.
Over To You Now…
The enduring charm of India’s mountain railways lures travelers from across the globe. Have you taken a train journey on these routes? Tell us in the comment section below.