To get away from the heat, the British loved to head for the hills. Darjeeling, Shimla and Ooti were just a few examples of the hill stations that became welcome havens away from the hot, malarial plains below.
The development of Darjeeling as a sanatorium and health resort came about from the 1840s and development led to the population increasing by hundredfold in just 14 years between 1835 and 1849. The first road connecting Darjeeling with the plains was completed in 1842 and a few years later a military depot was set up for British soldiers. Tea started to be cultivated in earnest from 1856. The opening of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in 1881 further hastened the development of the region.
Getting the locomotive ready for its 10am departure, Darjeeling (Marianne Heredge 2012)
The 88 kilometre (55 miles) long Darjeeling Himalayan Railway connects Darjeeling to New Jalpaiguri station (Siliguri) on a two-foot (60 centimetres) narrow-gauge railway, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. Nicknamed the "Toy Train" it is run by the Indian Railways. Climbing from about 100 metres (328 ft) at New Jalpaiguri to about 2,200 metres (7,218 feet) at Darjeeling, four modern diesel locomotives now handle most of the scheduled services. However a daily Kurseong-Darjeeling service and daily tourist trains from Darjeeling to Ghum (India's highest railway station) are handled by old British-built B Class steam locomotives. In 2008 the 96-kilometre (60 miles), 2.5-foot (76 centimetres) narrow-gauge Kalka–Shimla Railway that opened in 1903 was also added to UNESCO’s list.
Construction of the railway to Darjeeling started in 1879 after Franklin Prestage, an agent of Eastern Bengal Railway Company proposed laying a steam tramway from Siliguri to Darjeeling. The stretch from Siliguri to Kurseong opened in August 1880, with the official opening of the complete line to Darjeeling following a year after in July 1881.
The main challenge faced by the DHR was the steepness of the climb. Loops and Z-Reverses were designed at different points to maintain a comfortable gradient. In a loop, the train gains height as the track circles round to pass over itself, following the natural contours of the spur in a hill. Switch-backs or Z reverses permit the train to moves forwards, back and forward again, climbing the slope to gains height along the side of the hill. The tightest curve, Agony Point was the name given to loop No.4.
The highest station in India at Ghum is at the summit of the line and claimed to be the railway station at the highest altitude overall. It still boasts of being the highest altitude narrow gauge railway station. Just below Ghum is the Batasia Loop which on a clear day affords a panoramic view of Darjeeling town and spectacular view of Mount Kanchenjunga and the Himalayas.
The 12 steam locomotives in use (or under repair) are all "B" Class, a design built by Sharp, Stewart and Company and later the North British Locomotive Company between 1889 and 1925. The four diesel locomotives of the NDM6 class and were transferred from the Matheran Hill Railway.
A few years later in 1903, Shimla’s Toy Train railway was completed and since 1971, sadly is no longer steam-powered. Diesel locomotives started to take over from 1955. However the spectacular journey climbs 1,420 metres (4,659 feet) from Kalka to Shimla along 96 kilometres (59 miles), going through 103 tunnels and passing over 864 bridges or viaducts. There are 919 curves, with the tightest at 48 degrees.
Kalka – Shimla Railway: Coming out of Tunnel No 68 (Marianne Heredge 2012)
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway has also been designated a World Heritage Site and connects Ooty (Ootacamund), a hill station in the Nilgiri Hills in southern India’s ‘Blue Mountains’ or Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu. It is unique for being the oldest and steepest rack railway using a rack and pinion and special steam locomotives that were suitable for the steep gradients. It has the steepest track in Asia with a maximum gradient of 8.3%. Starting at Mettupalayam (326 metres/1,069 feet), it climbs to 2,203 metres (7,228 feet) in just 46 kilometres (29 miles) on a single metre line, going around 208 curves, over 250 bridges and through 16 tunnels. Diesel and steam locomotives are used, steam taking over to and from Ooty to Kallar.
You don’t need to be a train-spotter to enjoy travelling on these old railways. Running through some of the most beautiful scenery, you are transported into another era. This is made all the more fun as you and your fellow-travellers marvel at the feats of engineering that enable you to be pulled up the hillsides.
If you need accommodation during your stay in India, consider renting an apartment from Owners Direct.