Mountain Railways in India

The Himalaya Mountain Railway opened in 1881. It leads from the tropical plains in New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, 2200 m above sea level. People and tea were transported by train. As a result, the low transport costs made Darjeeling tea affordable. The Darjeeling Railway is a masterpiece of 19th century engineering. In 2005 the world heritage was expanded to include the Nilgiri mountain railway and in 2008 the Kalka-Shimla mountain railway.

Mountain Railways in India: Facts

Official title: Mountain railways in India: Himalayan mountain railway to Darjeeling, Nilgiri mountain railway and Kalka-Shimla mountain railway
Cultural monument: also called “Toy Train”, a narrow-gauge railway in the foothills of the Himalayas; 2005 expanded to include the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, 2008 expanded to include the Kalka-Shimla Railway
Continent: Asia
Country: India
Location: between Darjeeling and New Jalpaiguri
Appointment: 1999, expansion 2005, 2008
Meaning: Example of the influence of innovative technology on socio-economic structure and development; Asia’s only mountain railway for passenger transport

Mountain Railways in India: History

1835 The English colonial powers take possession of the area around Darjeeling
1878 Planning of the railway at the suggestion of an employee of the East Bengal Railway Company
1879 Adoption of the planning proposal by the colonial power England
1880 Start of construction of the railway line
1881 Commissioning of the railway
1915 Expansion of the connection to the Teesta valley to Geille Khola
1920 Transport of 263 082 people a year
1950 Damage to the extension route due to a landslide and abandonment of the connection to Geilla Khola
1993 Establishment of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Heritage Foundation
2005 Expansion of the world heritage site to include the Nilgiri Mountain Railway
2008 Extension of the world heritage site to include the Kalka-Shimla Railway
2010 Severe damage to the track section betweenoursesong and Mahanadi (at km 50) after storms, which was washed away including the road running parallel to it

Under steam in the Himalayas

With a loud hissing sound and a mighty cloud of smoke, the small 804 locomotive vigorously proves that, despite its age, it still does not belong in a museum for a long time. On the contrary, she is the star without whom the tiny train with its three narrow-chested blue carriages at New Jalpaiguri station would hardly attract any attention.

In the fifties of the 19th century, according to mathgeneral, the English colonial rulers ruling India at the time began to cultivate tea around the 2000 meter high village of Darjeeling, located on the foothills of the Himalayas. Thanks to the healthy air and the unique view of the surrounding eight-thousanders, this settlement quickly developed into the popular summer residence of the British who sighed under the Calcutta climate. In the last third of the 19th century, work began on adding a railway line to the existing road connection – a bold undertaking, considering that without gear-wheel support, a height difference of over 2000 meters over a distance of only 80 kilometers to overcome. On July 4, 1881, the railway began its service as the “Darjeeling Steam Tramway”.

To this day it operates undaunted, but now under the name “Darjeeling Himalayan Railway”. At first the train trundles comfortably through the lowlands, but after a few kilometers the first steep ascent begins behind Sukhna. The locomotive tackles this – groaning and pounding, emitting a thick cloud of black soot – under the loud hammering of the pistons. With an incline of up to four percent, the narrow track winds its way through the mountains within sight of the road.

Two men on the front buffers are always on the lookout for fallen trees or careless co-users of the route who are traveling with self-made trolleys. And if the wheels of the locomotive spin, they quickly throw a few hands of sand onto the smooth rails. The coal trimmer on the tender and the crouching stoker are not to be envied. The little locomotives eat over two tons of greasy black coal on the line up to Darjeeling, and their thirst is also considerable. Time and again, trimmers and heaters have to take breaks to fill the large tanks. After a number of experiments, so-called “saddle tank locomotives” weighing 13 to 15 tons have prevailed and can haul 50 tons of freight uphill. Trying to use modern diesel locomotives failed until recently – none of them could handle the tight turns of just 16 meters radius. The routing is also a real masterpiece. In order to gain height quickly without increasing the incline, so-called Z-turns were created on particularly steep sections, which the train overcomes in a zigzag. Another »trick« are the 360-degree spiral loops, which are reminiscent of model railroad layouts in the living room at home.

The train travels through smaller and larger settlements several times. Vegetable stalls slide past the windows within reach, passengers jump up and down, dogs and cows reluctantly clear the route. In Tindharia and in Kursong, the two largest towns along the route, there will be longer “breather” breaks.

Today the residents are only disturbed by a train once or twice a day, but in the 1930s it was very busy. At that time, over 50 locomotives were in use, mainly to move freight – including thousands of tons of rice for the plantation workers – between the lowlands and the mountains. The highest point of the route is reached in Ghoom: 2258 meters. The prayer flags of the Buddhist monastery greet you, in the distance the Kanchenjunga massif with the third highest mountain in the world hovers over the green foothills. Certainly, for this train journey you had to endure a hard, narrow seat with a steep back for eight to twelve hours, twice as long as a bus journey – but still: what an experience!

Mountain Railways in India