Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway - An Unesco Heritage Site

It was 1879. The steep and winding Pankhabari Road connecting Pankhabari in the plains with Kurseong in the hills had long ago been constructed. To aid the movement of carts, they had also built the more gradient Hill Cart Road. Yet, to reach Darjeeling from Siliguri, one had to spend forty eight hours en route. Therefore, a need for a faster conveyance that could also carry people and cargo in large quantities began to be felt.

Proposal from Eastern Bengal Railway Company

By that time the Eastern Bengal Railway Company had been formed. By 1878, they had already completed the broad gauze railway connecting Kolkata with Siliguri. In 1879, Franklin Prestage, an agent of the company, approached the government with a proposal to connect Siliguri with Darjeeling through a narrow gauze railway system. The proposal was accepted once the assessment committee submitted a positive report. The construction of the railway line began in that very year.

Construction of the Railroad

Logo of DHR

Gillanders Arbuthnot & Company was conferred with the responsibility of building the railway track. However, the task was not at all easy. The distance to be covered was almost eighty-three kilo meters and the elevation varied from 100 meters at Siliguri to 2200 meters at Darjeeling. Yet, the line was extended up to Tindharia by March 1880 and up to Kurseong near Darjeeling by the end of August. By February 1881, the line reached Sonada. It took two more months to reach Ghum. Finally, the Kurseong-Darjeeling stretch was inaugurated on 4rth July, 1881.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – a technological marvel

In most places, the railroad follows the Hill Cart Road. However, in some places, it was felt that the alignment was much too steep for the locomotives to maneuver. The engineers solved this problem by constructing zigzags and loops. Zigzags or the reverses require the locomotives to go forward and then move back and by doing that it gathers enough steam to rush forward along a steeper tract. 

It is said that while the engineer was at work trying to solve the problem, his wife kept on calling him for lunch. He explained that he could not take the lines forward and hence he was not in a mood for lunch. Exasperated, his wife said, if he could not go forward he should go backward. The engineer did just that. The maneuver helped the engines to gather enough steam to rush up the steep tract and reach higher elevation with ease. There are however, other versions of this story.

Loop at Agony Point

Loops on the other hand involves going round a steep rise. Batasia, Chunbhatti, Agony point are examples where going along a loop has helped the trains to gain height effortlessnessly. Among the three, the Batasia Loop between Ghum and Darjeeling is most famous. As the train goes round the loop, it actually descends by one thousand feet!

Popularity and decline of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Since its inception, the popularity of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway began to increase and by the beginning of twentieth century, it was carrying 174,000 passengers and 47,000 tons of goods per anum. Indeed, it can be safely said that the development of the area was hastened by introduction of the railway system. 
However, with the introduction of commercial vehicles, the popularity of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway began to decrease. Indeed, travelling by road is now much faster and cheaper. Consequently, trucks are preferred for movement of the goods and those who travel for business prefer to use buses and shared taxis.  The railway is now used mostly by tourists who have ample time on hand. Even they use this mode of transport for novel experience.

Nearing the destination

Riding the toy train - an amazing experience

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is fondly called as the Toy Train. Indeed, they do remind us of tram cars that ply in the cities across the world. As the train leaves Sukhna and starts climbing upward, one is seized with an awe-inspiring feeling. Soon the train starts climbing higher and higher, tackling zigzags and loops on the way. From the very beginning, the beauty of the Himalayas begins to enthrall the travelers. The smiling faces of the hill people who may hitch a ride, jumping in and out of the running train, seem equally mesmerizing. 

By and by, one can see the Kanchenjunga looming large. When the train reaches Kurseong, travelers are taken into another realm. The Ghum is the next significant stop. It is the highest station en route. The tracks take a downward turn from there. Darjeeling town is visible after a while. The train soon chugs into the Darjeeling station and the traveler gets ready to disembark.

Stations in between NJP and Darjeeling

These days the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway starts from New Jalpaiguri instead of Siliguri. Stations on the way are as follows:
 New Jalpaiguri - Siliguri Town - Siliguri Junction - Sukhna – Rongtong – Tindharia – Gayabari – Mahanadi – Kurseong -  Tung – Sonada – Ghum – Darjeeling

Notice Board At Darjeeling Railway Station

Joy Rides and Tourist Circuits

However, to experience the thrill of riding toy trains, one need not travel all the way. These days, the Railway operates some special trains for the benefits of the tourists. Darjeeling-Ghum-Darjeeling is one such train. Otherwise, one can also visit Kurseong by train and come back by evening. Special trains also run between new Jalpaiguri and Tindharia.

Heritage Status by UNESCO

United Nation Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has awarded World Heritage tag to Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.  That is not only because the railway system was first of its kind in the entire world, but also because it had brought socio economic upliftment in the region. More importantly, it has been maintained without much change. This is one more reason why one should ride the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway at least once in his lifetime.
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