Installment #21 - January 26, 2001

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) runs from New Jalpaiguri (370 feet above sea level), through Ghum (the second highest railway station in the world at 7407 feet) and on to Darjeeling (at 6812 feet) for a total length of 88 km or 55 miles. The track is the smaller of the two narrow gages found in India610mm. The line was opened from Siliguri to Darjeeling in 1881, and became part of the Indian Railway system in 1948. It was extended to New Jalpaiguri in 1962.

At the end of 1999, the DHR had 14 ‘B’ class steam locomotives (distinguished by a large saddle water tank and side coal bunkers), at least one dating from 1892. In 2000, two new NDM6 diesels were added.  [For those of you who aren't aware, Allen became a train geek after living many years in Scotia, NY alongside a set of four active cross-country freight railroad tracks.] There is one train a day in each direction running the entire distance from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling (usually diesel), with a second daily (steam) train running during tourist season. The trip takes 7 to 8 hours one way and sometimes longer. Additional trains run over shorter distances using steam power.

In 1999, the DHR was granted UNESCO World Heritage status. The UNESCO report says, "The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is the first, and still the most outstanding, example of a hill passenger railway. Opened in 1881, it applied bold and ingenious engineering solutions to the problem of establishing an effective rail link across a mountainous terrain of great beauty. It is still fully operational and retains most of its original features intact."

I climbed aboard the daily diesel-powered run to Darjeeling from New Jalpaiguri at around 8:45 on Tuesday, January 9, along with a full load of Indians and a few other foreign tourists, including Phil and Melanie Peacock. Moving at a speed of around 12 MPH, we were soon on our way! For the first part of the trip, we paralleled a meter gauge line, and at one point we even shared a rail as we passed over a narrow bridge. A few kilometers past Siliguri Junction, we began to climb, and the speed dropped to around 7MPH. The DHR follows the route of Hill Cart Road and crosses it more than 100 times, I was told, on the way to Darjeeling! The track maintains a maximum slope of 1 foot up for each 22.5 feet forward, and uses one of two tricks when Hill Cart Road becomes steeper: a loop or a reverse.

There are three loopsplaces where the track makes a complete circle and passes over itself. On two of these loops, the Chinbati loop and the Batasia Loop, the track actually makes one and a half circles, heading out in more-or-less the opposite direction from which the loop was entered. The Batasia Loop is perhaps the most photogenic place on the line because the toy train can be photographed (if the weather is good) with Kanchenjunga in the background.

There are also six reverses where the track comes to an end. The train stops and then, running in reverse, passes through a switch onto another track that continues to climb, until it too ends. The train then runs forward again through another switch and continues upward. Seen from above, a reverse would look like a letter ‘Z’.

We stopped at Tindharia (one of 13 stations along the line) for lunch. I had ordered lunch and a Coke from a fellow who had passed through the train earlier. Here he handed me, through the train window, a metal plate of Indian food, and a 1.5 liter bottle of coke!

The air became cooler as we climbed and, by the time we reached Ghum (sometimes called "Gloom" due to the cold, foggy weather), the sun was close to setting and it was getting downright cold. We paused twice on the way up to pass another train, and the second time was in Ghum. After the train had passed, we began our decent into Darjeeling, arriving at dusk, and completing my first toy train journey.

On Sunday, I decided to ride the down train about 20 miles to Kurseong and to return to Darjeeling on the daily up train from New Jalpaiguri. The down train was diesel, but the up train was steam, and that return ride to Darjeeling was my first and (I expect) only experience riding on a steam-propelled train during my Indian visit.

I thoroughly enjoyed my ride on the steam up train, but am now glad that the Indian railways have converted almost completely to diesel and, even better, to electric. Before I could sit on a seat in one of the three second-class coaches, I had to brush the cinders off the seat, which turned my hand black. The steam locomotive seemed almost like a living thing, pulling the train forward in pulsating surges. It filled the air with smoke, steam, cinders, and glowing embers that got into my eyes and hair and onto my clothes. Frequent and long stops for water were required; the schedule had to be arranged to suit the needs of the locomotive. [Also, Allen has never gotten over the bitter disappointment of discovering that, when he graduated from college with a degree in engineering, he still couldn't drive a train.]

I was surprised at my reaction to this steam locomotive; we planned our Indian trip around train travel largely because I wanted to ride the steam trains, and I was disappointed to learn that they had virtually disappeared from the Indian Railway in the 5 or 6 years between conception and execution of the trip. I now think that steam travel is great as a hobby and tourist experience, and I wouldn’t mind taking a few more steam rides, but I agree that diesel and electric are far superior for serious transportation.

As it began to get dark, the electrician rigged the train's lights, which are powered by a steam turbine generator on the locomotive. The small lights in the passenger coaches are powered by twisting together the bare ends of wires that hang between the coaches. My steam ride concluded when we arrived at the Darjeeling station after dark.

My last ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was on Tuesday. I packed my bags, had breakfast, and walked to the train station where one of the two diesel locos was busy assembling the four-car train (a second class coach, a first class coach, and two baggage cars) for the return trip down the mountain. It was a beautiful, clear day and Kanchenjunga was clearly visible from the train station (see the previous report for a picture).

I sat with Phil and Melanie in the second class coach, but soon found myself crowded into a small seat with my backpack on my lap, and other people and baggage crammed all around. At Ghum, I moved into the first class coach, which I shared with only three other people. The first class fare was about 120 rupees, while second class was only about 20, so almost everyone travels second class. My Indrail pass entitled me to first class, but I had been riding the toy trains mostly in second class (many steam-powered trains have only second class). This time, I decided to take advantage of the privilege afforded by the pass, and sat far from the maddening crowd.

The toy train coaches do not have air brakes. The mechanical brakes are controlled by brakemen on each car, who operate a foot lever or hand wheel. The squeal of brakes mixes with the sound of the diesel locomotive air horn most of the way down the mountain. The mountain views are spectacular, and are mixed with village views as the train toots its way through the main streets of mountainside towns.

Quoting from "A guide to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway" by Richard Wallace, which has served as the source for many of the facts presented in this report, "Over one hundred and twenty years of operation and still going strongthe Darjeeling Himalayan is, without dispute, India’s premier heritage line!"

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The toy train climbs into the mountains alongside Hill Cart Road.
Looking down at the track below after a switchback.
Some beautiful scenery as seen from the window of the train.
Melanie peers out the window as we pass through a village.
In Kurseong (and other places) the tracks run along the edge of the main street.
This view shows how close the tracks are to stores along the road.
A Kurseong vegetable market as seen from the toy train.
The sign on the railway station at Ghum, the second highest station in the world at 7407 feet above sea level. I believe that the highest station is in Peru.
A view of the Batasia loop between Ghum and Darjeeling.
The Darjeeling train station as seen from the next street up the hillside.
Number 779 is said to be the oldest locomotive in active service on the DHR.
Number 780 parked in Darjeeling. I believe that "NF" stands for Northern Frontier. [Let me guessNumber 780 is said to be the second oldest locomotive in active service on the DHR.]
Here I am standing in front of 786 at Ghum and not looking very happy. I guess it was the cold. [Glum at Ghum.]
On the way down to Kurseong on Sunday we passed this local waiting for us at Ghum.!
The engineer checks the water level during the stop at Kurseong.
Water is added to the saddle tank (upper right) while the fireman breaks up the large pieces of coal and the engineer (lower left) looks on. The woman in the lower left is salvaging coal in the ashes raked from 791’s firebox.
The engineer on 791 was an interesting-looking character in his hat and long hair. He was soft-spoken, and went about his work in a very businesslike manner.
The toy train moves slowly enough that the local kids make a game of jumping on and off as the train passes by.
The engineer stokes the fire in 791 during a water stop.
791 is adjusted and oiled while water is being added. The road was being repaved; the barrel in the right foreground contains tar and the fire in the right background is heating crushed stone.
Here I am on Tuesday aboard the down train for my final ride.
The train passes some spectacular scenery on the way down the mountain.
I took this picture of a meat shop from the train window as we passed by.
Entering one of the reverses; the train will pull up to the stop sign, the switch will be thrown, and the train will back into the reverse track section, continuing downhill.

Administrative note:

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