24 May 2023

Day Train Delights

The Legacy of Slow Travel of Colonial Times

Darjeeling Himalayan Railways Toy Train

The Eastern Himalayas are beloved for their spectacular beauty and the hill town of Darjeeling summons up all that wonderment as you gaze out on the world’s third highest peak, the Mt Khanchendzonga. The erstwhile summer capital also offers visitors another unmissable allurement–a rail journey by toy train, from the plains of the Dooars to India’s highest railway station Ghoom (2258 m)–the junction between Lopchu, Sonada, Siliguri and Kurseong in the beautiful hilly landscape of Darjeeling.

Did you know that originally the toy train was built as a tramway to capitalise on the price difference of potatoes between Darjeeling and Siliguri? Today for rail travel buffs, the toy train is slow travel of the most addictive kind. You will marvel at how every step of your journey up the mountain it so valiantly hauls itself up from Siliguri station in the plains in the early stages of the journey, before riding along many switchbacks, because of the steep gradient, to reach its lofty destination. Though diesel engines are being used now as they are stronger and faster, there are stages of the journey where the original vintage British-built B-Class steam locomotives are used to pull the train up. The steam-hauled Red Panda service also operates between Darjeeling and pretty Kurseong.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railways (DHR), which was accorded the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, passes through some of the most spectacular forested expanses of the Eastern Himalayas. Having kicked off operations in 1881 the steam locomotive traverses a distance of about 88km of hill country. Along the way, while crossing 13 stations and many bridges and tunnels and switchbacks and loops, DHR’s stellar performance in navigating this steep terrain will show you what an incredible feat of engineering went into its making; you will also discover what a challenge it was to lay the narrow-gauge track for it in this mountainous region. Locals have a saying the route was planned by a drunk engineer, as the track appears to drunkenly weave its way up from side to side in a random manner. But there is definitely a method in the madness, and this you learn vividly at the point where the train goes into what is the iconic Batasia Loop, between Darjeeling and Ghoom. There’s a 10-minute stop here as it appears the train is gathering its energy to do the final run up to Ghoom station by taking a complete 360° turn to defy this difficult terrain! Just 5km away from Darjeeling the Batasia Loop offers the most picturesque viewings of the mountain vistas on the toy train journey.

As the train travels from stage to stage on its laborious climb up the hills, don’t be surprised to find yourself bouncing from one side of your seat to the other to get the best perch for the scenic landscape passing by the windows on either side. Sweeping past in slow motion are vignettes of tiny villages and shops, tea gardens and farm holdings in the open country expanses where nature reigns supreme. As the train chugs through the narrow bazaar with its fruit stalls, shops and tightly packed houses, you can easily hop off and buy yourself a snack and hop back on without getting left far behind. You can get some splendid pictures of the hectic activity in the market as the train importantly wends its way in, scattering squawking chickens and whooping school kids crossing the track, past vendors, mothers shopping and old men smoking…

You can choose to take joy rides on the Darjeeling Toy Train, either by steam engine or diesel engine, as both services are provided along different routes. You should definitely go for the steam engine to enjoy a full-blown nostalgia-steeped Darjeeling Toy Train experience.

Shimla-Kalka Toy Train

Shimla, which served as a summer retreat of the British when New Delhi replaced Calcutta as their new capital, is one of north India’s most popular hill stations. A great way to go exploring this Raj-era- drenched destination in the foothills of the Western Himalayas is to travel slow and steady by the iconic Shimla-Kalka Toy Train whose route passes through 102 tunnels, 87 bridges and 900 curves. Were you aware that this historic train used to once transport loads of civil servants and the Viceroy and his entourage when Simla, as it was known earlier, became the centre of British rule over India in the long, hot summer months? As the journey is long, and if you are pressed for time, you can do what a lot of visitors do, take joyrides between stations to just get a feel of this nostalgia-inducing historic toy train experience.

Kangra Valley Toy Train

A journey of this UNESCO-acclaimed heritage train is the one of the most thrilling ways to experience the splendour of the mystical Kangra Valley’s legendary beauty. The Kangra Valley Toy Train covers the Pathankot-Joginder Nagar section with 33 scheduled stops as it traverses 950 ornate bridges. An utterly memorable journey it takes you through some of the most scenic Western Himalayan vistas with an assemblage of views of snow-capped mountains, ancient shrines, shepherds watching over their sheep along hillsides and much more… According the BBC’s legendary journalist and passionate rail buff, Mark Tully, the Kangra Toy Train offers possibly some of the best views on Indian railways. A popular transport option for the locals, it provides an excellent chance to mingle with them and be part of one of their everyday routines.

Niligiri Mountain Railway Toy Train

You will love the views of the vistas of the harmonious seasonal changes of the landscape and the beat of the rhythms of men toiling in their tiny farm holdings and tea-pickers filling their baskets with tea leaves in the tea plantations, as you travel on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway Toy Train in the foothills of the Nilgiris. You might get even luckier if the famous kurinji flowers are in bloom, which is why people know the mountainous region of the Nilgiris as ’blue hills’. This unique floral phenomenon happens every 12 years. Also known as the Ooty Train this lovely little train, which runs on track for 45km from Mettupalayam to Ooty via the stunning landscapes of Coonoor, every day, is hugely popular with locals who appear to take their gorgeous surrounds for granted as it’s so familiar to them. The blue and cream carriages evoke much nostalgia amongst generations of travellers who have enjoyed joy rides on this pretty toy train en route to Ooty hill station. In a little over five hours, the train navigates its way up from an elevation of 326m to 2203m.

The Charm of Travelling The Vistadome Way

Aim to be in one of the Vistadome coaches, added to the toy train in 2021, when travelling on the Darjeeling Toy Train. The glass roof, the large picture windows and the 180° rotatable seats will offer you even more panoramic views of the scenic country the train passes through. Observation lounges with even bigger picture windows are at either end of the coaches. It also features a restaurant car.

Vistadome coach services have also been provided in the other toy trains as well to give passengers an exceptional travel experience.

By the way, the Vistadome coach services are available on many routes across India now!

Rail travel will never be the same for you if you’ve enjoyed the many pleasures of joyrides on India’s historic toy trains–engineering marvels indeed while journeying along vertiginous rail tracks carved into scenic mountainscapes.

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