Fans of the Darjeeling Limited may be disappointed to discover that there’s no real train of that name. But the region is home to a railway every bit as charming – perhaps even more so.
Built between 1879 and 1881, the narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway runs for 55 miles from Siliguri to Darjeeling through the Indian state of West Bengal.
During the 19th century Darjeeling was a major summer hill station at the centre of a flourishing tea-growing district. Originally accessible only by horse-drawn cart, the region’s increasing popularity demanded a modern transportation system.
But the route would not be easy, and a number of innovations were required that tested the abilities of British engineers after a committee appointed by Sir Ashley Eden, the Lt. Governor of the Government of West Bengal, had recommended the railway go ahead.
Given the epithet, the “Toy Train” due to its 2 foot gauge, the line rises from an elevation of 330 ft to 7,200 ft by the time it reaches Darjeeling, with the highest elevation (7,500 ft) at Ghoom station.
Four loops (spirals) and innovative “Z” reversing stations were incorporated into the line (above). By 1910, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was carrying 174,000 passengers and 47,000 tonnes of goods annually.
Operated by Indian Railways, the route is one of the country’s most famous mountain lines. In 1999 it became the first to be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to Criterion (ii) and (iv) of the UN body’s decision:
“The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is an outstanding example of the influence of an innovative transportation system on the social and economic development of a multi-cultural region, which was to serve as a model for similar developments in many parts of the world”.
“The development of railways in the 19th century has a profound influence on social and economic developments in many parts of the world. This process is illustrated in an exceptional and seminal fashion by the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway”.
An earthquake in 1897 served as the catalyst for a modernisation programme, which saw improvements to track and stations, such as the Art Deco station at Darjeeling. Basic four wheel train cars were also replaced with bogie-equipped carriages.
Meanwhile, a number of quirky signs are located at key locations, including the Agony Point and Sensation Corner. And although a modern diesel is now used to pull the Darjeeling Mail train, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway retains all the charm of steam-hauled history.