Hill trains of India - Riding high
We explore travellers' dalliance with Indian toy trains for a romantic brush with nature and novelty.
Ye hawaye gungunaye... love is in the air. And, Saif slips into a romantic reverie thinking of Vidya Balan in the film Parineeta. He is aboard a toy train that chugs to Darjeeling. Saif's mother Sharmila Tagore too had a tryst with the same train in the 970s' film Aradhana while Rajesh Khanna crooned the evergreen number -- Mere sapno ki rani kab ayegi tu...
Seems like this Darjeeling toy train is an institution of sorts featuring as it does on UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites!
Vinita Lal, reminisces about her ride on the popular train, "There's a mad scramble at the wash-yard itself where people fall over each other to get a seat! When the train reaches the platform, it is house full!"And why not? "The picturesque ride of 86 kms in nine hours is nothing short of heavenly as you soak in the varying landscape of Terai vegetation, tea plantations, mystical jungles against the snow-capped peaks of Kanchenjunga at a leisurely pace," gushes Vinita.
Batasia Loop and Ghum
Amitabh Lal, DRM, NE Railways, reveals, "The train and its coaches are often chartered. Passengers love its easy-going pace, and often hop off for a tea break under a tree, to catch up with the train as it trudges along a loop. The most famous one is the Batisia loop. The misty Ghum station at 7000 ft is the highest station in India. The train to Matheran is also a favourite with tourists."
Toy trains seem to breed romance! The train from Mamba (Neral) to Matheran wilds gave Manjari Chaturvedi, a college student, the opportunity to be with her love. The 'One kiss tunnel', in this two-hour long journey is quite popular with teenagers.
Honeymooners' paradise Shimla also has a toy train to transport the passengers literally and figuratively to another world! Tourists and picnickers enjoy the scenic views. Ankita Agrawal, student, was all excited about her train ride, finding it "fantastic and wonderful, especially because of the 07 tunnels, winding tracks and the panaromic view of the Himalayas".
The other toy train in Himachal Pradesh connecting Pathankot with Kangra, Jwalamukhi and Palampur, is just as awesome, shares school teacher Ila Sarin. This is the one that takes one to Ber and Billing, where national and international competitions for para-gliding and hang-gliding are held. Ila loved "the special feel of the cute trains and, of course, the phenomenal landscape, all at a Nawabi pace".
Down south, in Ooty, Smita Sharma, a government servant, enjoyed the to and fro train ride from Conoor: "It was far from the maddening crowd. With a maximum speed of 33 kmph, the train was a delight as one absorbed the landscape that unfolded in layers: rocky terrain, plantations and forested hills,"she says.
Malini and her hubby Shyam Gopal loved the toy train which featured in the film Sadma. Their first trip on that train was as a honeymooning couple and they returned to take their kids on "this wonderful train journey, and rediscover the magic that the train weaves in tandem with nature."
Trains through the Swiss Alps can wait awhile as we have our fill of joy rides on toy trains across the picturesque Indian terrain.
Quick facts: Hill train routes in India
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
DHR was an engineering marvel on a 2 ft narrow guage track, in 88, the year of its launch. It uses neither cable nor rack mechanism as other mounatin railways do. It works entirely on adhesion. The highest station is Ghum at 7407 ft. The only other mountain railway in the world that reaches a higher altitude is in the Andes, where Cusco station is at 4,000 ft.
There are no tunnels on this route. The train takes its first loop at Sukna Tindharia, a stretch of foothills in the Saingalela range. Terai jungles take over the lanscape near Rangtong. And from Kurseong, it is tea plantations all the way. The colourful monastry at Ghum, against the misty skies marks anticipation of Batasia loop. It begins soon after Ghum. Batasia loop is the star attraction in engineering skills and also affords great views of Kanchenjanga peak and higher Himalayas.
It is 86 km between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. At a maximum speed of 5 km the journey is covered through Himalayan jungles and tea gardens in 9 hours. The train runs almost parallel to the road and crosses it 50 times in the journey! A UNESCO World Heriatge Site, it even had American writer Mark Twain as one of its travellers, who exclaimed: "The most enjoyable day I spent on earth."
The toy train in Himachal Pradesh connecting Pathankot with Kangra, Jwalamukhi and Palampur, is the one that takes one to Ber and Billing, where national and international competitions for para-gliding and hang-gliding are held.
The Kalka-Shimla run of 96 km is covered by vintage trains in 6 hours. It crosses 20 stations over Himachal Pradesh's green terrain. The first train moved on this broad guage track on 9th Novemeber, 903. There are 07 tunnels on this train route. The longest tunnel is at Barog and it is 3760 ft long. The Gothic-style Barog railway station has been a favourite for Bollywood movie settings.
Interestingly, the rail carriage - Vintage 927, used by Mahatma Gandhi in the year 945 to visit Shimla for talks with Viceroy Wavell about British plans for leaving India, is still rail worthy and remains a tourist's delight.
Kangra Valley Railway
This toy-train route in Himachal Pradesh got rolling on st April, 929. It passes over 97 bridges! There are 2 tunnels on the way too. One of these is a 000 ft long.
The Kangra Valley Railway has the Dhauladhar mountain ranges to its north, and foothills to its south. From Palampur, the snow peaks are only 0 miles away, the closest that any Himalayan train gets to the snow.
Ban Ganga gorge, the Kangra chasma, and Bhir gorge, before Baijnath have impressionable natural settings. From Baijnath to Joginder Nagar the track takes a steep climb. The highest place here, Ahju, neighbours the famous paragliding and hang-gliding sites of Bir and Billing.
Kangra itself has has river Ban Ganga and the ancient Rajpur Fort, now in ruins after an earthquake in the year 905. The Vajreshwari temple in Kangra was also damaged then, but has been renovated since. It was always known for its riches, offered to the deity. Thus, a prime target for raids by Muhammad Ghazni in the year 009, by Mohammad Bin Tuglaq in the early 5th century, and again in the year 540 by Khawas Khan. This Devi temple at Kangra is even now very popular with locals and visitors alike.
The Devi temple at Jwalamukhi has natural flames arising from the mountainside. There are hot springs here too. This temple was visited by Emperor Akbar.
Nilgiri Mountain Railway
This beautiful train route opened up in the year 908. It is a stretch of 46 km with 250 tunnels and 6 girder bridges. With a maximum speed of 33 km, the toy train passes through coffee plantations and forested hills.
Matheran railway line took off in the year 907, connecting Neral (Mumbai) to Matheran, a hill station neighbouring Mumbai. It is a .5 hour journey - short but takes one to the scenic greens of Maharashtra, neighbouring urban Mumbai.