QUEST HIMALAYA JOURNAL
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
By Aswini Tamang
On the pillars and walls of the train stations at Darjeeling, Ghoom and Kurseong as well as several others, a huge plaque indicates a much-cherished bestowal, that of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway being accorded the UNESCO World Heritage status. The year, 1999 was truly a significant moment in the life to this old afflicted railway system as this prestigious recognition held promises for its revival. The plaque reads, ‘The DHR 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.’ And on a wall at the station in Darjeeling a convex copper plaque very proudly announces – ‘Dedicated to the people of the world’, an attribution made by the then railway minister of India.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was laid to connect Darjeeling with Siliguri in order to provide logistical support for the upcoming tea industry and it was ingenuity of Franklin Prestage that brought the proposal to reality; this inconceivable task of building a system to haul rail carriages up these steep mountain slopes. The complexity of the project lay in the inability of the little narrow guage engines to raise enough steam pressure at a continuous volume during the train’s ascent uphill. (Moreover, anything above the 24 inch narrow guage system was ruled out because bigger engines would not be able to tackle the tight bends expected along the proposed railway line). It has been told that Mister Prestage’s wife came up with the solution (when he confided in her) while waltzing at the Tindharia Planters’ Club. She gently led the distraught man to the edge of the dance floor and when they were at the brink, she turned him around and on whisking him back centrestage saying, “If you can’t go forward, why don’t you go back darling,” is what she whispered into his ears. So taking cue from the metaphor, every time the gradient got too steep, Franklin sketched a z-shaped zigzag route. Not just once, but six times in the 51-mile stretch from Siliguri to Darjeeling. The inspiration drawn from his wife’s wisdom is now part of the Darjeeling folklore.
This masterpiece of a mountain railway system is famous for its three loops and six Z-reversals and has 13 stations. Ghoom, at 7,407 feet is the highest station in India. One interesting loop that draws great attraction is the one at Batasia (close to Ghoom) where a pretty garden laid around a war memorial make the point even more adorable. And there’s the spine chilling ‘Agony Point’, the sharpest curve on the line that corresponds to a 44 feet radius turn.
The line reached Darjeeling only in the July of 1881 with the work on the project having started in May 1879. It was Lord Lytton, the then Viceroy of India who had shown special interest on the project and also became the first Viceroy to have visited Darjeeling in March 1880 riding on the newly laid track which was then operational to a distance of 18 miles.
DHR has been in service since 1881 and some of old locomotives still working date back to 1889. At present there are 14 steam (12 coal-fired, 2 oil-fed) and 2 diesel engines. The 88 km trip to New Jalpaiguri Station takes over six hours of chugging but there’s never a dull moment in this journey as the trail abounds with breathtaking sceneries. Believe it or not, the six- hour turtle slow trip on the Toy Train will turn out a better choice against the faster paced three-hour drive by car to reach the same destination.
‘Joyride’ is a daily special for tourists and features a short 12-km round-trip journey from Darjeeling to Ghoom and back. The train halts briefly at the Batasia Loop offering visitors a chance to view the Gorkha Memorial as well as an excellent mountain panorama overlooking the bazaar. Departures are scheduled at 10:00 a.m. and 12:50 p.m. Reservation counters are open from 8:00 a.m. till 4:00 p.m.