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The Mountain Railways of India

December 2003
The Mountain Railways of India

Where is the highest railway station in the Eastern Hemisphere? Which place today has the oldest, steepest and only operative rack rail system in the world? Where is the oldest mountain railway system in Asia? Where was the world's first passenger meter-gauge line built? Also, where is the center of the world's oldest narrow-gauge railway system? Here's the short and easy answer to all the above questions: India. This is perhaps not so surprising when one considers the long and eventful history of Indian Railways, which celebrated its150th anniversary earlier this year. For interested readers, more detailed responses to these questions will appear later.

Rail enthusiasts who are familiar with India will, of course, need no introduction to the so-called toy trains, which, more than a century after they were first introduced in South Asia, continue to climb with admirable tenacity to their famous destinations high in the mountains. The word ?toy' to describe them is surely a misnomer because even in our age, when we take rapid technological progress for granted, these sturdy trains and the weathered tracks on which they routinely travel remain a marvel of engineering skill and daring. Bill Aitken, the Scottish-born travel writer, is a notable train buff who lives in India. In his entertaining book, Exploring Indian Railways, he states that the technology of this antiquated railway system stopped developing about a century ago. So, in order to keep it running smoothly, Indian mechanics and engineers have to show ingenuity and stay constantly alert. He writes, "In the quaintness of the toy trains setting out to climb mountains can be detected great maintenance skills and some brilliant pragmatic answers to daily snags."

Aitken also points out that people who think of these trains as toy-like generally have an enormous affection for them. As he notes, "The sight of the Ooty tankers wheezing up behind the four coaches of the Nilgiri Passenger calls forth admiration and blinds most watchers to the fact that this is not a toy." For a lot of people, and not just rail fans, it's a thrilling experience to ride in one of these trains as they slowly chug up a tortuous incline and - before entering a dark and cavernous tunnel - emit a shrill, mournful whistle that reverberates in the valley below. Four well-known trains in India will be considered here.

Shimla (or Simla) is still the most renowned hill station in India and, perhaps, even in Asia. It was established as the summer capital of the British Raj in the 1860s, and today this elegant town ? which has the feel of a city ? is the state capital of Himachal Pradesh. The imposing Viceregal Lodge now belongs to the state government, and unlike in former days, the historic Mall is open to anybody who wants to promenade there. Long regarded as the ?Chota Vilayat' (Little England) of India for its imperial grandeur, Shimla continues to attract visitors from all over the world.

The narrow-gauge railway line (less than a meter wide) in this part of northern India runs for about 60 miles from Kalka to Shimla. After the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, authorized its construction, the work began in 1889 and ended in 1903. He was on the train when it made its inaugural journey the following year. Dubbed the ?Hill Puffer', it won an entry in the Guinness Railway Book, where it's listed as "an engineering feat." The tracks, which have 919 curves, pass through 969 bridges and 20 railway stations. During the six-hour journey, as the train goes through the Shivalik Mountains, it ascends from 2100 feet to 6900 feet above mean sea level. Dharmpur is the main station on the route, and other stations include Taksal, Gamma and Solan. Outlook magazine describes the trip as "breathtakingly beautiful, with snowy Himalayan peaks, meadows, fields, oak and rhododendron forests, 107 tunnels and many lovely stone bridges to stare at all along the way."

The Kalka-Shimla Express was pulled by a steam locomotive for several decades, but it now uses a diesel engine. There is also a faster Shivalik Express, which takes 4 hours and 45 minutes for the entire run, with only one stop on the way. Despite these improvements, the train service was almost shut down because of the financial loss incurred every year and because of an accident that occurred in 2001. In December that year, a Canadian film company chartered the train during the making of India ? Land of the Tiger, which became the first IMAX film on India. While shooting, sparks from the engine were fanned by a helicopter that hovered above the train. Since there was a lot of dry grass in the area, this turned into a raging fire and destroyed the crops in the surrounding fields. Although the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department banned the train immediately, the decision was reversed in 2002. Fortunately for train lovers everywhere, these mountain routes are too important when it comes to attracting tourists. A shorter railway line, which runs through the neighboring Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh, has the steepest gradient in India after the Nilgiri line in Tamil Nadu.

Both Indian and foreign authors have written fiction that's set in the hill stations of India, and these photogenic trains have appeared prominently in several films. Ruskin Bond, an Anglo-Indian author of numerous books for adults and children, lives in Mussoorie, a pleasant town in the Garhwal Himalayas of northern India. Many of his evocative tales are set in hill stations and on trains, and he has even edited an anthology entitled The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories.

When it involves the magic of celluloid, Love in Simla and Shakespeare Wallah are two early films from the 1960s featuring mountain trains. Even some Western films have scenes set on these trains, a good example being David Lean's A Passage to India from the mid-1980s. In this movie, when Aziz (played by Victor Banerjee) accompanies Adela and Mrs. Moore on an expedition from the fictional town of Chandrapore, the characters are actually traveling from Mettupalayam to Ooty in the Nilgiris. And, both in E. M. Forster's novel and the movie, it is this fateful trip to the Caves of Marabar that becomes a dramatic turning point in the classic tale, setting the stage for the events that follow. In the world of Bollywood, one of the most enduring images of a mountain train is probably from Aradhana, a blockbuster in its time. As the narrow-gauge train, with Sharmila Tagore on board, slowly winds its way up to Darjeeling, Rajesh Khanna ? riding in a jeep on the road that runs parallel to the tracks ? tries to win over his ?sapnon ki rani' with a hit song.

Darjeeling, the best-known hill station in eastern India, sits at the northern end of West Bengal. The name comes from ?dorje', which stands for thunderbolt and is a popular icon in Himalayan Buddhism. In the 1860s, after the British took over the land from Sikkim, they built the hill station and turned it into a summer retreat for officers of the East India Company in Calcutta. Widely known for the locally grown tea, Darjeeling continues to attract tourists because of its spectacular location in the Himalayas. From here, on a clear day, one can see Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga, the highest and third highest peaks in the world respectively.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), which runs for about 55 miles from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, was constructed between 1879 and 1881, making it the first passenger mountain railway in Asia and one of the oldest in the world. Most mountain railway systems use the cable or rack mechanisms, but the DHR functions only on adhesion. On this route, when the ascent is too steep, the tracks follow a zigzag pattern by coming back and down a little and then going up again at a different point. This spiraling process is followed repeatedly until the train reaches Ghoom, the second highest railway station in the world at 7407 feet (Cusco in the Andes is the highest at 14,000 feet). Another unique feature of these tracks is that the gauge is only 2 feet wide, making this train (affectionately known as the ?Queen of the Hills') one of the smallest in India. The journey takes almost 10 hours, but passengers who are in a hurry can get off at Kurseong and complete the rest of the trip by bus or car.

Barbara Crossette, an author who frequently contributes articles to The New York Times, describes travel on the DHR line, which has no tunnels, as one of the "great rail journeys" of the world. She writes: "The hallmark precipices, ravines, switchbacks, S-curves, and enormous loops . . . are there for the train fans. But so are towns and villages and fields, where children run beside the small cars or jump out of their way as the train grinds along, sometimes at almost a walking pace." UNESCO, in 1999, declared the DHR a World Heritage Site, making it only the second railway system in the world (after the Semmering Railway in the Austrian Alps) to receive this rare honor.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) in southern India is the world's oldest and steepest rack rail system that's still fully operable. The meter-gauge line from Mettupalayam in the plains to Coonoor in the Nilgiris was completed in 1899, and the extension to Ooty (or Udhagamandalam) was finished in 1908. Soon, with its relatively easy accessibility, Ooty became a favorite holiday destination and the summer capital of southern India, and even today it is the most popular hill station in the South. The indigenous people of the Nilgiris belong to tribes such as the Todas, Badagas, Kotas and Kurumbas. Toda settlements and scattered huts, with their thatched roofs, can still be seen in a few places.

Tourist attractions in this charming but overcrowded hill station ? which has distinctive flora and fine buildings from the colonial era ? include the Botanical Gardens and Ooty Lake. Indian films are often shot in this area, where many other picturesque spots ? including Dodabetta (the highest point in southern India), Tiger Hill and Sim's Park ? are not far from the town. Once the passengers arriving on the overnight Nilgiri Express from Chennai board the little train across the platform, it leaves Mettupalayam and rumbles steadily through coconut, areca and banana groves.

The rack rail section begins after Kallar, the last station in the plains, and continues up to Coonoor for a distance of almost 17 miles. At Coonoor, before the train proceeds to Ooty, the steam locomotive is replaced by a diesel engine. The service between these two stations is much more frequent due to the popularity of the train with tourists. The jagged rack bars, lying on the sleepers between the two rails, can be viewed as a ladder that helps the train climb the steep incline of the mountain. Special cogwheels on the underside of the locomotive merge with the saw-toothed rack bars to facilitate the grip. Another singular feature of the NMR is that while the engine pushes the train from the rear when it's going up, the engine is supporting the carriages in the front on the way down.

On this scenic journey, which takes about 4 hours, one can see the dense Sholas (evergreen temperate forests), tea and coffee plantations, bubbling brooks, deep gorges, verdant valleys, and cliffs that soar majestically. The hill vegetation includes pine, conifers and wattle. Tall eucalyptus trees, whose striking leaves give the Nilgiris (or Blue Mountains) their name, exude a rich fragrance. There are a total of 250 bridges, 208 curves and 16 tunnels, with the longest one being about 317 feet. As in other places around India, children wave to passengers from their modest dwellings or from terraced fields. Other stations on this route include Wellington, Ketti and Lovedale. Although the trip by road, which is quite decent by Indian standards, takes less time, the true rail fan would always prefer the leisurely train journey.

The longevity of the NMR is a remarkable achievement, especially given that it's plagued by problems like landslides and the high cost of maintaining the aging equipment, whose parts are hard to come by. Occasionally in the past, even wild elephants in the lower scrub jungles have caused trouble! Now there is an electrified fence for a portion of the way to prevent a stray pachyderm from approaching the tracks. Since the NMR is not profitable in any season, the Indian Railways wanted to stop its operation some years ago. Luckily, when there were loud protests from the local people who rightly feared that tourism would suffer a blow, the idea was quickly dropped. In an ironic twist, the government in India is now seeking to make the historic NMR a World Heritage Site.

The Matheran Light Railway in western India is a snaking line that runs from Neral (between Mumbai and Pune) to the tiny hill station of Matheran in the Sahyadri Range. Completed in 1907, this narrow-gauge train travels a total distance of 14 miles in an hour and a half. Matheran was established as a hill resort in the 19th century because of its invigorating climate, and these days it continues to attract a constant stream of visitors from Mumbai and other places. "The first impact as you enter is as if a door to an airconditioned room has been opened and you are enveloped in a delicious coolness," notes Ratan Lalkaka, a veteran traveler to Matheran. He adds: "The forest lies like a mantle over the hill through which the founders laid out walks that are shady even during the summer and which encourage you to walk on. Openings in the forest called ?Griffiths Peeps' were made and designed for obtaining marvelous views from various angles."

The railway line (2 feet wide) follows a zigzag route with some sharp curves, and on the entire journey it goes through only one tunnel, mischievously named the ?One Kiss Tunnel'. In the 1980s, after many decades of service, the resilient iron horses were retired to make way for diesel locomotives. Since cars are not allowed in Matheran, making it perhaps the only hill station in Asia that's free of automobiles, this popular train is heavily used throughout the year.

Finally, returning to the questions posed in the first paragraph, here are the last two detailed answers: The world's first passenger meter-gauge line was the Delhi-Rewari section, which was completed in 1872. One can still traverse a short stretch of this line on the Farukhnagar Passenger, with a brief stop at Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary. Dabhoi in Gujarat is the center of the oldest narrow-gauge system in the world.

In one of Pico Iyer's travel essays, while commenting on railway travel in Asia, he writes: "Trains are how one senses both the nature ? and the human nature ? of a place, and they offer a perfect way into a continent known for its energy and its stillness." This observation is quite accurate when one thinks of the nimble mountain trains of India.

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