The gentle swaying of steam locomotives, meter gauge rolling stocks, and wooden body coaches is still an achievable experience. A journey in the heritage trains of India is just what you need to revive days of the yore. These languid trains are the only magical gateway to experience the beauty of mountains, chugging up hills, waving out to homeowners in sleepy hamlets, making your way through tunnels and over stunning bridges. Truly, a welcome respite for city dwellers!
The mountain railways also known as toy trains were built during the British India era between the 19th and 20th century. Three of all the present mountain railways in India have been awarded the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site – Darjeeling Himalayan Railway; Kalka–Shimla Railway; and, Nilgiri Mountain Railway. The three routes are part of 35 World Heritage Sites in India.
All the three heritage trains run on diesel now, though they originally ran on coal. Just two trains from Darjeeling, a special and a chartered train, continue to run on coal.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) consists of 88.48 kilometres of 2 feet gauge track that connects New Jalpaiguri (NJP) with Darjeeling, passing through Ghoom at an altitude of 2,258 metre that includes six zigzag reverses and three loops with a ruling gradient of 1:3. The toy train was recently in news for leaving holes in the pockets of both locals and tourists.
Railways attribute the steep hike in prices to costly maintenance of these heritage trains. But the move left the tourism sector in a frenzy claiming that tourists will find it impractical to pay high amounts for a two hour joy ride. In the beginning of February this year the fare for the 87-km-long journey from Darjeeling to NJP on the toy train has also been raised to INR 1285. Earlier the cost was INR 360 in first class and INR 120 for second class rides. The steep hike has come as a shock to the locals as well.
Currently, the DHR operates nine rides on the toy train (six on steam and three on diesel engines) thrice a day to Ghoom and back from Darjeeling as well as long distance services thrice a week from Darjeeling to New Jalpaiguri station on diesel engines.
In a conversation with G’nY, Samrat Sanyal, Secretary, Eastern India Tour Operator Association said, “There was a price hike in 2015 as well. The hike is fine but the stakeholders need to be taken into confidence before such announcements. It was too sudden. If prices are being raised, they should also upgrade the services on the Darjeeling toy train. A service standard should be set, after all it a seven hour long journey. There is a lot of irregularity with regard to toy trains and no promotion whatsoever.”
He added, “It is the oldest heritage toy train and clearly enough isn’t being done to maintain and upgrade it. Imagine the plight of the passengers who booked 3-4 months in advance. The railway ministry should involve stakeholders before taking crucial decisions”
As for the other toy trains, fares remain affordable, making it a popular option.
One of the Heritage sites, the Kalka-Shimla Railway (KSR) narrow gauge toy train passes through 107 tunnels with lofty arched bridges. The world’s highest multi-arc gallery bridge and the world’s longest tunnel (at the time of construction) of KSR were the testimony of the brilliance in engineering skills to make a dream a reality, as mentioned on the Indian Railways website.
Bookings are almost always full during Christmas and New Year by tourists who enjoy the day on the toy train. Also unlike other toy trains where bookings start two months in advance, bookings for Kalka Shimla toy train opens one month in advance. The price ranges between INR 70 to 500 for a ride in the Kalka Shimla toy train.
Though there is not much scope for extension of the railroad, the existing track should be preserved and improved and the overall journey should be made more comfortable. From Kalka to Shimla, ‘the toy train’ covers 96-km of track in six hours. Foreigners want to travel on the narrow-gauge toy train to carry back pleasant memories of a rich Himalayan experience.
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway in Tamil Nadu runs from Metupalaiyam to Udhagamandalam (Ooty), via Coonoor, in the Nilgiri Hills. The track is 46 kilometres long, and passes over 250 bridges and through 16 tunnels.
It is also the place where the last of the coal-powered steam engines retired recently and will be exhibited to the public at the Udhagamandalam and Coimbatore railway stations. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway uses unique rack and pinion traction arrangement to negotiate steep gradient. The fare for the journey is between INR 200 to 500.
Interestingly, Nilgiri Mountain Railway is the only mountain railway that operates on a daily basis in South India. The train frequency increases during peak summer, to accommodate tourists.
Recently several newspapers reported that The Indian Railways are planning to lease out its narrow and meter gauge trains to private companies for operations and maintenance. The move is building up strong views, as it will open the floodgate to corporate participation.
“Special routes have been handed over to private players in the past. Heritage toy trains are still not given enough attention though” added Samrat.
There have been talks about UNESCO considering Matheran Hill Railway, Maharashtra to be assigned as a world heritage site. Although the route is small, the journey takes around two and a half hours beginning from Neral, located between Matheran and Pune.