DARJEELING HIMALAYAN RAILWAY
Even the people who claim to be clueless about the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway are really not truly so, unless they have been living under a rock all this time, or have been completely off movies since 1969!
Don’t believe me? Well, here’s a fact. If you watched and loved the movies Barfi! and Parineeta in recent times or have been humming the Rajesh Khanna song ‘mere sapnon ki rani’ from ‘Aradhana’ (1969), you have most certainly seen this famous Darjeeling toy train and you cannot deny it!
Don’t remember? Here’s a little memory refresher by Zee Music Company.
Movies aside though, taking a ride aboard this heritage train should definitely be on everyone’s bucket list.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) is a UNESCO world heritage site since 1999. The vintage toy train runs a total of 78kms between the towns of Darjeeling and New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal. Snaking on narrow tracks around the foothills of the Himalayas, this toy train ride takes you through vintage railway stations that look like they have been trapped in history, through beautiful tea plantations and through landscapes of unparalleled scenic beauty.
History of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR)
After the British initiated the initial settlement at Darjeeling in 1828 and the town’s subsequent growth, a rail link was deemed economically necessary. In 1878, Eastern Bengal railways Franklin Prestage drew up a plan for a 2-feet gauge railway line between Siliguri and Darjeeling, using locomotives that could handle steep climbs. After an initial sanction in 1879 for a steam tramway, the DHR came into being in 1881.
The 88km train ride of DHR starts at New Jalpaiguri at just 100m above sea level and climbs all the way up to an altitude of 2200m above sea level to reach Darjeeling. It uses 5 loops and 6 zigs zags to make the climb easier on steeper gradients, for its 6-locomotive (diesel). There are over 130 unmanned crossings along the route, where the train runs mostly by hand signals. DHR also runs a vintage steam-engine train for steam-engine enthusiast. Similarly, there is also a steam-engine Red panda service that runs part of the way, from Darjeeling to Kurseong.
Even today, the train’s three coaches with large windows built for better visibility still retain their vintage feel. This train ride is a photographer’s delight, especially as you get out at least stop to explore the surrounds. The train’s drivers and handlers are extremely tourist-friendly, hence, stopping a bit longer at the request of a passenger is quite common.
The DHR had been suspended between New Jalpaiguri and Kurseong since 2010 due to frequent landslides, services have resumed since December 2015. Frequent landslides make operating trains on this route quite a hand-on job and hence DHR has been frequently criticized by the UNESCO regarding their operation. But despite service interruptions due to landslides, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway remains one of the most iconic attractions here.
Here’s a BBC documentary on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways uploaded by The Weekend House.
DHR Route & Location
The DHR stops at 13 stations in total, some eerie-looking ghost stations without a soul in sight, some well-maintained larger stations that have been slightly modernized. These thirteen stations are New Jalpaiguri, Siliguri Town, Siliguri Junction, Sukna, Rongtong, Gayabari, Mahanadi, Kurseong, Tung, Sonada, Ghum and Darjeeling.
There are museums and photo galleries at some of these stations, but the thing that wows you most of all along the journey is the sweeping beauty of the landscapes you behold. The second most enjoyable thing is the journey itself, with its exhilarating zig-zags, bridges and reverse loops along the route. Tourists rave about the scenic Batasia Loop that falls between the stations of Ghum and Darjeeling.
Here’s my favourite video on the Darjeeling Himalayan Train ride experience by Youtuber 200Journeys. You can follow him for more amazing travel videos.
Popular Experiences Along The DHR Route
Apart from the natural beauty of this green and gorgeous little hill station, there are a lot of things to see along your DHR train journey.
Sukhna Station, though a slightly dilapidated timber building, is an attractive location to photograph thanks to its ‘trapped in time’ look and feel. There is a small photography display museum on the second floor of the station that has vintage photos as well as historic artefacts. As of now, there are no entrance fees to this exhibition, and you can gain access by asking the stationmaster.
For a Rs10 entrance fee, you can check out another interesting museum at Kurseong Station. The museum showcases numerous well-preserved artefacts related to DHR’s history. On the upper storey of Ghum Station too, tickets for which are included in the ‘joy train’ tickets. You can buy separate tickets for Rs 20 too. While you wait for your return journey for your Joy Train ride, enjoy the fantastic DHR displays here, which include the display of a vintage Baby Sivok engine.
Ticket Bookings & Cost
Tickets for riding the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, as well as their cost, is dependant on the type of travel you intend to do. You can be one of three passenger types:
You could be a daily passenger on trains that through and through between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling, which takes up a full day. Or you could be a passenger interested in the 2-hour Darjeeling to Ghum toy train ride, which includes a 10-minute stop at Batasia Loop and a 30-minute halt at Ghum. Or you could be someone interested in taking a safari train ride. Safari trains are diesel and steam locomotives that run between Siliguri and Rangtong and offer fantastic views of the famous Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary.
To give you a general estimate, day passengers are charged about 1700Rs for AC class and about 1400Rs for first class. Joy Train rides are charged between Rs1000 and Rs 1600 depending on travel class. Morning and afternoon safaris are between Rs700 and Rs1200 respectively for AC class, and between Rs590 and Rs 1000 respectively for First Class.
Complete fare details for each category including charter trains and evening safari rides are given here on the official DHR website. Pay special attention to departure times when you make a booking, you can find all the train timetables here. You can also book entire heritage coaches if you are travelling as a group and you can find more details on these DHR charter coaches here. Bookings can be made online through the centralized Indian Railways website.