Look beyond your desktop. Close your laptops. Glance around. And think: When was the last time you took a vacation? Or breathed the cool, crisp mountain air, to be precise? If it was ages ago, then it’s time to pack and take one of these awesome mountain railways to reach some of the most picturesque destinations of India. Here’s more.
The British loved going for extended weekends and long summer vacations to Indian hill stations. As the British Empire began to spread to various parts of the sub-continent, not only did they establish their cantonments, but they also developed many hill resorts where they could go for breaks to beat the excruciating heat in the plains.
But why are we thinking about the vacations taken by the British today? It’s because the rail routes that they laid to reach these hill stations still exist. They function with the very same engines and carriages – and a trip to the hills by rail is a real treat, indeed. Here are the five amazing mountain rail routes which we can enjoy till date.
1. Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was inaugurated in 1881. This ‘toy train’ covers a distance of 88 km in West Bengal from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling in seven-and-a-half hours. The train is not merely a source of delight, but it also represents engineering skills of the highest order.
“The scenery is very beautiful and going in and out of the mist, all though the trip, is good fun. The railway stations are really small. The road and the houses are built very close to the tracks and it is a treat to see people waving out from their windows,” says 14-year-old Aryan Ahuja who has visited Darjeeling once.
The route has 8 major bridges, 542 minor bridges and 177 unmanned level crossings. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which received the World Heritage Site status on Dec. 2, 1999, has the narrowest of the regular narrow gauges.
2. Nilgiri Mountain Railway
Photo Credit: Prakhar/Wikimedia
The first stretch of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway from Mettupalayam to Coonoor was opened to traffic in June 1899 and was extended up to Ooty in 1908. The main features of this meter gauge line are the unique rack rail system (between Kallar to Coonoor) and the equally unique and complicated steam locomotives.
The delightful little train covers a distance of 46 km from Mettupalayam to Ooty in four-and-a-half hours.
“The train ride is a real thrill as it twists and turns around the hills, passing through many tunnels, crossing bridges, traversing forests and tea plantations. The most interesting thing about this journey is that the engine is at the back pushing the carriages up the hills,” says Prahlad Menon who has been on the train a few years ago.
On July 15, 2005, UNESCO recognized Nilgiri Mountain Railway as a World Heritage Site.
3. Kalka-Shimla Railway
Photo Credit: Raghavan V/Wikimedia
The Kalka-Shimla Railway connects the residents of the plains to the summer capital of British India. Tourists rush to Shimla both in summer and winter seasons, either to beat the heat or to catch the snowflakes.
This railway line was opened to traffic on Nov. 9, 1903. The 101 tunnels on this route make the railway line an engineering masterpiece. The six-hour-long, 96 km journey on narrow gauge covers many arched bridges and several picturesque stations.
“Taking a journey on this route is the most economical way to get to Shimla. The train moves very slowly, giving one a unique opportunity to experience the majestic Himalayas and to admire the simple lifestyle of the hill folk. This is one train on which people generally stick their heads out of the windows or sit on the steps at the doorway, enjoying the fresh, misty air,” says Meghna Bhaskar, who has recently been on this train.
On July 7, 2008 the Kalka-Shimla Railway was included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
4. Matheran Light Railway
Photo Credit: Arne Hückelheim/Wikimedia
The Matheran Light Railway, which connects Neral to Matheran , was opened to traffic in March 1907. Matheran means ‘the wooded head’ or the ‘jungle topped’. The only means to get to this peaceful hill station, which was discovered in 1850, is by a little train.
This narrow gauge line takes the sharpest curves when compared to any Indian hill railway line. The view along the journey is indeed breathtaking, and the 21 km ride is covered in two hours.
5. Kangra Valley Railway
Photo Credit: GKarunakar/Wikimedia
The Kangra Valley Railway is found in Himachal Pradesh. It was opened to traffic on April 1, 1929. This line starts at Pathankot and ends at Joginder Nagar, travelling on a narrow gauge for 9 hours and 20 minutes, covering 164 km.
There are only two tunnels on this stretch, which give tourists an opportunity to enjoy the mountains and valleys without any distraction. This railway line, which is famous for its 993 bridges, connects the state with its hydroelectric power house.
All the five mountain railways of India are around a hundred years old. They are still very well maintained and are a real treat for any tourist. It falls on us now to take a break from the hectic city life and enjoy a holiday in these hill stations.