Taking a Narrow Gauge Train to Darjeeling, India

The rail meanders from the left to the right side of the road (©Coen Wubbels)

It’s still dark when we walk downhill to the train station. Although the train will only leave at seven, we have been advised to arrive an hour early, as there are few seats.

The Sikkim narrow gauge diesel train runs all the way up from the town of New Jalpaiguri on the plains of Siliguri to Darjeeling (55 miles) a trip that takes 8 hours. However, we have opted for the 19-mile return trip from Kuensong to Darjeeling.

A whistle announces the departure of our bright-blue diesel train, which consists of a locomotive and two compartments for passengers, each with twelve seats. At six-thirty, all seats are occupied.

Zigzag Reverses and Loops

Every once in a while we get a glimpse of the mountains (©Coen Wubbels)

Slowly the train is set in motion, the whistle blowing fiercely to announce its arrival to pedestrians and other traffic on the road; there are no protected railroad crossings. The train continuously criss-crosses the road, causing a constant movement in which we’re gently swaying from left to right.

By crossing the road so often, the train stays along the outer curve of the mountain as we climb, up to the town of Darjeeling at an altitude of 6561 foot. Where there is no space for a curb, the track has been niftily constructed with a zigzag reverse or a loop to get the train higher into the mountains.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You admire engineering feats and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway most certainly is one of those.
  • You love riding on diesel trains and/or steam trains.
  • You like to tick off UNESCO World Heritage Sites (1999).
  • Good for anybody who enjoys a train ride or who likes to feel what it is like to sit in a Toy Train, or Joy Train as the diesel and steam train are nicknamed.

The Construction of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Apart from the diesel train there’s also a steam train still running (©Coen Wubbels)

In the beginning of the 19th century the British started cultivating tea in the cool hills around Darjeeling, which would become one of the world’s important tea centers. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) opened in 1881 when the British wanted to expand the area where their tea was grown.

Constructing a two-foot-wide gauge track through mountains with steep climbs up to 7408 feet is no small feat, not to mention that the region is annually tormented by heavy rainfall. Maintenance is a continuous process and you have to check on arrival if the entire stretch is indeed intact. The highest point is at Ghoom, which is the second highest railway station in the world.

The DHR Remains a Novelty

Locals daily watch the train pass by (©Coen Wubbels)

Darkness has lifted, but now our scenery consists of a thick mist hanging among the Darjeeling hills. There must be hills covered with Himalayan pine and tea plantations, but we see little of it.

Only in the villages along the way do we get a glimpse of local life. People live in well-maintained houses, brightly painted and even more colorful because of an abundance of flowers in the windows and in front of their houses.

You’d think this is the first time the train passes through these villages. A large number of people are standing outside, women often with a young child on their arm, and they just watch the train chugging by. At the sound of the whistle, young boys ready themselves for their daily exercise: running alongside the train – which averages a speed of 4.3 miles per hour – jumping on the running board hitching a ride for a bit and jumping off again.

We’re reaching Darjeeling (©Coen Wubbels)

Higher and higher it goes, curving around the mountains, its squeaking and groaning betraying a long, hard-working life. I like the idea that despite all modern inventions of faster cars, fancier motorcycles, and what have you, this more than 100-year old means of transportation is still appreciated and part of daily life. Forever the whistle is blowing, to remind modern means of traffic that despite its low speed, an oldie but goodie continues to have right of way.

Practicalities

  • There are flight connections to Darjeeling from Siliguri, Kolkata and Delhi. You could take the train up from Siliguri and fly back, for example. Other means of transport between Siliguri and Darjeeling are the local bus, taxi, or rent a car (and driver) in either city.
  • From Kuensong to Darjeeling was an excellent return trip for one day, with enough hours in between to do some sightseeing in Darjeeling (tips: market, Bhutia Busta Gompa). We opted to walk the 8 kms from Darjeeling down to Ghoom and boarded the train there for our return.
  • For fans of steam trains, there is a daily steam train running between Ghoom and Darjeeling.
  • In Ghoom there is an informative museum on the first floor of the station building.
  • Latest info from the DHRS organization: the railway line is currently under repair and the full DHR route should be operating again by the end of 2013. For updates on this, plus practical info on departure times and such, check out the DHRS website.

 

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