Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, World Heritage Site

Darjeeling Hill Railway under Construction on One of the Loops of the Railway, Probably at Rangtong---1879
Darjeeling Hill Railway under Construction on One of the Loops of the Railway, Probably at Rangtong—1879

Constructed by the British in 1879, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) is one of the most magnificent world heritage sites of all time. Also known as the Toy train or Joy Ride, DHR runs between Darjeeling and New Jalpaiguri (NJP) in West Bengal, India. Operating at a narrow gauge of 2 ft, the DHR railway lines are stretched like ribbons over the steep hills providing tourists with the awe-striking beauty of the mountains. The pace of the train is so slow that you can often see locals and school children hopping on and off the train. The intangible heritage is all about sheer engineering and creative skills transmitted from generation to generation, providing locals with a sense of identity, belonging, and pride.

Built between 1879 and 1881, the narrow gauge is 2 feet (610 mm) wide and about 88 km long. The elevation level varies from 328 feet in New Jalpaiguri to 6821 feet in Darjeeling with its highest of 7407 feet in Ghum.

The Tech that Runs the Mountain Railways

The track loop: trains climbed up to Darjeeling, then turned around and headed back down; an albumen print, c.1870; *another view of the Darjeeling track loop, c.1880's*; *another Darjeeling railway scene, c.1890's
The track loop: trains climbed up to Darjeeling, then turned around and headed back down; an albumen print, c.1870; *another view of the Darjeeling track loop, c.1880’s*; *another Darjeeling railway scene, c.1890’s

The engineers used innovative technologies allowing DHR to be constructed without the use of heavy engineering works like tunnels and bridges. Engineers relied on adhesion, loop techniques where the train gains height by looping around a spiral similar to a spiral staircase and Z-reverse technology where the train moves backward and forward in order to overcome the difficulties of the terrain. There are about 6 Z-reverse and three loops, of which Batasia Loop near Darjeeling is the most famous. DHR also uses steam locomotive features which allows it to take over a sharp radius with ease.

DHR runs on both steam and diesel locomotives. All steam locomotives currently in use are of vintage ‘B-class’ designed by Sharp, Stewart, and Company and later by North British Locomotive Company between 1889 and 1925. Out of the 34 steam locomotives built, only 12 are in use or under repair.

In 2002, a diesel-powered generator and compressor were fitted to operate the toy train. Four modern diesel locomotives handle most of the scheduled services; however, the daily Kurseong – Darjeeling daily and tourist services are handled by the vintage British-built B Class steam locomotives. The headquarters of the railway is in Kurseong, placed between Darjeeling and Siliguri.

The daily service between Siliguri and Kurseong was temporarily stopped due to a massive landslide at Pagla Jhora (near Kurseong) and another near Tindharia in 2011. However, the daily service between New Jalpaiguri (NJP) and Darjeeling resumed service from December 2, 2011.

The Origin Story of the ‘Toy Train’

DHR is the very first hill railway in India and one of the first in the world. Established in 1881 by the British, to connect the two districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri, the ‘Joy Ride’ is still operational and retains the original features and value to date.

 Darjeeling Railway Station 1920s
Darjeeling Railway Station 1920s

When the settlement at Darjeeling began in 1828, it was separated from Sikkim by 1835 for establishing a Sanatorium for the East India Company. The pleasant climate and extensive tea plantation became a well-known settlement and tea trading hub for the British. Soon a new transportation system was required due to increased traffic by people and commodities.

Tonga Services connected Siliguri to Darjeeling via. the cart road (presently the Hill Cart Road).

As the route was very difficult due to the steep slopes, Franklin Prestage, an agent of the Eastern Bengal Railway Company, laid a proposal to construct a stream tramway connecting Siliguri to Darjeeling. A committee was formed under Lieutenant-Governor Sir Ashley Eden to access the feasibility of the project. The proposal was soon accepted in 1879 and construction started the same year.

The project was handed over to Gillanders Arbuthnot & Company. In 1880, the railway line was extended up to Tindharia. By 23 August 1880, the stretch from Siliguri to Kurseong was opened. The inauguration of the Siliguri – Darjeeling railway line in 1881 promptly changed the name of the company to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Company.

The Evolution of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Toy train on the way to Darjeeling, below St. Alphonsus School in Kurseong
Toy train on the way to Darjeeling, below St. Alphonsus School in Kurseong

Initially, the alignment of the railway line followed the Cart Road, but due to the steepness of the slopes, four loops and four zig-zag reverses were added between Sukna and Gayabari in 1882. The railway line was extended to Darjeeling Bazaar in 1886.

Darjeeling station was renovated in 1891 and Kurseong station and storage shed was constructed in 1896. Between 1909 – 1915, the DHR lines were extended up to Geilkhola, and railway works were relocated to a new and extensive site in Tindharia. The famous Batasia loop near Darjeeling was constructed in 1919 for easing the gradients.

After the Independence of India in 1947, DHR was purchased by the Indian Government and was under the Indian Government Railways Organisation, under the management of the Assam Railways Organisation. Assam Railways (including DHR) became a part of the North Eastern Railway Zone in 1952. The railway line was realigned at Siliguri and extended up to New Jalpaiguri (NJP) in 1962. The loco shed and carriage depot was relocated from Siliguri junction to New Jalpaiguri (NJP).

From 1988-1989, DHR was shut down for 18 months because of the Gorkhaland Movement.

Acknowledgment as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

UNESCO declared DHR as the 2nd World Heritage Site in 1999, the first being Semmering Railway of Austria. DHR is a work of brilliance, having cultural and social importance to the people of Darjeeling. DHR is one of the outcomes of the industrial revolution, based on its unique features and posterity. National Rail Museum (India) submitted a proposal to UNESCO on 29th June 1998 for considering the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) as a World Heritage Site.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway "JOY RIDE"
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway “JOY RIDE” 

In order to become a World Heritage Site, a set of criterion expressed in the UNESCO World Heritage Convention and its corresponding Operational Guidelines have to be fulfilled. The site must be of universal value fulfilling at least one of the ten criterion. Protection, management, authenticity, and integrity of the site have to be considered.

DHR is an example of an innovative transportation system with outstanding engineering skills. The DHR influences the social, cultural and economic development in many parts of the world. Fulfilling the criterion of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee inscribed the ‘Toy Train’ as a World Heritage Site on 2 December 1999.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is one of the most loved tourist destinations of all time. The steep curvy railway tracks leading tourists with jaw-dropping views of the mighty Kanchenjunga to the steep evergreen hills with river streams, cute houses, and tea gardens. Darjeeling has only changed a little since its construction.

The Joy Ride of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Earl of Ronaldshay beautifully expressed his experience in the 1920s as:

“Siliguri is palpably a place of meeting… The discovery that here the meter gauge system ends and the two-foot gauge of the Darjeeling-Himalayan Railway begins confirms what all these things hint at… One step into the railway carriage which might be easily mistaken for a toy and the whimsical idea seizes hold of one of that one has accidentally stumbled into Lilliput.

With a noisy fuss out of all proportion to its size the engine gives a jerk – and starts… No special mechanical device such as a rack is employed – unless, indeed, one can so describe the squat and stolid hill-man who sits perched over the forward buffers of the engine and scatters sand on the rails when the wheels of the engine lose their grip of the metals and race, with a noise of the giant spring running down when the control has been removed.

Sometimes we cross our own track after completing a circuit of a cone, at others we zig-zag backward and forward; but always we climb at a steady gradient – so steady that if one embarks in a trolley at Ghum, the highest point on the line, the initial push supplies all the energy necessary to carry one to the bottom.

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