The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is one of the engineering feats of the world. Although the steepness of the gradients on this narrow-gauge line is eclipsed in other parts of the world, and the 7,407 ft. altitude of the summit at Ghoom station is less than half the height of some of the summits in the Andes, the achievement of the engineers who built the line more than half a century ago is a noteworthy one in the history of railways.
This little railway has a gauge of 2 ft. and a length of fifty-one miles, with steep gradients and amazing loops. It climbs from the plains, which are most oppressive in the hot weather to the coolness of the “hills,” as the British residents in India call the lower slopes of the Himalayas on which are situated the towns, or “stations,” to which they go periodically to preserve their health.
It is at Siliguri that the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway begins its remarkable journey to Darjeeling. Before the railway was built, a first-class road, built by the Government at a cost of £6,000 a mile, wound upwards to Darjeeling. In March, 1878, a scheme for the construction of the railway was drawn up, and estimates and plans were submitted to the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, who gave it his support. The money for the enterprise was subscribed almost entirely in India. The Government undertook to maintain the cart-road, the route of which was to be followed by the railway, and guaranteed that the gross receipts of the railway should not fall below a certain figure.
The building of the railway aroused great interest in India. Work began in May, 1879, and in March, 1880, the Viceroy of India, Lord Lytton, travelled on a train as far as the eighteenth mile, which was then the limit of the line. In the following August the line was opened for passenger and goods traffic as far as Kurseong, 4,864 ft. above the sea and thirty-two miles from Siliguri. In July, 1881, the line was opened throughout to Darjeeling station.
Siliguri lies 398 ft. above sea-level. The summit at Ghoom, forty-seven miles from Siliguri, has an altitude of 7,407 ft., that of Darjeeling being 6,812 ft. As the line had to rise over 7,000 ft. in less than fifty miles, steep gradients and sharp curves were unavoidable. The surveyors plotted banks ranging from 1 in 19 to 1 in 36 and curves of 50 ft. radius. Later, however, these were reduced, the sharpest curve being 69 ft., the steepest short gradient being 1 in 23, and the steepest average gradient about 1 in 29.
The fact that it was decided to work the line by adhesion on the narrow gauge of 2 ft. restricted the weight of the trains, but there is nothing of a “toy railway” about the construction of the line or about the amount of passenger and goods traffic, that it carries. Steel rails weighing 41 lb. per yard were laid on wooden sleepers.
For the first seven miles from Siliguri station the gradient was easy, the ascent to Sookna station (533 ft.) being at 1 in 281. The heaviest piece of work in this section was the erection of a steel bridge, 700 ft. long, in seven 100 ft. spans, across the Mahanuddy River. This river has its source in the line of mountains ahead of the traveller known as the Mahaldirum Range, with an altitude of about 7,000 ft. The river at this point forms a boundary between the Terai, the jungle tract at the foot of the Himalayas, and the district of Julpaiguri. It is a tributary of the Ganges. The train passes streams and tea gardens on the way to Sookna. When the jungle was being cleared the area was fatal to many Europeans, a number of whom died from fever.
It is at Sookna that the real ascent begin. After passing the ninth mile-post, the train encounters the first sharp curves. Then a fine view opens out to the south, displaying a vast horizon, and the passenger notices how rapidly he is rising above the plain. Passing through giant bamboo’s and screwpines, the train reaches the first spiral, or loop. The engineers had to conquer an altitude of 871 ft. in the four and three-quarter miles from Sookna to Rungtong station (1,404 ft.), which is at the twelfth mile. Four and a half miles from Sookna the sudden ascent made a spiral unavoidable. The track described a sharp spiral through a deep cutting to gain the higher level. Four years or so after this had been constructed the rains of 1883 caused a slip of rocks and earth which fell into the cutting, completely filling it. This misfortune was turned to good account. The engineers had discussed re-alining the section to reduce the
gradient, and when the landslip compelled them to repair the line they eased the gradient, making a new track some distance below the original road.
A World Heritage Site:
The wake up call came and recently UNESCO declared DHR as a World Heritage Site. The world heritage site status puts DHR in the same exalted league as the hermitage in St. Petersburg, our very own Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, Hampi in South India and other such man-made marvels. A heritage site is one that is worthy of preservation and a legacy that is worth bequeathing to posterity. After simmering in the Austrian Alps, DHR is the second railway system in the world to be accorded the World Heritage status.
Bringing Darjeeling On Tourist Map:
Earlier, the very same DHR had put Darjeeling on the world tea map. If the exquisitely flavoured premium Darjeling tea is sipped in the fashionable salons of Paris today, then it is DHR that has played a small role in making this happen. In its earlier avatars of open carriages, it had ferried tea from the misty slopes to the railheads on the plains to be transshipped to faraway destinations. There is an enchanting sepia tinted photograph of the DHR ferrying wooden tea chests down the hill in the Chum museum, which has just opened. It houses other exquisite DHR memorabilia such as the signaling lanterns in use since the 19th century, whistles, plaques and badges and some priceless old photographs.