The Best Train Set In The World?

The “Toy Train” was the first to be built of its kind, and is still considered today to be ‘the most outstanding example of a hill passenger railway’ in the world.

The Darjeeling train takes a break half way round its circuit

As we hurtled round the bends in our shared Jeep, we noticed the narrow gauge railway line criss-crossing the road. With weeds and grass growing between the tracks, and children and animals playing or sitting on the lines, it looked disused. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway takes a bum-numbing seven hours to wind 88 kilometres up from Siliguri, often sharing its route with the road. Nowadays it’s quicker and easier to make the journey by car.

In early nineteenth century India, ladies of the British Raj gently glowed in layers of silk and cotton chintz, and red-faced men wearing starched high collars or stiff uniforms huffed and puffed their way through Calcutta’s sweltering jungle. Life expectancy was short and living conditions, even for the wealthy, were unbearable during the hottest months. In 1829, the discovery of Dorje Ling (literally: land of thunder) by army officers sparked the plan to turn the area into a place for the weary military to enjoy a little rest and recreation, away from the hardships on the plains of India.

The first road was built from Siliguri in the 1840s, and as the settlement expanded the British Raj’s energetic pioneers began to make their homes in the pleasant mountains, bringing their idiosyncratic Victorian tastes with them. Dr Campbell sowed the first tea seeds here in 1841, beginning Darjeeling’s journey towards the internationally renowned tea centre it has become today.

A reminder of the view across Darjeeling with Kanchenjunga Massif in the background

The guide book advised us to book our tickets for the ‘Toy Train’ in advance, so as soon as we dropped off our bags at the Dekeling Hotel, we hurried through the town’s steep lanes to catch the ticket counter at the station before it closed. Despite a number of hand-written signs around the small station, no-one admitted to knowing anything about the advertised ‘joy ride’ by steam engine. We were asked to come back the next day. This was our second visit to Darjeeling and I was determined to ride the train, partly because train travel is one of my favourite things, but mostly because my Dad had been one of the ICOCMOS advisers who recommended the railway line for world heritage status back in the 1990s.

In the nineteenth century Darjeeling rapidly became a retreat for the rich to escape the heat and dust of pre-monsoon Bengal. On horseback, or in carriages, members of the British Raj endured a 2,000 metre climb upwards to the ‘Queen of Hills’, where they were rewarded with spectacular views of the Kanchenjunga massif, crisp clean air, and a more familiar climate to the raging heat of the plains.

The next day we queued up at the ticket counter. There were no officials in evidence, but plenty of tourists and passengers milling about. The ‘Joy Ride’ is a return journey to Ghum, via the Batasia Loop (from where, we were assured, the best panoramic views of Khanchenjunga can be seen). After a game of choosing a queue, jumping from window to window, being told we couldn’t get tickets for the same day, then being told we could, then being left to stand around at the window while the counter clerk went off for a cuppa with his cronies, then Jamie frog-marching him back, then being handed our tickets, we finally clambered aboard.

The first-class carriage, an interpretation of what it might have looked like in its heyday, was filled with seats that seemed to have been reclaimed from an old aeroplane. Still, at least they were from Business Class. The windows were enormous, giving us close up views of the mountain terrain on one side and the valley on the other.

Those early passengers would have sat buttoned up in the Victorian splendour of its ornate carriages, as the train wound its way round loops, and through zig zags, in a relentless uphill journey from the plains. Ours was just a short hop to the next peak, but the ancient steam engine blasted, grunted, chugged and hooted its way along the track, belching and groaning as it climbed ever higher.

The sound of the hissing steam and shrill horn transported me to Britain in the 50s, The Railway Children, Murder on the Orient Express, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, the railways that built America, George Stevenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Sometimes we were so close to the shops hewn out of the rock along Hill Cart Road I could have easily removed a speck of dust from the eye of a passing housewife, or handed a letter to a family of children.

Men and women sitting on doorsteps glanced at the excitable passengers waving from the train, and children playing in the tracks lazily got out of the way as we slowly chuff-chuffed past. Occasionally the locals would point and wave back at us. We stopped at Batasia where we were suitably humbled by the memorial to the Gorkha soldier. The promised view across the valley to Kanchenjunga was fine, but not that much better than earlier glimpses along the way.

Arrival in Ghum

When we arrived in Ghoom it was swathed in its usual blanket of cloud, illustrating the reason for its nickname of “Gloom”. Confusingly the station name boards variously declared we were in Ghum or Ghoom (but since we currently live in Kochi/Cochin, have visited Mumbai/Bombay, and had just arrived from Kolkata/Calcutta, I shouldn’t have been surprised).

Chucked against the mountainside, the town’s houses crowded together along the road, and huddled against the cloud. While the little black engine was being fed and watered by its permanently grimy driver and guard, we strolled through the small railway museum, and learnt all about the history of the mountain railway system. When they were happy with the train’s health we all piled back into the airy carriage and with another surge of steam, hoots, hisses and chug-a-lugs left Ghum, Ghoom or Gloom.

The return journey gave us a different vantage point across the mountains as we slowly made our way back to Darjeeling, where a nice cup of tea waited for us. Or maybe it was a nice glass of Bombay Sapphire and India tonic water.

Here’s to your very good health.

Here’s a little slideshow of our Darjeeling train related images. Click on it to start and then go full screen.

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