A delightful Toy Train ride to Darjeeling

You will enjoy the experience of India on the move.

Train 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Train 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
DARJEELING – For the British in India, the hill stations were an escape from the heat of the summer. Civil servants, army officers and government officials would send their wives and children to inhale the clean air and enjoy the cool climate and dramatic scenery of the mountain resorts, away from the dust and contagion of the plains. They built churches, villas and bungalows, and streets with names that recalled the “old country” – the Mall, Charing Cross, Victoria Avenue, Hill Cart Road, Whitehall. Since those days India has changed drastically, but the attractions of nature and history still draw the tourist to the hill stations.
And India Rail is the key to getting there.
Our destination was Darjeeling, a Raj-era resort in the Himalayas, established in the mid-1880s as a rest-and-recreation center for British troops, and famous for its tea plantations. We travelled from Kolkata by overnight train, having booked sleepers on the Darjeeling Mail Express. India Rail main-line trains have several classes.
Top end is AC1, the luxury first class air-conditioned sleeper in two- or four-berth compartments (lockable), with bedding and washbasin. AC2 and AC3 are next in line, offering fairly basic two- or three-tier bunk accommodation in open-plan carriages, with the bunks curtained off, bedding and small towel provided – adequate but offering little privacy and the air-conditioning can be ferocious.
For daytime travelling the bunk beds are folded away, or there are open-plan carriages with seats or benches, AC or non-AC, where you mix with local travelers.
Whichever you choose you will enjoy the experience of India on the move.
Next morning, at the New Jaipalguri Siliguri terminus we boarded the Toy Train and began the steep ascent, soaring into the Himalayan foothills. The DHR (Darjeeling Himalaya Railway) was inaugurated in 1881, a triumph of British railway engineering.
The track has a narrow gauge only two feet wide, to cope with the steep gradient rising more than 2000 meters and taking in innumerable curves, reverse sidings and loops over the 86 kilometer journey.
Some of the steam locomotives built around the turn of the century, lovingly maintained by the enthusiasts of the DHR Society, are still in use and still hauling the Toy Train’s carriages. The ride to Darjeeling remains one of India’s most beloved rail journeys, and in 1999 the DHR was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. India has two more railway World Heritage Sites: the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and the Kalka-Shimla Toy Train.
The DHR route sets off through dense forest and jungle scenery, and culminates in spectacular views of mountain ranges and hillside tea plantations. Each turn of the winding track reveals a new landscape.
Along the way road and rail follow the same route, continually crossing one another. Passing through small towns and villages, perched on the vertiginous mountainside, the railway shares the narrow space with buses, trucks, cars and bicycles, right up against the walls and doors of the village houses. The train always has right of way, and road traffic comes to a halt as the Toy Train passes.
There is plenty of time to point your camera and take it all in. The engine never goes faster than 15 kph and the journey to Darjeeling takes around seven hours. If you are in a hurry, you can get there by bus in about four hours, but you would miss out on a great experience.
Tips on rail travel in India (with acknowledgement and thanks to the Man in Seat 61) Reservations You need to make an advance reservations. Some trains can be fully booked days or even weeks in advance. However there is a quota of tickets set aside for tourists to purchase at the last minute. Your train, coach and berth number is printed on your ticket. Reservation lists for long-distance trains are posted at station notice boards about two hours before departure. When the train comes in, the lists are posted at the door of each coach. All AC class passengers have assigned reserved seats or berths. The system is computerized and very efficient, and the days are long gone when you would find your berth or seat occupied by several passengers.
However second class, unreserved, non-AC can get very crowded.
Food and Drink This being India you will, of course, be careful with what you eat and drink. Take provisions for a long-distance journey. There are no restaurant or buffet cars on India Rail trains, but attendants pass by regularly with drinks and snacks. After our sleeper night, the breakfast tray with omelette, toast and hot, strong coffee was most welcome (and very cheap). On some trains you can order a hot meal to be delivered in a tinfoil container.
When the train stops at a station, there are always vendors on the platform selling hot sweet Indian chai, cold drinks, samosa patties and sticky sweet pastries.
On the premier express trains (Delhi-Agra, Delhi- Mumbai, Delhi-Jaipur, etc.) a meal is included in the price of the ticket, and served at your seat.
Security Indian trains are safe, and families or women traveling alone are unlikely to encounter any problems. However theft of luggage is not unknown, and it’s a good idea to padlock your case or bag to the luggage rack. In the sleeping cars, there are wires hanging down underneath the seats to which you can padlock your luggage.
Toilets in AC class coaches have both Western-style and squat toilets, one at each end, usually in a reasonably sanitary condition. But don’t expect pristine Western standards anywhere in India. And always carry toilet paper.
Man in Seat 61 The indispensable guide to rail travel everywhere, the Man in Seat 61 is a railway enthusiast, a fount of reliable up-to-date information which he presents objectively and critically, and with humor. In addition to listing timetables and prices, he has some good suggestions for rail travel in India, plus detailed advice on how to purchase tickets in advance. He can be found on the Web site www.seat61.com.