One of the most amazing engineering feats of the world, even more amazing about the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is that it is fully operational even a century after it was built
“It is the most enjoyable day I have spent on earth.” – Mark Twain, after a trip on DHR in 1896
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) connects the plains of West Bengal at New Jalpaiguri with the hill station of Darjeeling. On the way, it passes the most breathtaking scenery and climbs to a height of 7400 feet at Ghum (the highest station in India and the second highest in the world), from where glimpses of the magnificent Mt. Kanchenjunga are visible on clear days.
The history of the line goes back to 1878 when Franklin Prestage of the then Eastern Bengal Railway proposed a hill tramway of 2-foot gauge (610 mm) following the alignment of the Hill Cart Road to Darjeeling. Construction commenced the year after, the line being completed to Darjeeling in 1881. The legal and financial affairs of the company were put in the hands of managing agents and the reputable firm of Messrs Gillanders Arbuthnot and Co. of Calcutta were engaged.
Before the railway was built, a first-class road 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 extended full 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 cart-road, about forty miles long, some 25 feet wide, and metalled throughout, was used by pack ponies, pack bullocks, bullock carts and pony tongas. The construction of the railway considerably reduced the cost of fares and transport, and made the benefits of a “hill climate” available to the less affluent European who worked and lived on the plains of Bengal.
It is at Siliguri that the DHR begins its remarkable journey to Darjeeling. The summit at Ghoom, 47 miles from Siliguri, has an altitude of 7,407 feet. As the line had to rise over 7,000 feet in less than 50 miles, steep gradients and sharp curves were un-avoidable. The surveyors plotted banks ranging from 1 in 19 to 1 in 36 and curves of 50 feet radius. Later, however, these were reduced, the sharpest curve being 69 feet, 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 adhesionon the narrow gauge of two feet 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 Sukna 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 Mahanadi 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 Sukna. 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 begins. 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 bamboos and screw pines, the train reaches the first spiral, or loop.
Soon after Rungtong station the line turns nearly south onto a long spur where another spiral is encountered. This spiral begins just before the fourteenth mile-post, and is one of the most complicated and interesting pieces of engineering on the railway.
From Rungtong the line has to ascend to Tindharia station (2,822 ft.) in less than eight miles, the average gradient for this section being a little over 1 in 28. To overcome a sudden rise of 137 ft., there is practically a double loop, the outstanding feature of which is a sharp curvature introduced to fit the alignment to the situation. This second loop is a fine feat of engineering.
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 12th 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-aligning 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.
Soon after Rungtong station the line turns nearly south onto a long spur where another spiral is encountered. This spiral begins just before the fourteenth mile-post, and is one of the most complicated and interesting pieces of engineering on the railway. From Rungtong the line has to ascend to Tindharia station (2,822 ft.) in less than eight miles, the average gradient for this section being a little over 1 in 28. To overcome a sudden rise of 137 ft.
There is practically a double loop, the outstanding feature of which is a sharp curvature introduced to fit the alignment to the situation. This second loop is a fine feat of engineering.
The track, now returning northwards and eastwards for a short distance, runs along the old road, but gradually passes below it, until the third loop is reached at the sixteenth mile-post. Fine views are afforded of the valley below, the Bhutan Range to the east, and the adjacent hills and valleys. In the plains to the south-east the Teesta River can be seen, with an island called Tiger Island, because three tigers were once shot during a “beat” there. The river has its source in the Tibetan Lake Chalamu, which is 17,000 ft. above sea level, and about seventy-four miles north-east of Darjeeling.
At the eighteenth mile the terrain presented such difficulties that a spiral is impracticable, therefore a reverse is adopted. At an altitude of 2,438 ft., the line, climbing at 1 in 28, enters a curve of 800 ft. radius, followed by one of 400 ft. radius, and reaches a dead-end at 2,473 ft. It then backs up a second leg, rising at 1 in 33 round curves of 400 ft. and 200 ft. radius respectively, to a second dead-end at 2,501 ft. Another climb at 1 in 28 around a curve of 400 ft. radius brings the train to 2,536 ft., so that by means of the reverse or zigzag a total vertical lift of 98 ft. is accomplished.
Tindharia station is where the railway workshop is located. In the section of just under four miles between Tindharia and Gyabari stations the heaviest average gradient, 1 in 28 has to be faced. After a zigzag outside Tindharia station comes the fourth and final loop. This is generally regarded as the most sensational spot on the line, and is called “Agony Point”.
It represents the ascent of another of the conical spurs which are common in the locality. Originally there was so little room that on the upper part of the loop a curve of 59 ft. radius had to be described, the train practically overhanging the hillside at this point, but improvements were carried out later and the curve was somewhat eased.
The train passes Agony Point and proceeds, encountering another zigzag just before Gyabari station, which stands at an altitude of 3,516 feet. Just beyond it the fourth and last zigzag is negotiated and the gradient becomes slightly easier—1 in 32 for the succeeding four miles to Mahanuddy, 4,120 ft. above sea-level and 27 miles from Siliguri.
In the gorges below, it is said that a Nepalese head-man in charge of the men working on the road to Darjeeling shot a large Himalayan bear. As he had no lead for bullets, he used copper coins.
A stream called the “Mad Torrent” marks the half-way distance to Darjeeling. At the twenty-seventh mile the train passes a precipitous rock-face where the road was blasted out, in some places, for a depth of 50 ft. Near Mahanuddy station is a waterfall with a drop of 150 ft., which is the source of the Mahanuddy River.The gradient eases to about 1 in 32, and the train proceeds westwards towards Kurseong station, at an altitude of 4,864 ft. Before the station is reached some bluff rocks are passed. The town is of some importance,and has a considerable trade.
After leaving Kurseong the grade stiffens slightly to 1 in 31 to Toong station, a distance of about five miles. After Toong the gradient increases to a little over 1 in 29 for the five miles to Sonada, 6,552 ft. above the sea and forty-one miles from Siliguri. Then comes the easiest section of the mountain climb, about six miles long, to Ghoom, the summit, which is 7,407 ft. above sea-level, and forty-seven miles from Siliguri. The gradient eases to about 1 in 37, and the line passes through magnificent forests.
It is now only about four miles to Darjeeling, the altitude of which is 6812 ft; but on this section the steepest short gradient is found, the descent being made at an average of 1 in 31, but with a short bank of about three-quarters of a mile at approximately 1 in 23. At last when one reaches Darjeeling after thirteen and a half hours of journey, it’s like an experience of a lifetime.