UNESCO Heritage Site #99: Mountain Railways of India

The train leaves Kalka station at 5:30 am. Let’s think backwards. We are about 3 kilometers from the station, so we should get up and leave at 4:45, so that if we can’t find a rickshaw at such an early hour, at least we have enough time to walk to the station. 

Everything went according to plan which we made the night before – we got up early, got a rickshaw and were at the train station by 5:15 am. The only thing that we didn’t account for was the train. It was in the station, but it wasn’t going to leave for another three hours. Exhausted from the early wake-up, we found an ‘executive’ lounge on the platform, where for a princely fee of 20 rupees per hour, we treated ourselves to falling asleep in soft-back chairs and putting up our feet on a low table.

After few hours of napping, we decided to stretch our stiff limbs and walk back out on the platform. We boarded our train, called the Shivalik Express. There are four trains that leave Kalka for Shimla every day, and we chose ours because it served breakfast and tea on the train, and we thought that would be charming. Remember this is when we thought that the departure time would be at 5:30 am.

Due to their dimunitiveness, these type of mountain trains are often called toy trains, but I don’t think that’s either a fair or an accurate description. Narrow-gauge trains serve a real purpose in the mountainous regions, as they require much smaller turn radius and can ride on lighter rails. Of course, most people go one them because the trains ride through beautiful scenery, the train cars are increadibly charming and the entire experience harks to the older times.

Kalka-Shimla railway was built in 1891 to connect the British living in Delhi to their developing summer capital, which was the hill station Shimla. Over its 96-km course, the railway boasts 107 tunnels and 919 curves and gains over 1400 meters in elevation. The train twists and turns through lush green slopes, charming train stations (just as dimunitive as the railway itself) and numerous hill towns and villages.

The other two railways, which have been associated with this heritage site are the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (which I rode in 2014) and Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.

Practicalities:

Transportation: All mountain railways originate at train stations which could be reached by regular rail.

Time: The train journey usually takes 5-7 hours, depending on which train you take.

Cost: The tickets for the rails cost around 400-600 rupees, depending on the service and the speed of the train you select.

Extras: The journey is slow, but certainly pleasant, and as we had learnt it’s not really the type of transportation to get somewhere on time. With that in mind, sit back, eat the railway-provided breakfast and simply watch the scenery pass you by!

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