Saturday, April 21, 2001

A fairy-tale journey on ‘toy trains’
By A.S.Prashar

TRAVELLING by road is not the only the means of traversing the beautiful hills of Himachal Pradesh. Some of the most breathtaking views are available as one travels by train through the mountains of Himachal.

The Kalka-Shimla track was opened for public in 1906Himachal Pradesh has two narrow gauge rail tracks — Kalka-Shimla and Pathankot-Jogindernagar. Mini trains, popularly called "toy trains" by the tourists, run on both these lines.

Travelling on these trains can be a thrilling experience as one crosses numerous tunnels and bridges on the way. There are approximately 20 vintage "toy trains" or mini mountain trains left in the world and India has five of these, including three Himalayan trains. Of the three, Himachal Pradesh has two of them. These trains give credence to the fact that tracks can be laid in a manner that they not out of harmony with the beauty around them.


The Kalka-Shimla track has been recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records as "The greatest narrow gauge engineering feat in India". The construction of 103 tunnels, covering five miles, and more than 800 bridges in three years, rough and hostile terrain notwithstanding, were works involving great engineering skill.

The rail track in Kangra valley too has been laid without destroying the beauty and grandeur of the mountains and valleys. It shows some of the finest bridgework ever done in this country.

This observation has been corroborated by Paul Theoux in his famous book The Great Railway Bazar (of the Kalka-Shimla Rail): "The Railway which was opened in 1904 is cut directly into the hill side and line above is notched like the skidway on Toboggan run, circling the hills".

The track in the Kangra valley passes over more than 950 bridges An interesting feature of the Kalka-Shimla track is the almost complete absence of girder bridges. Multi-arched galleries like the ancient Roman aqueducts have been used for carrying the line over the ravines between the hill spurs. This train meanders through 103 tunnels and 969 bridges, with picturesque stations dotting the hill side. The quaint Barog station comes as a welcome halt for breakfast.

The track in Kangra valley was opened for traffic on April 1, 1929. There are more than 950 bridges and two tunnels on this line. The traveller gets to see beautiful snow-clad mountains and gold-green fields. As Palampur approaches, the snow ranges seem to draw so near that one feels one can almost touch them.

The 96-km journey by train from Kalka to Shimla is simply panoramic. The track, considered a technological marvel, has 919 curves (68 km), and passes through 20 railway stations and five level crossings. This one of the most unique railway tracks of the world. Railway chronicles show it as the most surveyed project. It is said that that a correspondent of Delhi Gazette had first sketched this railway line in November, 1847, almost half a century before it was actually constructed. The project was revived in 1885 but nothing came of it. Another project report was prepared in 1887 but that too was not followed by the construction work. Finally, a survey of the track in 1895 paved way for the signing the construction contract on June 29, 1898.

Though the work on the Kalka-Shimla route was completed on November 2, 1903, it was opened for the general public on January 1, 1906. The track is a living tribute to the engineers who dared to bore 107 tunnels, of which 103 are still in use. The longest tunnel at Barog, traversed in three minutes by the ‘toy trains’, has an interesting story behind it.

The Barog station is named after an engineer called Barog who sacrificed his life there. Just one km off the station, lies a forlorn tunnel and the grave of this engineer, who tried to construct this tunnel but failed to align both sides.The wastage of a huge amount of public money made him embrace death. Had the tunnel been aligned properly, it would have the longest railway tunnel in the world. Then the track would not have been running through Solan and Salogra.

Another noteworthy feature of this track is its age-old communication system, which is still in vogue. The telephones being used by the stations are both block phones and those under the control phone system; the former establish link between two stations while the latter are used to be in touch with other important stations. The lanterns that were used to stop and give green signals to the trains during the British regime, are still in operation.