Saturday, November 8, 2003

100 years of pine-scented travel

The Kalka-Shimla rail route, which completes 100 years tomorrow, offers the charm of old-world travel amidst lofty pines and lush green, misty mountains. As Northern Railway prepares to celebrate the first centenary of this extraordinary engineering feat of the early mechanical age, the romance of the Kalka-Shimla rail route continues, writes Ruchika M. Khanna

The scenic Barog railway station
The scenic Barog railway station

THE Kalka-Shimla rail route, which completes 100 years on November 9, offers the charm of old-world travel amidst lofty pines and lush green, misty mountains. This is one of the four narrow gauge rail routes on hill terrain in the country, the other three being the Darjeeling, Ooty and Pathankot-Jogindernagar routes. In fact, the Darjeeling route was used as a model for the Kalka-Shimla route, which was proposed in 1891.

Started during the reign of Lord Curzon in November 1903, mainly to ferry the Bada Sahibs and their families to the then summer capital of Shimla, this rail route features in the Guinness Book of World Records for offering the steepest rise in altitude in the space of 96 kilometers. More than two-thirds of the track is curved, sometimes at angles as sharp as 48 degrees.

The rail journey

Flanked by hills on both sides, the rail line, like twin threads of silver, clings to the steep cliffs and ventures boldly over bridges, built over tiny streams that show off their radiance in the sunlight. The cool breeze sweeps across your face as the train makes an arduous climb of almost 4800 feet from Kalka to Shimla in almost five hours.

The rail line begins its climb almost immediately after its departure from the Kalka railway station. The toy train chugs along the line, whistling through the deodar, pine, ficus, oak and maple woods at a speed of 22 km an hour. As the journey begins, one is taken in with the change in vegetation, and the majestic glory of the railway stations and Gothic-style bridges en route. The most refreshing part of the journey is the experience of sitting by the window, breathing in the cool breeze and taking in the greenery, smell of fresh dew on the vegetation, the chirping of birds and the sight of cattle grazing around the track, especially if you are travelling in either of the two early morning toy trains.

Ancient wall clocks can be seen at many stations
Ancient wall clocks can be seen at many stations.

Neals Token Instrument, a communication and track control system dating back to the early 20th century, is still functional
Neals Token Instrument, a communication and track control system dating back to the early 20th century, is still functional.

Bridges along the Kalka-Shimla rail route may soon be declared World Heritage sites
Bridges along the Kalka-Shimla rail route may soon be declared World Heritage sites. Photos by Pankaj Sharma

Most of these railway stations on the route are will also mark 100 years of their existence. Painted in white and blue, these railway stations built in the Gothic style take you back in time. Their picturesque location, names of most of the 18 stations and their history Taksal (where most of the kings of the era had their mint), Koti, Barog keeps you busy en route. The awed traveller is also forced to think about the splendid engineering and architecture of these railway stations, built in the early days of the mechanical period. The Barog railway station has, for instance, been constructed in such a way that a kuhl is running beneath the building.

The memorabilia of the Raj can be found at most of these stations. Wall clocks, which have to be wound with a key, of SW Benson 1903 make, still adorn the walls of Station Masters of the Summer Hill and Barog railway stations. Though these clocks are now defunct, they still find a place of pride because of their nostalgic value. Similarly, semi-porcelain hand-painted crockery, also made in England, and some furniture (dressing table, chairs) have also been well preserved at the Barog Railway Station. This crockery an incomplete tea set, rice plates, jugs etc. have been kept under lock and key as exhibits and are seldom used.

Even as the world has moved into the computer age, ancient systems still work here. Ancient communication and track control system, called Neals Token Instrument System, is still in use on this rail section. Block phones are also used to establish links between two stations. Lanterns, like the ones used in the last century, are still being used to signal the trains to stop or move.

The first main station is at Dharampur, at a height of 4,900 feet and at a distance of 20 miles from Kalka. The gradient here is very steep, and in order to achieve the flatter gradients required by the Railways, the line develops into three loops at Taksal, Gumman and Dharampur. After leaving Dharampur, the rail line gains on the road route by taking short cuts and tunnels so that up to Tara Devi, the distance by rail from Kalka is almost one-fourth mile less than the distance by road.

Twentyfour miles from Kalka, the railway line is 5,200 feet above sea, where it falls to 4,900 feet at Solan, and further to 4,667 feet at Kandaghat (36-and-a half miles from Kalka), where the final ascent to Shimla starts. From Tara Devi, the rail line goes round the Prospect Hill to Jatogh, winding in a series of curves round Summer Hill and burrows under the Inverarm Hill to emerge below the road on the south side of Inverarm, and thus reaches Shimla.

Interestingly, all the 18 stations on this route are located next to bridges. These railway stations were built here for the benefit of the labour employed for constructing the bridges, which could take rest here. Some of these stations have now been abandoned because they were financially unviable. Though many of the small stations have a sale of less than Rs 500 a month, only a few, like Jabli, have been abandoned. Others like Koti, which have a sale of less than Rs 100 a month, cannot be closed because of their operational importance, inform railway officials.

One of the most interesting features of the Kalka-Shimla route is the absence of girder bridges. There is only one 60-foot plate girder span in a pinewood near Dharampur and a steel trestle viaduct, which replaced a stone gallery in 1935. The remaining 866 bridges, representing three per cent of the line, carry the rail track over the ravines and between the hill spurs.

Multi-arched galleries like ancient Roman aqueducts have been used to take the tracks over the difficult terrain, which would otherwise have been difficult to cover. These stone masonary arched bridges, which use lime stone, have as many as four storeys, each storey having an arch and each arch having a different configuration. In fact, the Railway authorities are now making efforts to get the UNESCO to declare three of these bridges Bridge No 541 (between Kandaghat and Kanoh), Bridge No 226 (between Sanwara and Dharampur), and Bridge No 493 (near Kanoh) as World Heritage sites.

Informs Keshav Chandra, the Divisional Railway Manager, Northern Railway, Ambala Division, "Other than this, we are also making efforts for declaring the Shimla railway station and two rest houses at the Shimla railway station the Crow Brough Rest House (built in 1921) and Wood Bank Rest House (built in 1920) as World Heritage structures."

Most of the 102 tunnels (the 1930s renumbering, with numbers going up to 103, has not been changed till date though tunnel number 46 does not exist any more) too have a history of their own. An interesting feature about these tunnels is that till today, whenever these tunnels have to be illuminated for maintenance, plain mirrors are used to catch the sunlight and reflect this light inside the tunnel.

Gone are the days of travelling in the rickety coaches with wooden berths. In their place stand freshly painted coaches which provide the comfort of chair cars. Another coach, Shivalik Queen, provides privacy in the form of coupes. For those looking for royal luxury, the Railways provides Shivalik Palace, a separate luxurious compartment with beautiful interiors, provision of sleepers and comfortable sofas for relaxing. This also has a well-equipped kitchen and an attendant to serve foods and drinks, along with an attached bathroom. The other option for tourists is to take the rail car which takes lesser time than regular trains to reach Shimla.

How the rail route was built

It was in 1816 that the British government retained a part of the hill on which Shimla now stands after the close of the Gurkha War. The British established a cantonment at Sabathu and raised the First Nasiri Battalion. Capt. Ross, its commandant, constructed for himself a log hut with a thatched roof, which marked the beginning of Shimla.

Capt. Charles Pratt Kennedy of Bengal Artillery succeeded Ross in 1821, and built a far more pretentious house, which was the first permanent house of the township. Shortly after his appointment, he was entrusted with the control of local matters in the hills and designated as the Deputy Superintendent of Sikh and Hill Affairs. In 1827, Lord Amherst, the Governor-General of India, spent the summer at Shimla and found the place to his liking. It was under his successor, Lord William Bentinck, that Shimla became the summer headquarters of the government of India.

However, the journey from the plains to Shimla was cumbersome. The first major achievement in this direction was the opening of the Grand Hindostan and Tibet Road in 1856. Earlier, the mode of travel to the hills was by jampans (sedan chair fitted with curtains and slung on poles borne by bearers at an even trot) for women, and men usually rode the track via Kasauli, Kakkarhati, Haripur and Syree to Shimla. Then came the 58-mile tract to Shimla passing through Dharampur, Solan, Kairee Ghat, to be followed by the Kalka-Shimla Tonga Service.

It was during the tenure of Marquess of Dufferin as the Viceroy (1884 -1888) that the construction of a railway line was actively considered. A new company, Delhi-Umbala-Kalka Railway, started the construction of the line from Ambala to Kalka in 1891. It took another ten years to extend this line to Shimla when Lord Curzon was the Viceroy, and the line was formally opened on November 9, 1903, after having spent Rs 1.6 crore, with a single track of 2ft. 6 in. gauge.

Connecting Kalka to Shimla was no easy task as the civil engineers had to lay the track so that it did not disturb the pristine surroundings. Chronicled as the most surveyed project of its time, it was a correspondent of the Delhi Gazette who first sketched the route in 1847. No work was done on the project till 1885, when the project was revived again.s Even a second report, prepared for this rail link in 1887, failed to initiate any concrete work. Yet another survey, commissioned in 1895, finally resulted in the signing of the Kalka-Shimla Construction Contract.