Train of joy
Rajnish Wattas takes a trip back in time on the 
Kalka-Shimla heritage rail track

The railway track, developed by the British, is an engineering marvel in Shimla.
The railway track, developed by the British, is an engineering marvel in Shimla. Photos: S. Chandan

As a boy I could play for hours with my toy train set. As the tiny chuffer and carriages trundled on tin tracks, looping the loop, vanishing into tunnels or stopping at a station, it fascinated me no end. The boyhood is long gone; yet the fascination remains.

The British during their rule in India developed a large network of railways to administer the vast subcontinent efficiently, including some of the awesome, engineering marvels in hill stations. Today these old-world trains — when time and the journey were never rushed —bring the romance of travel back into our hearts. A journey; where you savour the landscape, mingle with fellow travellers and feel the cool tingle of the mountain air, as it gets colder.

Ever since the 2’-6” narrow gauge, 96-km-long Kalka-Shimla railway was included in the Unesco World Heritage List on July 7, 2008, as part of the mountain railways of India site, it has acquired an even more special status among tourists.

The Kalka railway station (2,152 ft above sea level) has changed a lot over the years; yet its name still conjures magic; taking you to the regalia of the British Raj when the Viceroy and his entourage must have walked on the same platform to take the motorcar to ‘Simla’ and cherubic white schoolchildren prattled up and down the station, to board the train to their boarding schools.

Today, on a cold, wintery day, the station is bustling with mostly Indian tourists. There is a sprinkling of British tourists also, out to experience the timeless, quaint railway system built by their ancestors. The station is a cacophony of chai and pakora vendors, an ambience of yellow and black boards displaying time tables, and the age-old porters in their distinctively, bright red outfits — coming to life with announcements about departures and arrivals.

At the station we see the legendry royal ‘chariot’ of the Viceroys and Commanders-in-Chief — the rail motorcar. Painted in blue and white with elegant laced curtains and plush seats it is like a chauffeur-driven limousine on the rails.

Finally the toy train, with a royal sounding name, Himalayan Queen, chugs in. The cream and blue coaches, hauled by a bright-red diesel locomotive (the old steam chuffers now have been retired) promises an enjoyable journey with grand views through the large windows. Initially, the train snakes its way up slowly along the low foothills past the immediate industrial settlement of Parwanoo, the first settlement in the Himachal Pradesh, symbolising transition from the prosaic to the poetic landscape of the ‘abode of snows.’

As the altitude picks up, the air gets colder and a few hamlets and distant towns begun to appear as silhouettes on the horizon.

The toy train on the snow-covered rail tracks in Shimla.
The toy train on the snow-covered rail tracks in Shimla. Photos:  Amit Kanwar

The cream and blue lissom train bends with the mountain curves, crosses the long ravines on beautiful stone viaducts — an awesome engineering feat inspired by stone-vaulted aqueducts of the Romans. We soon reach the Dharampur station. The small railway station, with its timber-frames and gabled roof, painted in sky blue and white colours blends with blue mountains and the clear expansive sky overhead. The quiet, tranquil settings of the place is both a remainder and reminder of the days of slow, easy travel; where the primary activity on the train would be a choice between reading a book or gazing out at the hills.

After Dharampur, the train gains height and limbers up to Barog, at nearly 5,000 feet before the dissent to Solan begins. Barog is preceded by a nearly one-mile-long (1143.61-metres) tunnel, the longest en-route to Shimla. And thereby hangs a tale, too.

According to a legend, the Barog station is named after the British engineer, who was working on the railway project. He started working on both ends of the tunnel at the same time, but the alignment was wrong and the two ends would not meet. Realising his folly, he was so full of remorse that he shot himself.

Soon, the train slinks out of the long tunnel into the bright daylight, on to the cosy little Barog railway station. Once upon a time, it was famous for its continental breakfast, served with white-glove service to the hungry sahibs, who boarded the early morning trains from Kalka. Even now, it is famous for its sumptuous breakfast and lunches, loaded from the station and served piping hot by waiters in the moving train.

After crossing Solan, famous for its breweries, from Kandaghat onwards a steep ascent starts up to Taradevi. And then suddenly after a sharp bend, the grand panorama of Shimla spreads out. Even from a great distance the silhouette of the Queen of Hills, though ageing and overcrowded now, is a sight to behold.

The slow, languid journey celebrates the old-world charm of travel.
The slow, languid journey celebrates the old-world charm of travel.

You know you are nearing your journey’s end when the train slinks through mighty deodars of Summer Hill. Finally, one last hoot before the tunnel number 103 and you steam into the curving railway platform of Shimla at 2,076 meters (6,811 ft) altitude after about five hours of a slow, languid journey.

At the station one can see the Unesco plaque that reads, “The Kalka Shimla Railway, a 96-km-long, single track working rail link built in the mid-19th century to provide a service to the highland town of Shimla, is emblematic of the technical and material efforts to disenclave mountain populations through the railway.”

The joys of this slow, languid journey that celebrates the old world charm of travel — tranquillity scoring over speed, are intangible but rich. As the train trundles on the rails put together on the formidable, arduous slopes of the Shivaliks more than 100 years ago, it’s a salute to both the men and the mountains. For great things happen when the two meet.

Feats and folklore

The toy train at the Barog railway station
The toy train at the Barog railway station.

n The railway was constructed by the Delhi-Ambala-Kalka Railway Company commencing in 1898. It was opened for traffic on November 9, 1903. The route has 864 bridges — besides one built with a 60-ft plate girder — all the rest are viaducts. Bridges Nos. 226 and 493 located near Sonwara and Kandaghat are built in multiple tiers with stone masonry, and historically known as the “Arch Galleries”.

n Even today, the Kalka-Shimla railway uses antique communication systems, including signalling lanterns, introduced by the British in the last century. Another quaint system is the Neals Token Instrument Systems used on the single line for controlling train movements, still in use on this rail section.

n After Mr Barog’s tragic death, the new chief engineer who succeeded him, Mr Harrington, requested a local saintly man from Jhaja, Bhalku, who was gifted with natural engineering skills, to help the engineers in the alignment of the route and in making various tunnels. Bhalku was honoured by the British for his assitance.

n Another living legend of the railway is Acharu Ram, a ninety-year-old porter who still works at the Shimla railway station. His services were brought to worldwide publicity by the BBC during a documentary aired recently on Channel Four.