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  The Indian Mountain Railways

Paper presented at the National Seminar “The Himalayan Glory”. By Ashwani Lohani, Director (Tourism), Government of India.

It is my pleasure to present a paper on the Indian Mountain Railways during the National Seminar on “The Himalayan Glory” being organised by the Allahabad Museum. I am indeed extremly pleased to note that the Allahabad Museum is organising a seminar on such an important subject, which touches the life of every indian and of which all of us are proud of.
The mighty Himalayas are an apt crown for India. The glory of the Himalayan range is unmatched and can be best appreciated by seeing them with one’s own eyes. No other mountain range in the world offers such mighty peaks, like the Mount Everest, Kanchenjunga, Nanda Devi etc. and such beautiful landscapes and the fauna and flora. We Indians ought to be extremly grateful to the all-mighty for the wonderful gift of Himalayas.
In this paper, I am going to dwell upon the 5 magnificient Mountain Railways (incl the 3 Himalayan railways). The superb countribution of the Indian Railways in bringing the Himalayas closer to us is extremly note-worthy. These 5 Indian Mountain Railways which were designed and constructed mainly in the last quarter of the previous century and the Ist quarter of this century, besides serving their basic purpose, are also a treat for the passengers as they pass through a very beautiful terrain. These railways are also wonderful examples of excellence in Engineering achieved by the Indian Railway Engineers at a time when the engineering skills were rather primitive.
The following five mountain railways exist in the country.
1. Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
2. Kangra Valley Railway
3. Kalka Shimla Railway
4. Nilgiri Mountain Railway
5. Matheran Light Railway
The first three railways connect the foothills of the Himalayas with exotic Hill stations, the fourth connects Mettupalayam on the foothills of the Nilgiri’s to the beautiful Hill station of Ootacumund in the South and the fifth runs on the western ghats.
 » Darjeeling Himalayan Railways
Darjeeling , Darjiling or Dorje-ling means the place of the Dorji, the mystic Thunderbolt of the Lama religion and is connected with the cave on the Observatory Hill. Indra the Jupiter of Hindu heavens, jealous of Varun’s dominance of the winds, was furious when one of the winds revolted and established itself in the depths of Mahakal now known as Observatory Hill. This evil one destroyed all sacred edifices built on the hill and the lamas were constrained to desert the site. Indra at last threw a thunderbolt called doreje and the place got the name Dorje-ling.
Until the beginning of the 18th century, the whole area between Sikkim and the plains of Bengal, including Darjeeling and Kalimpong, belonged to the Rajas of Sikkim. In 1706 they lost Kalimpong to the Bhutanese while control of the remainder was wrested from them by the Gurkhas who invaded Sikkim in 1780. This annexation by the Gurkhas, however, brought them in conflict with the East India Company. A series of wars were fought between the two parties eventually leading to the defeat of the Gurkhas and the territory was restored to Sikkim. In 1835, the nucleus of what was originally known as ‘British Sikkim’ was created by the purchase of the sanitorium of Darjeeling and some of its surrounding hills from the Raja of Sikkim for a meagre annual allowance. The ceded tract, about 138 square miles, became a favourite summer retreat for the officials of Bengal and their families. Soon sanitariums and schools for Europeans were opened at Darjeeling, Kurseong and Siliguri.
While Darjeeling was growing, Rowland Macdonald Stephenson was crusading his battle for railway extensions in India. In 1849, he was able to extract favourable conditions including a guarantee of return on the capital. He promoted East India Railway Company and was awarded the construction of an experimental line from Howrah to Ranigunj. On August 15, 1854, the first train steamed off from Howrah and by 1855, the complete section was opened for traffic. The route from Calcutta to Darjeeling, then available for those who had the time, money and energy necessary to undertake so formidable a journey, was by rail from Howrah to Sahibganj, a distance of 219 miles; followed by steam ferry across Ganges to Carragola, thence by bullock cart to the river opposite Dingra Ghat; after crossing which again by bullock cart on palkee ghary to Purnea, Kishnganj, Titalya, and Siliguri, whence the ascent commenced via Punkhabari Road, which joined the present cart road at Kurseong for onward journey to Darjeeling.
Prestage settled for a 2 ft. rail gauge, and formed the Darjeeling Steam. Tramway Co. with capital fully subscribed in India. On September 15, 1881, title of the company was changed to Darjeeling Hamalayan Railway Co. and this company remained effective until the line was taken over by the Indian Government on Oct.20, 1948. All through that time the line was managed by the agency of ‘Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co.’ which supervised from its Calcutta office the financial, legal and purchasing interests of D.H.R. and of other small railways. A manager and engineer was stationed at Kurseong, while the mechanical superintendent was at Tindharia.
Soon Siliguri hummed with the sound of steam locomotives as construction of D.H.R. commenced. The first stoppage takes place at Sukna (height 533 feet above sea level), which is 7-1/8 miles from Siliguri (height 400 feet). Between Siliguri and Sukna, the line crosses river Mahanadi by an iron bridge 700 feet in length (7 spans of 100 feet each); otherwise bridges are few, the only ones are those carrying the line over itself at loops. Sukna is the point whence trains have to begin their actual ascent to mountains. At 11-1/2 mile, is the first spiral or ‘loop; in the line. A stop takes place for water at the 12-3/4 mile. From here the line turns nearly south on to a long spur, where another and somewhat complicated loop occurs. The line then returns north and eastwards, runs for a shorter distance along the road, and gradually passes below it, till a third spiral or loop is reached at the 16th mile post, where the old Chunabati Dak Banglow, one halting place for lunch, reminds of the forgotten days of tonga.
Tindharia, the first reversing station on the line, is an opportune moment to recall the success story of the genius who made this fairy-tale ride possible. It was here that the engineer engaged received his first set-back. A deep erosion in the hillside made it impossible to employ a gradient within the limits of rail-transport. There seemed to be no alternative but to admit failure, and this, so the story goes he was ready to do when his wife saved the situation. ‘Darling’, she suggested, ‘if you can’t go ahead, why don’t you come back’. This brilliant scheme, of climbing mountains, also known as ‘Z’ reversing stations, is as simple as it is clever. The train runs forward almost to the edge of the cliff, then backwards at an oblique angle up the hillside, then forward again this time high enough above the original track to avoid the problem of land erosion which there faced it. The line thus follows an elongated form of ‘Z’. For almost 40 years from the beginning, there were four complete loops and four ‘Z’ reversing stations. In 1919, the 1 in 20 grade on northern descent to Darjeeling was eased by constructing a double spiral known as the Batasia loop; and the very small radius double loop (then No.2), between Rangtong and Chunabati was replaced by a newly-built ‘Z’ reversing station to gain 140 ft. altitude more easily for uphill trains. Thus the line now has four loops and five ‘Z’ reversing stations. At 25-1/2 mile, is a halt, one of the numerous for watering. Here, the nature of soil completely changes to rock known as “Sikkim genesis”. A few yards up is the large water-course known as ‘Pagla Jhora’ or ‘Mad Torrent’. At ahout 30 mile, the train passes through rock cuttings. Another mile and Kurseong is reached.
The railway station is the hub of Kurseong, near which are found most of the shops. At the station too we realise for the first time, after seeing the faces of the various mongoloid races that here at last we are veritably on the threshold of three close lands. We are pestered by Tibetan women in their long dark robes and necks adorned with charms and beads, out to buy the wares of their country which are exposed for sale in tin boxes, here too are the sturdy women of Nepal anxious to take up or down the stranger’s luggage, here too are the syce boys with their sturdy mounts and the gay careless dandywallas with their chair like conveyances to carry invalids to the highest point in the station. The train moves out and the bazar is passed without accident. Below the railway station and towards North, were the spacious offices of DHR Company, later also of Assam Rail Link Project. Now DHR is managed from Guwahati by the North east Frontier Railway. Resuming the journey by train from Kurseong, we notice a large building: this is St. Mary’s Training College for ecclesiastical students, belonging to the Jesuits. We also pass along a diversion below the road for about a mile and reach Tung Station (elevation 5,656 feet). From this point the line runs, generaly along the old cart road. At 41-1/4 mile we reach the bazar and station of Sonada (elevation 6552 feet). Passing along through the bazar, the traveller will be struck with the typical formation of huts and shops, the merry little Bhootia children with their rosy cheeks, and the quaint looks and appearance of their elders. Further ahead of Sonada, the train passes through forests which clothe the hill sides.
The train pulls up at Ghoom station, 7408 feet elevation, the highest point on DHR Immediately aferwards, the train proceedes down hill most cautiously—the gradient being steep 1 in 23 for a short distance. A few minutes more and the train stops at the Darjeeling terminus. Constructed on spurs of Himalayan foot hills, the loops or spirals are often view points, sometimes breath taking, as the width of the cars is 3.4 times the rail gauge, and gives passengers the impression that they are over a sheer drop. From early days the more spectacular points were given names, denoted by boards, and a Government inspector’s report of 1888 includes, I doubt the wisdom of calling the attention of timid passengers to their seeming danger by the exhibition of boards with alarming placards such as Sensation Corner, Agony Point, etc.
It is important at this juncture to point out that this line is likely to be encrypted by the UNESCO as the 22nd World Heritage Site in the country. I will also like to inform the August gathering that I personally initiated and also made the applications for the same.
 » Kangra Valley Railway
Kangra Valley is the name given to the conglomeration of valleys and plateus of the Himalayas on the north and the last of the foothills on the south. In shape it is roughly an oblong, with a width of about 90 miles and width of 30 miles. This valley is famous for its natural beauty and the number of ancient Hindu shrines. The Kangra Valley Railway proves that the Railway Engineer can carry out a work which is by no means out of harmony with the beauty and stateliness of the surroundings in which his allotted task is lain. The first sod of this 164 km long 2 ½’ gauge line was cut by the Governor of Punjab on May 2, 1926 and the 100 mile line constructed in rough terrain and hostile weather was opened for traffic on April 1, 1929. The line starts from Pathankot and runs parallel to the road for the first 16 miles. There are 20 crossing stations and 7 passenger halts on this line. Ahju at 1210 metres is the highest point on this line. There are in all 971 bridges and 2 runnels on this line. The steel arch bridge over the Reond nallah and the girder bridge over the Banganga river are noteworthy. On this line the curves are relatively easy. For the greater portion of the line, the traveller can gaze long at the ever present panorama of snow clad ranges and gold green fields without being swung around every minute on a narrow arc before his eyes can greet the scenery. As Palanpur is approached, the ever present background of the snowy range draws nearer till the long chain of peaks, 15000-16000 ft in height remain barely ten miles from the railway. Just beyond Baiznath Piprola station, the line has its most severe gradient, 1 in 19 for 700 ft at mile 88 with approaches of 1 in 31 and 1 in 25. This is the steepest gradient for any adhesion line of the Indian Railways and is also close to the gradient of 1 in 121/2 of the Nilgiri line. The line from Baijnath to Joginder Nagar the terminus is mostly on 1 in 25 gradient.
 » Kalka Simla Railway
The idea of a railway line to Simla dates back to the introduction of railways in India. In the ‘Delhi Gazette’, a correspondent in November 1847, sketched the route of a railway to Simla with estimates of the traffic returns, etc. in appropriate style. He wrote, “We might then see these cooler regions become the permanent seat of a Government daily invigorated by a temperature adapted to refresh an European constitution, and keep the mental powers in a state of health alike beneficial both to the rulers and the ruled.”
Survey for a railway line to Simla featured in the Administrative Reports of Indian Railways year after year. It is interesting to note that the Simla line was the most surveyed line. The earliest survey was made in 1884 followed by another survey in 1885. Based on these two surveys, a project report was submitted in 1887 to the Government of India for an adhesion line, 68 miles in length and with a ruling gradient of 1 in 33. After the commencement of Delhi-Ambala-Kalka line, fresh surveys were made in 1892 and 1893 and two alternative proposals were submitted. During 1894, four more alternate schemes were suggested-two adhesion lines 67-1/4 and 69-3/4 miles long and two rack lines 46-1/4 miles long each. Fresh surveys were again made in 1895 from Kalka to Solan with a view to locate the line either by 1 in 12 rack system or 1 in 25 adhesion system. Lengthy debates followed and finally an adhesion line was chosen in preference to the rack system.
On June 29, 1898, a contract was signed between the Secretary of State and the Delhi-Ambala-Kalka Railway Company, for construction and working of a 2 ft gauge line from Kalka to Simla. As per the contract, the rail line was to be built without any pecuniary aid or guarantee from the Government, the land was, however provided free of charge. The military authorities were sceptic about the narrower gauge of 2 ft chosen for Kalka-Simla Railway. They recommended a standard 2 ft. 6 in. gauge for mountain and light strategic railways. The Government of India yielded to the military requirements and on November 15, 1901, the contract with DUK was revised and 2 ft 6 in. gauge was adopted for Kalka-Simla Railway. This meant change of guage for a portion of the line built in the year 1901. In the beginning, the line was laid with 41-1/4 lb. Flat footed steel rails, 21 feet long, on steel bearing plates and deodar timber sleepers 9 to a rail. The track was stone ballasted throughout, and fenced only along the Kalka camping ground and through the outskirts of the town of Kalka. The line measuring 59.44 miles from Kalka to Simla was opened for traffic on November 9, 1903. Because of peculiar working conditions-high capital cost coupled with high maintenance cost, Kalka-Simla Railway was allowed to charge higher rates and fare compared to the then prevailing rates for other lines in the plains. By 1904, a total of Rs.1,65,25,000 was spent by DUK and it was in a serious financial crisis. On representation of the company, the Secretary of State decided to purchase the line, the purchase was affected from January 1, 1906.
The scenery along the whole route is of most magnificent character. Flanked by towering hills, the line, like twin threads of silver, clings perilously to the sides of steep cliffs or ventures boldly over graceful bridges where hundreds of feet below, the little mountain streams gush and sparkle in the sunlight. On leaving Kalka, 2,100 feet high above mean sea level, the rail line enters the foothills, commencing its picturesque climb immediately on its departure from Kalka station. The first great difficulty met with was the huge landslide on the seventh mile of the cart road, which extends from the hill summit down to Khushallia river, 1,500 feet below. As it was impossible to find a good alignment passing either below or above the slip, and construction along the face of the landslide, was out of question, the only alternative was to burrow under the hill. A tunnel, nearly ½ mile long, was constructed in the solid wall behind the disturbed surface strata and is known as Koti tunnel. The main station Dharampur is at a height of 4,900 feet and 20 miles from Kalka. The gradient here is very steep and to achieve flatter gradients required by the railway, the line develops into three picturesque loops at Taksal, Gumman and Dharampur respectively. After leaving Dharampur, railway gains on the road by taking short cuts and tunnels, so that upto Taradevi, the distance by rail from Kalka is 1/4 mile less than the distance by road, inspite of railway'’ handicaps. From Taradevi, the rail line goes round Prospect Hill to Jatogh, winding in a series of graceful curves round the Summer Hill and burrows under Inverarm Hill to emerge below the road on the south side of Inverarm at its 59th mile and so on to the terminus near the old Dovedell Chambers. At Dagshai, mile 24, the railway line is 5,200 feet above sea, whence it falls to 4,900 ft at Solan, and to 4,667 ft at Kandaghat (mile 36-1/2), where the final ascent towards Simla begins. Between Dagshai and Solan, the railway pierces the Barogh Hill through a tunnel, 3,752 feet long and situated 900 feet below the road.
Throughout its length of 60 miles the line runs in a continuous succession of reverse curves upto 120 feet radius along the valleys and spurs, flanking mountains, rising to 6,800 feet above sea level at Simla Railway Station, the steepest gradients being three in hundred. Kalka-Simla Railway with its extraordinary feat of engineering skill, more than any other cause, contributed to the speedy development of Simla.
An interesting feature of the Kalka-Simla Railway is the almost complete absence of girder bridges. Multi-arched galleries like ancient Roman aqueducts being the commonest means of carrying the line over the ravines between the hill spurs. There is, only one 60 ft. plate girder span in a pine wood near the old engineer'’ bungalow at Dharampur, and a steel trestle viaduct which replaced a stone gallery in 1935, in the 869 bridges representing about 3% of the line. The entire section has been built with steep gradient through the Shivalik ranges. Another special feature of Kalka-Simla Railway is that as many as 27 cut overs serve as different gradient crossings. There are twenty intermediate stations and all have crossing facilities. The line also has about 107 tunnels which besides representing the engineering featm, also generate a lot of interest in the travellers. During summer months, passenger traffic is heavy where as in winter months potato traffic keeps the line busy. In addition to three passenger and one Rail Motor Car service mentioned in the time table, two special trains each way run between Summerhigh and Simla. These special trains cater to Military requirements. Deserving special mention are the recently introduced luxurious Shivalik Express and the super luxurious Shivalik Palace saloon for tourists.
 » Nilgiri Mountain Railway
Coonoor is situated 6000 feet above the sea at the south-east corner of the Nilgiri Plateau, and at the head of the principal pass from the plains. Up this ghat runs a road (21 miles long) and a rack railway (16 ¾ miles) from Mettupalaiyam in Coimbatore District. The place was constituted a municipality in 1866. Coonoor remained a terminus for the Nilgiri line for eight years. The extension from Coonoor to Ootacamund was constructed by the Government of India, and the line was opened upto Fernhill on September 15, 1908 and upto Ootacamund a month later. Rack system was discarded for this extension though the ruling gradient is as severe as 1 in 23. The Ooty terminus was named Udagamandalam, the Tamil word for Ootacamund.
The main attraction/feature of this line is the unique rack system and the equally unique and complicated locomotives. To quote from Sir Guilford L. Molesworth’s report of 1886: ‘The locomotive used for working on the Abt System has two distinct functions – 1st – That of traction by adhesion as in an ordinary loco, 2nd - That of traction by pinions acting upon the rack bars. The brakes are four in number - two hand brakes action by friction; and two acting by preventing the free escape of air from cylinder and thus using compressede air in retarding the progress of the engine. The former are used for shunting whilst the later for descending steep gradients. One of the hand brakes acts on the tyres of the wheels in the ordinary manner and the second acts on grooved surfaces of the pinion axle, but can be used in those places where the rack is laid. Even after hundred years, the brake system on Nilgiri locomotives is as intricate and cumbersome as it was in 1886. The train journey from Madras to Mettupalaiyam (327 miles) then took just over 17 hours and cost 20 rupees, first class, and other 20 rupees to cover the remaining 33 miles up the steep mountain road to Coonoor and Ootacamund by the “Nilgiri Carrying Company’s Mail and Express Tonga Service”, while heavy baggage had to be sent by bullock cart. The only alternative was to hire a pony and arrange for luggage to be taken up by individual baggage carriers, using the shorter but even steeper old road to Coonoor.
Now-a-days the traveller for Ootacamund leaves Madras Central station on the evening ‘Nilgiri Express’ at 9.00 PM and arrives at Mettupalaiyam at 7.10 AM after a 10 hour journey. There he merely cr0sses the platform to join the metre gauge train, which leaves at 7.25 AM and reaches Udagamandalam at 11.40 AM in less than 15 hours.
The Nilgiri Railway (NMR) is a feat of engineering unique in the East. The line is a metre gauge, practically level for the first 4-1/2 miles, to Kallar at the immediate foot of the hills. As soon as the train leaves Kallar, the rack rail appears and the long climb begins. In the next 12 miles to Coonoor the line rises 4,363 ft. curving almost continuously as it clings to the mountainside, crossing lofty viaducts or tunnels through the had rock. In this distance, there are nine tunnels, the longest being 317 feet in length. The gradient posts read 1 in 12-1/2 with monotonous consistency. Construction expenses were heavy; because in addition to the tunnels, a big bridge over the river Bhawani at the foothills was necessary. Besides this large bridge, 26 other bridges smaller in size, were constructed and heavy expenditure incurred in rock-cutting and blasting.
‘Still it has been worth it’. To quote a South Indian Railway spokesman in 1935, ‘Those engineers must have been lovers of nature when they decided on the alignment’.
 » Matheran Light Railway
Abdul Hussain, son of the business tycoon Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy of Bombay was a regular visitor to Matheran at the turn of the century. After having obtained a reluctant consent from his father, young Abdul Husein camped at Neral in 1900 A.D. to plan for a narrow gauge railway line to Matheran. The construction started in 1904 and the 2’ gauge line finally opened to traffic in 1907.
Neral the starting station of this line falls nearly midway on the Bombay-Pune route of the central Railway. Starting from Neral, the narrow gauge 2’ line runs parallel to the main broad gauge line, leaving the road to the west of Hardal Hill, then turning sharply east. The ascent commences and road and rail almost meet at the end of the third mile near Jummapatti Station. They part company, again to meet a mile further just beyond the steep slope of Bhekra Khud. From here a very interesting portion of the line comes into view. A narrow stretch of level ground terminates in the abrupt rise underlying Mount Barry. To avoid a reversion station, a large horseshoe embankment was constructed. Round this the line runs, for a mile in the north direction till it turns back through the only tunnel on the route. ‘One Kiss Tunnel’ gives a couple, time just sufficient for a kiss. We are now halfway through the hills. In the olden days the tiny locomotive may have exhausted all its water. Right, a water pipe is available and the station is conveniently named as ‘Water Pipe’. The name continues though the diesel locos now no more get exhausted and the water pipe has lost its importance, instead a tea stall on the platform and a liquor shop fe steps up the station serve the passengers on this mid-way point. The line now lies under Mount Barry, to negotiate the rise here, the line zigzags sharply backwards and forwards twice, passing through two deep cuttings. The line pursues its way more decorously and reaches out more or less straight for Panorama point, after skirting it, and then returns by Simpson’s Tank and terminates close to the Matheran Bazar.
The Railway itself, is 12-1/2 miles long and has a gauge of only 2 ft. The permanent way originally consisted of rail 30lb to a yard with a ruling gradient of 1 in 20. Speed is limited to 12 m.p.h. on straight track but on sharper curves, it is restricted to 5 m.p.h. only. Construction of line was done by the local labour, though occasionally help was sought from the ‘Pioneer Regiments’. The rails have since been replaced by heavier ones, weighing 42 lb to a yard. The permanent-way inspector of Neral maintains this line. As a precautionary measure against frequent slides, the line used to close during rainy months of July and August till recently, but now passenger services continue even during rainy months. To commemorate the continuance of trains in the monsoon months of 1982, a M.L.R. loco No.741 (O&K 1767 of 1905) has been installed on a pedestal at Matheran station.
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