Darjeeling Himalayan Railway - An Overview


The origin of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) dates back to the early 19th century and is linked to the very birthplace of the Darjeeling region, best known as the 'Queen of Hill Stations'. It is one of the premier tea growing areas of India, where cultivation of tea, on a large scale, started in 1856.

The Mountain Spurs, on the slopes of which the hill station of Darjeeling now stands, once formed a part of the former independent kingdom of Sikkim. Covered with dense forests of screw pines, tree ferns and oaks, this place was originally known as 'Dorjeling' - the place of 'Dorje', the mystic thunderbolt of the lama religion. Colonel Lloyd, an agent for the Supreme Council in Calcutta, who sided with Sikkim against the Nepalese in their war in 1814, found the place to be suitable for a sanatorium for the British troops (Colonel Lloyd died in 1865 and there is a memorial for him in the St Andrew's church grounds in Darjeeling). Thus in 1835, The East India Company acquired the lease to a strip of land, south of the Sikkim Himalayas, which also included the village of Darjeeling, for building an outpost of strategic importance. Dr Campbell was appointed agent of this leased tract of land measuring about 138 sq miles and under his guidance, Lt. Napier (later known as Lord Napier of Magdala) founded Darjeeling as a Hill Station.

This led to the construction of the first road, now known as the old Military Road, from the plains to the hills. By 1839, the little town had grown rapidly to a population of 10,000 from an initial collection of about 20 huts inhabited by no more than a 100 souls. By 1849, the mountain tracts including Darjeeling were annexed to the British Empire.

This annexation brought about rapid progress to Darjeeling and its adjoining regions. But the road built by Lt. Napier was considered too steep for a 'Palki' (palquin) and too narrow for wheeled traffic. So in 1861, the construction of a new road, to be known as the Hill Cart Road, with less abrupt gradients was started which would then be able to carry cart wheeled vehicles. At this time, a 'Tonga' service also came into operation for the more discerning traveller.

By 1878, Calcutta was linked by rail to Siliguri, a small town at the base of the Himalayas and a journey time of 2 weeks was now reduced to a single day. Cultivation of tea had taken a strong foothold by then and the Darjeeling tea industry had become firmly established. All this progress gave a special importance to Darjeeling. To meet the new development of the region, Franklin Prestage, agent of the Eastern Bengal Railway Company suggested building a steam tramway from Siliguri to Darjeeling as the 'Tonga' service had started proving inadequate. Prestage firmly believed that the tramway could cut down bullock-cartage rates by as much as 50% and still make profit for the railway. The line would transport the produce from the many tea gardens as well as other local products down to the plains (The Terai), and take up to the Himalayan slopes, in the reverse direction, consumer goods of every kind, troops, as well as coal. Rice, which was selling at Rs.98 per ton in Siliguri ended up costing Rs.238 by the time it reached Darjeeling. He submitted a detailed scheme to the Lt. Governor of Bengal, Sir Ashley Eden in 1878 who approved the project in 1879.

Old postcard showing an UP DHR mixed train negotiating the Z reverse at Gayabari (Gayabaree)

A postcard showing a train in the early days of the DHR negotiating `Agony point', the tightest curve and smallest loop on the railway.

Prestage settled for a 2ft rail gauge and formed the Darjeeling Steam Tramway Co. The construction of the new line began immediately. March 1880 saw the opening of the rail line up to Tindharia and by the year end, the line had been extended to Kurseong. In July 1881, the line measuring 88.48 kms was fully commissioned all the way up to Darjeeling. The introduction of this railway brought about a major change in the lifestyle of the people living in the area. The earlier journey time of 5-6 days between Calcutta and Darjeeling was now reduced to less than 24 hours.

On September 15th 1881, title of the company was changed to Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Co and the agency of Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co henceforth managed the line. Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co. supervised the financial, legal and purchasing interests of DHR from its Calcutta office. A manager and engineer were stationed at Kurseong, while the mechanical superintendent was based at Tindharia, an arrangement that exists even today.

This first rail track, however, which was laid parallel to the new Hill Cart Road, was found to be too steep and therefore, over the next 2 years, certain sections of the railway were re-built. The loops and 'Z' reversing stations were introduced on the line during this period. It appears that the engineering contract for the line was awarded to Ms. Whitty & Edwards and the building contract for the actual construction was awarded to Ms Tom Mitchell and Rumsey of Calcutta. Herbert Gordon Rumsey was a civil engineer who was born in Twickenham on 6th April 1848 and served his apprenticeship as civil engineer in Crewe. He left for India to seek his fortune and bought a part-ownership in a tea plantation in Bagdogra. Herbert married a girl

called Elizabeth (affectionately known as Lily), whose step-father was the enterprising manager of the Delaram Tea Estate and a chain of hotels known as the 'Robert Hotels' in Darjeeling and Kurseong. It is interesting to note that the Viceroy was put up at the Kurseong Hotel during his visit to open the first section of the line up to Kurseong.

During this time, Herbert moved his family from Calcutta to Kurseong, no doubt to escape from the heat of the plains whilst he undertook the surveying and construction of the line to Darjeeling. The skills of the surveyors were stretched to the limit when they reached Chunabhati, for the contours of the land had become too demanding for the construction of the line. As the story goes, Herbert confided in his wife of their impending defeat, whereupon she offered a daringly obvious solution to the problem. She advised him that when faced with a corner in ballroom dancing, it was permitted to reverse, so why not backtrack the railway up the hill! It must be pointed out here that though Lily may have candidly presented a simple solution to the engineer's woes, Rumsey was no doubt already aware of the use of loops and Z reverses on mountain railways from his past experience in England.

There also seems to be a connection between the DHR and Charles Easton Spooner who together with his son George Percival Spooner set up Spooner & Co, as an independent concern of consulting engineers from his management of the Festiniog Railway in North Wales. Charles Spooner was very keen to promote his principles of narrow gauge design and engineering, particularly in India.

Records show that George Percival was in India by 1883 after resigning from the management of The Festiniog Railway. He felt obliged to take this drastic step after fathering a child to a domestic servant of the family. John Hughes, a civil engineer who took over the management of The Festiniog, supplied the plans and memorandum of the DHR to the Cape Government Railways on 16th March 1901. There is a loop on the Festiniog line that has been in evidence for the last 20 years and probably inspired by the DHR.

The Indian Government purchased the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway on the 20th of October 1948, which until then was owned by the Darjeeling Himalayan Company. The management of the system was handed over to the Assam Railway on the 24th of December 1949. The reorganization of the Indian Railways in 1952 brought this line under the jurisdiction of the North Eastern Railway with its headquarter at Gorakhpur. The present managers of the line, The Northeast Frontier Railway, finally took charge of it on the 15th of January 1958.

Although 4 other hill railways exist in India, the DHR was the first to be built about 125 years ago. Despite its age, the authenticity and integrity of the line has been preserved intact apart from a couple of minor changes, namely, the introduction of an additional reverse between Tindharia and Rungtong and the abandonment of loop number 1 due to subsidence of the formation.

First day cover released on the occasion of Kurseong Philatelic Exhibition showing the `Toy Train'.

Darjeeling Philatelic Exhibition (May 12-14, 1978) DEPEX '78 first day cover featuring `Toy Train Day' on May 13, 1978.

B Class No. 779 built in 1892 by Sharp Stewart is the oldest working locomotive on the line. Here seen on the plains in 1997 with the UP train near Sukna.

Statistical facts about the DHR

In the 19 months that it took to construct the DHR from January 1880 to July 1881, it finally cost Franklin Prestage's company Rs.3,196,000, equivalent to 178,500 at that time, but a mere 47,000 at today's exchange rate. The initial capital of Rs.1,400,000 thought to be required for this undertaking, which was subscribed almost entirely in India, was the first attempt at 'private enterprise' in railways. Only 2 concessions of importance were granted by the Government to the company - one, a guarantee that the gross receipts should not be less than Rs. 200,000 per annum, and the second that the Government would at all times uphold and maintain the Cart Road. The guarantee of gross receipts proved to be a nominal liability, the receipts having always been largely in excess but as regards the cost of the upkeep of the Cart Road, the Railway's contribution grew to be a considerable sum. Stephen Gladstone, son of William Gladstone, Chairman of Gillanders said that the maintenance costs ate heavily into DHR's profits, to the point where DHR was one of the least profitable enterprises within the group. Incidentally, Gillanders were also the founders of the present day State Bank of India and they still have a minor shareholding in the institution even today.

The line was opened in 4 phases as follows:

a) Work began in 1878
b) From Siliguri to Kurseong by 23.8.1880 (31.75 miles)
c) From Kurseong to Sonada by 1.2.1881 (9.5 miles)
d) From Sonada to Ghum by 5.4.1881 (5.87 miles)
e) From Ghum to Darjeeling by 4.7.1881 (3.63 miles)

Each mile of DHR cost Rs 60,000 (882.35). This expenditure was broken down as follows: Rs 16,900 (248.53) a mile for earthwork, cuttings and bridges; Rs 13,800 (202.94) for ballast and permanent way; Rs 8,000 (117.65) for stations; Rs 10,000 (147.05) for locomotives and rolling stock; and Rs 11,300 (166.18) for other miscellaneous items.

The 2'0" gauge train often referred to as a `toy train' passes through 13 stations ascending a height of 7,408ft between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. The stations are as follows:

Station Height
New Jalpaiguri 480 ft
Siliguri Town 399 ft
Siliguri Junction 500 ft
Sukna 533 ft (meaning dry site, is the start of the ascent to the mountains)
Rongtong 1,404 ft
Tindharia 2,822 ft (considered to be above the Terai 'fever' level)
Gayabari 3,516 ft
Mahanadi 4,120 ft
Kurseong 4,864 ft
Tung 5,656 ft
Sonada 6,552 ft
Ghum 7,408 ft (Highest railway station in India)
Darjeeling 6,812 ft

Since the line goes over a mountainous region, 73.41% of the alignment consists of curves. The Toy train manages to maneuver itself around 906 bends with the sharpest one of 120 curvature being located between Sukna and Rungtong. There are 6 reverses and 3 loops on this line, the most famous being 'Batasia' (meaning windy site) loop between Ghum and Darjeeling. The ruling gradient (steepest gradient) of the line is 1 in 18 (in 'Z' reverses). The rolling gradient is 1 in 22.5. The train crosses 554 bridges of various sizes and 177 unmanned level crossings before reaching its final destination. As the majority of the railway runs parallel to the main New Jalpaiguri - Darjeeling road, the rail tracks crisscross this highway an amazing 126 times. The locos have to be watered 9 times during the course of their journey. The maximum running speed permissible for the train to travel is at 15 Km per hr though the booked speed is 13 Km per hr.

The average coal consumption per mile is 39 lbs and the water consumption per mile is 45 gallons. The 'B' class loco has the capacity to carry 800 Kg of coal and 1,818 liters of water in its saddle tank (400 imperial gallons & 480 US gallons of water).

The 2 ft gauge line which was originally built using steel rails weighing 41¼ lbs to the yard have now been replaced with ones weighing 50 lbs and are laid on wooden sleepers.

What makes the DHR so unique is not just its location, or the fact that it has loops and zig-zags or the spectacular landscape, or even that its newest locomotive was built in the 1920's. It is the way in which it does exceedingly well at what the railways have never been very good at. Climbing mountains!

The 'Down' train has just negotiated the loop at Batasia. The crest of the Gorkha memorial is visible in the background.

No.787 newly (and apparently unsuccessfully) converted to oil firing, standing out of use inside Siliguri Junction shed. [Photo by James Waite]

The Rolling Stock

At the peak of DHR's operational activities in 1947 just before nationalization, it had 55 locos, 139 passenger coaches and 606 wagons working the lines. The freight traffic was eventually withdrawn in 1992/93.

The first locomotive to run on the DHR was called 'Tiny', and was brought into use on the occasion of Lord Lytton's, the Viceroy's visit, in March 1880. It was a Manning Wardle make, four coupled wheels tank loco of 0-4-0ST (saddle tank) arrangement. It was used in the construction of the upper end of the line and for miscellaneous purposes until 1886.

The B Class 0-4-0ST are small two-axle tank locomotives which carry their water tanks on the boiler (hence called a saddle tank) and are fitted with large lateral coal bunkers. Built originally by the English firm Sharpe & Stewart and the Scottish firm North British Locomotive Co, these locos weigh 14 tons and have wheels with a diameter measuring just 2 feet (0.61 m). The towed load, in view of the very severe profile of the line, is only 28 tons.

The oldest B Class working loco still climbing the mountains today was built in 1889 and the youngest one was put on line in 1928. The main locomotive shed for the B class is at Tindharia and trip sheds also exist at Siliguri Jn. (shifted from its earlier location of New Jalpaiguri), Kurseong and Darjeeling. Amongst the coaches, the oldest working coach was built in 1917

while the youngest was put into service in 1991. There are 37 coaches in total that are still operational today. The coach maintainence depot is located at Siliguri Jn. (shifted from its earlier location of New Jalpaiguri). Locomotives and all other rolling stock are overhauled at the workshops at Tindharia.

The following table shows DHR's share of passenger and freight traffic over the years:

Year Passenger Freight
1882 8,000 380 tons
1905 29,000 31,570 tons
1916-1917 239,696 59,740 tons
1997 68,110 None

Today, the DHR provides employment to over 1,166 people in the professional, technical and maintenance capacities.

Weather Extremeties

One of DHR's greatest challenges is the extreme climatic change that occurs without fail on an annual basis, within this mountainous region. Maintaining the stability of the line is just as difficult today as it was when the DHR was first built. Heavy rainfall during the monsoons makes the hills extremely susceptible to landslides because the soil is micaceous shale, which erodes easily. Expensive stonewalls are therefore necessary to hold up the mountainsides for as long as possible. Breast walls are built above the road to prevent the hillside from falling upon it and revetments are built below the road to prevent subsidence.

Trickling streams of water in the hot weather turn into treacherous swollen torrents during the rainy period. Pagla Jhora - Mad Torrent, is an aptly named example to describe the condition. Situated on the outer flanks of the Mahaldiram Range just above Tindharia and halfway between Siliguri and Darjeeling, it is here that the monsoon current strikes with the greatest force. In July 1890, almost 800 ft of the road and line were washed away at this point with another 500 ft meeting the same fate at Upper Pagla Jhora. The amount of rainfall recorded on this occasion was 14 inches in just under 6 hours.

A well-documented account of such adverse weather conditions was on Sunday, the 25th of September 1899. On this day, an unprecedented rainfall of 27½ inches was recorded. The summary of this disaster was reported as follows:

"In the town of Darjeeling 10 Europeans and 62 Indians perished (of these 45 died on the precipitous eastern side of the hill). In Kurseong there were 9 deaths while in the district no less than 219 souls were lost either from exposure that followed the storm, or by being engulfed in the falling debris or slips. The railway suffered considerably too, which in some places, notably 'Mary Ville' had its lines suspended in the air compelling passengers to cross this gap on a wire-ropeway to which a seat was attached" During the rainstorm, huge boulders weighing hundreds of tons came tumbling down the hillsides and caused the bungalows in the area to rock and sway as if they were being shaken by a mighty earthquake. The rushing waters swept away heavy machinery and buildings from the hills down to the plains, a distance of some 10 miles. Everyone went about bewildered and dazed, while chaos reigned supreme for days."

Another weather extreme was noted during the winter of 1882 when snow became an obstruction on this line. This was the first time on record when a snow plough had to be used on a locomotive engine in India.

Baby Sivok at Darjeeling Shed in 2001. [Photo by Jayant Sankrityayana]

C807: The DHR Pacific. Nehru Science Museum, Bombay

Odds and Unknowns

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway started off as a Hill Railway but two more sections were added in the twentieth century that were largely on the plains. The first one being the branch from Siliguri to Giellekhola in the Teesta Valley and the other was the line from Panchnai to Kishanganj. The Teesta Valley branch was built in 1914-15 and got washed off in a flood in 1950-1 and was never rebuilt. The Kishanganj line was also built in 1914-15 and was converted to metre gauge soon after the Indian Government took over the DHR in 1948.

The swift decision by the Indian Govt. to purchase the DHR, shortly after independence, was a strategic one rather than out of any affection for the beautiful Hill Railway. After independence the main rail link from Calcutta to Assam was lost due to partition of the country and creation of East Pakistan (Now Bangladesh). To re-establish this rail link quickly, the Kishanganj branch of the DHR was crucial and only after conversion of this section to metre gauge could the rail traffic be restored to Assam from the rest of the country.

Before the advent of the B class locomotives that were the triumph of the DHR, there were other versions of 0-4-0 wheel arrangement engines tried out on the railway. The first batch of engines were originally known as Class No.1 and were called Class C after 1891. They were numbered from 1-8, weighed 10 tons

and had side tanks with 250-gallon capacity. The next were the A class numbered 9-16 and previously known as the No.2 class until 1889. These were 12 ton engines with a 250 gallon capacity on well and collar tank and a wheelbase of 4'3". These engines were prone to derailments but by experimentation with distributing the weight around the frame and keeping the center of gravity low, this problem was kept in check. The class No.3 engines of 1889 that came to be known as the legendary B class later, weighed 14 tons with an extended wheelbase of 5'6", 11 X 14" cylinders and 400 gallons of water capacity.

After the successful induction of the B Class 0-4-0 tank locomotives in 1889 which went on to serve the railway for the next 110 years, there were two other classes of steam locomotives, namely the C and D class that were used on this railway. The C class were 4-6-2 pacific locos that were used on the DHR lines on the plains. Two examples were built in 1914 and fortunately both have survived and are plinthed at Nehru Science Centre in Bombay and the North East Frontier Railway Headquarters at Guwahati. The D class was a Garratt locomotive of 1910, which was essentially two B class locomotives put together with a wheel arrangement of 0-4-0 + 0-4-0. Only one such engine was built and had limited success so the project was shelved.

The B class locomotive may be amongst the tiniest on its gauge and the railway is often referred to as a 'Toy Train' by its aficionados but it takes a crew of upto five men to maneuver this mighty machine on its journey up the hills. Apart from the driver and his assistant, there are two men seated on either side of the boiler smokebox just above the buffer beam. Their job is to sprinkle fine sand on the rails, which helps in increasing adhesion between rail and wheels, and avoid slipping and derailment, especially in wet weather. Finally, there is the coal breaker who is perched on top of the coal bunker and helps breaking larger lumps of coal.

On the downhill journey, one may spot men between coaches often moving up and down on a lever and relaxing on top of the coaches on the level or uphill sections. These are not joy riders but 'brakes-men' who perform the crucial job of slowing down individual coaches through the operation of mechanical foot brakes.

In the entire history of the DHR, a railcar was only used once in 1920. It had a 40 HP engine, carried nine passengers and was built by Motor Rail Ltd. of Bedford. During its tenure, the railcar seemed to reach Darjeeling 75 minutes ahead of the mail train. In spite of its success, it is not clear why they were not introduced in numbers like on the Kalka Simla Railway.

During the days of the Gorkhaland National Liberation Front (GNLF) separatist movement in this region in the 1980s, much of the hill region including the DHR came to a standstill. The GNLF used to target DHR as a symbol of the central government and it was nearly forsaken by the Indian Railways. It is indeed a wonder that the railway survived those times. The GNLF leaders became its important vocal patronisers at the end of the movement and established the Gorkha council in Darjeeling in 1988.

The 'Up' train passes through the narrow lane in the `bazaar' at Jorbunglow.

NDM6 Class No.604 near Sukna. The diesel locomotives were first introduced on Christmas day in 1999, some 118 year after the railway opened.

Current Status

The DHR has seen several ravages of time but at the time of this writing, it seems to be going as strong as ever and its future appears bright. Much of this can be credited to UNESCO's award of 'World Heritage Site' status to this railway in 1999. Credit is also due to officers of the National Railway Museum and Railway board who took this important initiative.

Notwithstanding the fact that the railway's health is stable, its motive power woes are far from over. The last B class locomotives were commissioned in 1928 and some of these still toiling the railway are over a hundred years old. The Indian Railways have floated tenders for new locomotives and designs on several occasions but have been unable to finalise orders essentially due to prohibitive costs of new locomotives being built overseas. Facing a severe shortage, the Indian railways introduced two NDM6 class diesel locomotives in the year 1999. It was the first time that diesel engines were used on this line and although they met with limited success, they still provide power, when available, to the daily train from the plains to Darjeeling.

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