India’s Mountain Railways are the best example of bold, clever engineering solutions to the problem of creating an efficient rail connection through rugged, mountainous terrain. These railway routes were built during the British era and now they are great tourist destinations.
Three of the mountain railways of India – the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and the Kalka – Shimla Railway are jointly listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the name of “Mountain Railways of India.” The fourth railway, the Matheran Hill Railway, is on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites tentative list. Here we have curated a list of mountain railways of India. Some of these popular trains travel through the best hill stations of India.
1. Darjeeling Himalayan Railways
Inaugurated between 1881 and 1908, a bold and sophisticated technical solution was applied to create an effective railway link over a mountainous terrain of Darjeeling.
The DHR, built between 1879 and 1881, is the only locomotive of its kind still in service and one of the oldest locomotives in the world. With a total capacity of 1.5 million passengers per day, it is now fully operational, a living example of a modern railway system in India.
For travellers travelling to the foothills of the Himalayas in Darjeeling in northern India, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway offers one of the most iconic sights.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, known as the Toy Train, chugged its way through steep and winding mountain passes and was a vital economic lifeline for one of India’s remotest parts.
The toy train, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, was a popular attraction for tourists from all over the world who flocked to the eastern mountain town of Darjeeling.
DHR has always attracted and fascinated visitors with its Joy Ride Tours that range from Rs 30 to Rs 400 depending on the destination. The route is about 110 km long and takes about 8 hours, as it is a narrow track with continuous gradients and curves.
Climbing this jewel of the Darjeeling technical toy train, you can visit the vast tea plantations of Darjeeling and its extensive tea plantations. This definitely is one of the most scenic train routes in India.
The train runs on narrow gauge tracks, which means that the tracks are much narrower than the normal gauge tracks of other parts of the country.
When the tracks were laid at the beginning of the 20th century, after the opening of the Darjeeling station, the locomotives were unable to cope with the gradients.
2. Nilgiri Mountain Railways
The Nilgiri Railway runs from Mettupalayam through Udagamandalam in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu. The track is particularly picturesque in its environment of rocky terrain surrounded by densely wooded hills. Some of the most spectacular landscapes and views can be found along the route.
Nilgiri Mountain Railways passes through many tunnels and hundreds of bridges, some of which are the largest in Coonoor and Mettupalayam.
Also known as the cog railway, it has a central rail with racks connected to the pinions of the locomotive. In recent years, the old coal-fired power-stations-fuelled steam locomotives have been replaced by new oil-fired engines. This was necessary due to the recurring technical problems in dealing with high-quality coal and forest fires due to the high temperatures and lack of water supply in the Nilgiri Mountains.
The first passenger transport began on 15 October 1908 between Ooty and Coonoor, but officials decided to extend the route to Mettupalayam.
You can take Nilgiri Express from Chennai or Coimbatore, which goes to Mettupalayam. Moreover, you can also take a bus or plane from Bangalore International Airport. From Mettupalayam, the Nilgiri passenger train will take you to this majestic route.
The NMR does only one uphill and downhill ride, which takes five hours uphill from Mettupalayam to Ooty and four hours downhill. There is only one train on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a special train that operates during the peak season from April to June. The railway has extended the line by 27 km to get more mileage off the track.
The Nilgiri Railway opened in 1899 and the journey from Mettupalayam to Coimbatore and Ooty takes five hours. Adding to the charm of this trip is the fact that during the peak season, from April to June and again from July to September, a steam engine runs on the NMR.
The Nilgiri mountain railways have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO due to its natural beauty.
Ooty is also known as the Blue Mountains or Queen of the Mountains and got its name from “Ootacamund Udhagamandalam” in colonial times. It has become a leading tourist attraction in Tamil Nadu and one of the most popular tourist destinations in India.
3. Kalka-Shimla Toy Train
Built in 1903, this toy railway is India’s most incredible piece of engineering, covering more than 96 km through the Queen of Hills and the plains of Shima. You must experience it for yourself – with a ride on the world’s first toy train. It is one of the few remaining Himalayan mountain railways in India.
The Kalka Shimla Toy Train is the best way to explore the mountain’s rich colonial history and fine restaurants, bars and shops that line the edge of the Mall Road Ridge. Overlooking pine forests, lush green plains and lush grassland, it invites people to experience the green beauty of Himachal Pradesh.
The Kalka Shimla Railway has been included in the Guinness Book of World Records. A must-try – The Kalka-Shimla Toy Train rides through the heart of Himachal Pradesh, covering over 60 miles.
The Kalka Shimla Toy Train has about 7 coaches that can accommodate 200 passengers on a single trip. Most travellers will advise you to hire a taxi to reach Shimla from Kalka. That’s because it takes a lot less time by taxi than by train. Nevertheless, everyone should experience the Kalka Shimla toy train ride at least once in a lifetime, which is definitely worth a visit.
The toy train travels through the city of Shimla and offers plenty of opportunities to press the shutter of your camera. The eye-captivating panoramic views of the city and its surroundings make this one of the greatest Indian railway journeys.
Popularly known as the Queen of the Hills, Shimla is a place with a rich history and cultural heritage. The toy train is the perfect way to explore the treasure trove of the Great Himalayas. From the pine-covered hills to the typical images of the hills, Kalka Shimla toy trains offer an insight into the history and culture of this beautiful city in the heart of India. Owing to marvellous engineering, the toy train route is now on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
One of the most interesting parts of this train is the Shivalik Queen carriage. It offers the newlyweds to have some privacy for their romantic trip and enjoy nature. The train plays an important role in the life of a bride and groom as well as in the wedding ceremony.
4. Matheran Hill Railways
The Matheran Hill Railway, built between 1901 and 1907, is a historic railway line in Maharashtra that runs through a wooded area and connects Neral to Matheran. With a very short ride, it is another toy train ride in India that not only exposes the beauty of the Western Ghats but also has a unique experience. The main attraction of the Matheran Hill Railway is the picturesque views of Neral, Jummapatti, Aman Lodge, and Matheran.
It was inspected by UNESCO officials but did not make it onto the World Heritage List. MHR has been kept on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage.
It is considered an innovative transport system that is built in difficult terrain and contributes to the national economy by transporting products from the various mines in the region to distant production and marketing centres.
In addition to providing rail links to the remote regions, there are a total of 4 stations en route Matheran railways including Jummapatti, Water pipe, Aman Lodge, and Matheran, all of which are currently in operation. Matheran Railways is surely one of the most fascinating mountain hill-railways in India.
5. Kangra Valley Railways
The Kangra Valley Railway is a 164 km long corridor that runs through the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas and is one of India’s most popular tourist attractions in the region. Kalka, Shimla, Pathankot and Jogindernagar are some of the main destinations. This railway route covers some of the highest hill stations in India.
It would be the first of its kind in India to be designated a “World Heritage Site” if approved. There is a section of the Kangra Valley Railway that connects Pathankot in Punjab with Jogindernagar in Himachal Pradesh.
Travelling by toy trains is an exciting experience, and the enchanting hills, tunnels, bridges and valleys you encounter along the way leave a lasting impression of ecstasy and joy.
The trains have a maximum speed of 31 km/h, while the average speed is 20 – 22 km/h.
It starts at the end of the narrow gauge section on the north and west sides of the Kangra Valley Road where the ascent begins. The train then leaves the road to the west, up the hill, then turns sharply to the east and begins its ascent for the final destination.
Important locations along the route include Kangra Valley Railway Station, Nagrota, Palampur, and Baijnath-Paprola. All these hill stations are easily reachable by train with the Kangra Valley Railways.
Separated from a huge crevice in the hills that runs from the picturesque Ganga River at the foot of the hill to its bottom, the KVR crosses the river gorge and offers spectacular views of the Kangra Valley and its surroundings. The train reaches the highest point on the track in Ahju at an altitude of 1,000 feet above sea level and then goes down to its terminus in Palampur.
Kangra Valley Railways was also the last of the hill railways to be built, and the line was built primarily to bring supplies and workers to the new hydroelectric power plant being built at Joginder Nagar, the eastern terminus of the line.
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