The mountain railways of India are narrow gauge trains curving across wooded hills and challenging mountainous terrain. Three of these trains are part of UNESCO’s Mountain Railways of India heritage list, while the fourth has been submitted for review. Affectionately called toy trains, they traverse some of the most beautiful routes in the country and are marvels of British rail engineering built between the 1890s and early 1900s.
DARJEELING HIMALAYAN RAILWAY
This darling of Indian mountain railways was built in 1881. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was also the first of its kind to get UNESCO heritage status. The 8 8-kilo metre-rail line is all about the journey rather than any of the stations en route. It chugs upwards from New Jalpaiguri through tea gardens, flower-filled meadows, and vertiginous curves to about 7,200 feet at Darjeeling. The highlights of this heritage track include the famous Batasia Loop, a spiral line near Daijeeling which offers gorgeous 360-degree views of the Eastern Himalayas, and the lovely mist-draped station of Ghum, among the highest railways stations in the world. Originally built to take British officers from Kolkata’s humidity to Daijeeling’s cooler climes, the steam-powered train still remains one of the most charming ways to journey into the hills.
KALKA SHIMLA RAILWAY
Built in the 1890s, the Kalka Shimla Railway has UNESCO World Heritage status. It is the gateway to Shimla, the summer capital of the British Raj, and still among India’s most popular hill stations. Five trains run along the 96-kilometre track which is a massive engineering feat featuring 102 tunnels and a staggering 864 bridges with glorious viaducts. Offering a spectacular ride through small hill towns and forests of fir and pine, this route is popular with holidaymakers and honeymooners. Indian Railways has also introduced two special charter coaches—the Shivalik Queen and the Shivalik Palace Tourist Coach, which offer privacy, giant picture windows, and plush onboard comforts.
NILGIRI MOUNTAIN RAILWAY
The third of the UNESCO heritage railways opened in 1899 and was extended up to Ooty (Udhagamandalam) in 1908. Nilgiri Mountain Railway offers a memorable journey through the lush Nilgiri Hills. Starting in Coimbatore, the train puffs its way through the hill towns of Coonoor, Wellington, and Lovedale before culminating in Ooty, having travelled 46 kilometres through tea plantations and mist-filled valleys. The train was a boon for travellers to these hills at a time when the only way up was on horseback. Its construction led to the further development of hill stations in the region. Today, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway together with the misty Western Ghats form a popular backdrop for Indian films. Several abandoned stations, old churches, and cottages along the way add to the route’s nostalgic charm.
KANGRA VALLEY RAILWAY
The Kangra Valley Railway’s narrow gauge track is the only one on this mountain railway list yet to receive UNESCO heritage status. Running from Pathankot in Punjab to Joginder Nagar in Himachal Pradesh, the route dating back to the 1920s is both scenic and cleverly engineered. The well-designed track offers unsurpassed views as it makes its way up hilly terrain rather than tunnelling through the mountains. Although not a mountain railway in the strictest sense—the train meanders through forests, fields, and valleys before making its way up into the hills over a distance of 164 kilometres. Kangra Valley Railway is nearly always backed by the snow-capped peaks of the Dhauladhar range. Aboard this train, passengers can see the various facets of the Kangra Valley, from its urban centres to its rural heart.
Other Beautiful Indian Rail Routes: