There is something about riding a “toy train” that brings out the child in everyone.
The expression refers to the smaller gauge railways built by the British Raj a century ago and still working industriously in some parts of India today. Take the Himalayan Queen that descends down the Himalayan foothills from the old British hill station of Shimla in northern India. The Queen rides on a single track of 2 foot 6 inch gauge, descending down from the clouds in Shimla.
Shimla is a former “hill station” built by the British as a summer capital to retreat from the sweltering heat of their regular capital of Calcutta down on the scorching plains. What a Scottish-type village is doing perched on top of a mountain in northern India is hard to fathom. There’s everything from legislative buildings, post office, roller rink, hotels and theatres, all in an excellent state of disrepair. Its cold, wet and windy on the ridge, which makes it a (go figure) attractive summer vacation for honeymooners and the Indian tourists that can afford to come here. Bizarre.
Tired of lugging all of the apparatus of government to Shimla on the backs of thousands of elephants every summer, the British finally built a train, and what a set of tracks! On its 5-hour, 96-kilometre descent down from the Himalayan the train winds its way along at a sedate 22-kilometres per hour through an astounding 102 tunnels – some up to 3,000 feet in length – and an equally amazing 864 bridges, making it one of the most picturesque train trips on the entire planet.
The railway has a steep gradient of one foot in 25, or four percent. The track boasts 919 curves, the sharpest being 48 degrees, which means the front end of the snake-like train can be seen from the back as it enters many of the tunnels. The Guines Book of Records claims the Himalayan Queen run offers the steepest descent in altitude of any train ride in the world. More than two-thirds of the track is curved.
As the train descends from the clouds it enters into a forest of deodar, pine, ficus, oak and maple, with the pungent odour of pine hanging heavy in the air and endless vistas of lush green misty mountains. Built in 1898 at an astronomical expense of 86 million rupees in order to carry the British colonial government up to its summer home in the mist, the cost of construction doubled during of the project.
The entire system was finally purchased by the Indian government in 1906 for over a billion rupees, opened for passenger traffic in 1903 and, except for occasional mudslides in the monsoon season that wipe out the track, has been functioning regularly ever since. In September of 2007 an expert team from UNESCO visited the railway to review it for selection as a World Heritage Site.
Fares on the toy train are most reasonable, and food can be purchased from station vendors along the route although messy eaters will find that dry cleaning services to remove hot curry sauces are not readily available. Plan ahead and bring a picnic lunch instead, and don’t forget your camera. Larger-sized North Americans will find that the “toy” designation also refers to the size of the seats. Arrive early, grab a window seat, and expect to share it with fellow travelers also keen on a dramatic descent from the hills.