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Mountain Railways of India


The Mountain Railways of India comprise six to seven small lines, known as "Chhotey Lines" in Hindi, and is among twenty such meter gauge or narrow lines existing and operating in the world. Built during the British colonial rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the lines are functional even today. Four of the seven lines operate in the hilly terrains of the Himalayas in North India.

Out of them, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways dates back to 1881 and the Kalka-Shimla Railway dates back to 1898. The other two are the Kangra Valley Railway, which became operative in 1924, and the Kashmir Railway, which started in 2005. The Western Ghats of South India hold two lines - the Matheran Hill Railway, which operates in Maharashtra, and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, which runs in Southern India. The Lumding-Silchar line operates in the Barak River Valley of the Cachar Hills in Assam. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, and the Kalka-Shimla Railway are collectively designated as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO.


The desire of the British Raj to initiate control over the mountain ranges in India, including the Himalayas, resulted in commencing the mountain railways. In 1844, the then Viceroy of India, Sir John Lawrence, broached the plan of establishing military garrisons to colonize the hills in a phased manner. The British wanted to establish the hill stations that were culturally and geographically rich across India and proposed a plan called "Hill Railway". The places taken into account were Shimla, the summer capital of India; Darjeeling, the famous hill station in West Bengal, with tea gardens and enchanting scenic view of the eastern Himalayas; Ootacamund (Ooty) in Nilgiri Hills in the state of Tamil Nadu; Kangra Valley in the state of Himachal Pradesh; and the Matheran hill station in Maharashtra.

The pioneering effort commenced in 1878 when plans were initiated by Franklin Prestage of Eastern Bengal Railway and construction of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway line began. The hill tramway was built considering the alignment of the Hill Cart Road from Darjeeling to Siliguri. The next project was the difficult hilly terrains of the Nilgiri Hills. Although the proposal was made in 1854 and work started in 1894, it could be completed only in 1908. The huge difference in altitude, ranging from 1,070 feet to 7,228 feet covering a distance of 46 km, became a huge challenge for the engineers but was ultimately surmounted. The Kalka-Shimla railway line of a stretch of 96 km was inaugurated in November 1903 by the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. The Matheran-Neral railway became operational from 1907 and the Kangra line was built in 1929.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, fondly known as the 'Toy Train', is a narrow gauge railway (610 mm or 2 feet) that runs between Siliguri and Darjeeling. It is the oldest out of the seven mountain railways. The total distance covered by the rail is 88 km. Situated in the state of West Bengal, this rail connection was built during the British Raj. Darjeeling, considered as one of the prospective hill stations in India with flourishing tea gardens and fascinating locations, was an important summer hill station of the British era.

The range of the level of elevation of the line is massive, with Siliguri at about 330 feet and Darjeeling at about 7,200 feet. The highest elevation is achieved at the Ghoom station on the way to Darjeeling, which is at a height of 7,500 feet. The construction work of the railway started in 1879 and completed in mid-1881 under the supervision of Franklyn Prestage, who was working with the Eastern Bengal Railway Company. To date the train is powered by a steam engine. This is the first mountain rail in India to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. For tourists, the joy ride in the Toy Train is one of the sought-after ways of commuting between Siliguri and Darjeeling. This journey through the Eastern Himalayan terrain is an experience to treasure.

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway connects Mettupalayam with Udagamandalam, famously known as Ooty or Ootacamund in the Nilgiri hills. Both the places are located in Tamil Nadu, India. This is a long meter gauge single track, with a stretch of 46 km. Initially in June 1899 the final destination was Coonoor in the Nilgiri hills. In September 1908 it was extended up to Fernhill and by 15th October 1908, the line was further extended to Ootacamund, the 'Blue Mountains' of South India. Operated by a special steam locomotive, this is the lone rack railway in the country where the Alternate Biting System (ABT) is used. The train passes through 16 tunnels, 250 bridges, 208 curves and covers one trip in 4.8 hours uphill and 3.6 hours downhill. In 2005, the UNESCO recognized the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in the lap of fascinating Nilgiri Hills as a World Heritage Site.

Kalka-Shimla Railway

The Kalka-Shimla Railway in the Siwalik Hill ranges was commenced in 1898 by the Delhi-Ambala-Kalka Railway Company. Prior to that, village cartway was the only mode of transport for the area. On 9 November 1903, this two-foot six-inch narrow gauge track was opened. The journey includes 864 multi-arched gallery type bridges (as Roman aqueducts), 919 curves and 103 tunnels, of which the longest is Tunnel No. 33, the Barong Tunnel, with a stretch of 1,144 meters. It falls between Solan and Dagshai. The range of elevation is from 2,152 feet to 6,811 feet. Two luxury trains, namely the Shivalik Palace Saloon and the Shivalik Express, operates to cater to the tourist rush in summer season. Other cargo and passenger trains cater to the local public and business, apart from taking care of the needs of the armed services. In 2008, the Shimla-Kalka Railway joined the list of the UNESCO's World Heritage Sites, following the Darjeeling and Nilgiri mountain railways.

Matheran Hill Railway

The Matheran Hill railway in Maharashtra was built by Abdul Hussein Adamjee Peerbhoy between 1901 and 1907. Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy, his father and a member of the Adamjee, Group financed it. It is a two-foot gauge line connecting Neral with Matheran. The rail covers a distance of 20 km through a stretch of forest terrains. Matheran is situated in the Western Ghat Hills, and is near to Mumbai and Karjat. The plan of the Matheran Hill Railway was developed in 1900 and construction work commenced in 1904, which was completed in 1907. Initially the line was operational round the year except during the monsoons due to landslide risks, it is not closed down during monsoons. The Central Railways looks after this line.


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