India by Rail

The journey below can be taken as part of Great Rail Journeys India’s Golden Triangle – a 5* rail 13-day tour which includes the Shatabdi Express and the Toy Train plus excursions to Delhi and Agra with its white marble icon the Taj Mahal. Prices start from £1,995pp, departing Oct 2017 – Dec 2018.

Great Rail Journeys India’s Golden Triangle
Great Rail Journeys India’s Golden Triangle
CLICK HERE for full India’s Golden Triangle itinerary

Delhi to Kalka on Shatabdi Express
I’m at Delhi station, early in the morning, where it seems that a large proportion of the 23 million people who daily use Indian Rail have all decided to take the train. I’m taking the Shatabdi Express for Kalka, where I’m then going to catch the narrow gauge “Toy Train” up to Shimla. It’s a four hour journey and the air conditioned Executive Class is comfortable and includes a rather delicious spicy breakfast, complete with a few warming cups of Indian Chai.

Trains Crossing
Trains Crossing (c) Rupert Parker
We pull into Kalka, almost on time, and I cross the platform to board the Himalayan Queen, patiently waiting for passengers. It’s dwarfed by the mighty Express, and I completely understand why it’s known as the “toy train”. After the comfort of Executive Class, the six rows of seats in the narrow gauge carriages are rather uncomfortable. Fortunately I’ve been advised to bring my own cushion.

Toy Train (c) Rupert Parker
⇒ Also read: Top 10 street foods of Northern India

Kalka to Shimla on Himalayan Queen
This is one of the great railway journeys of the world and the line was built to ferry mem-sahibs of the British Raj up to Shimla from Kalka, a cool alternative to the steamy plains below. When the town became the summer capital in 1864, the 1200 mile journey from Calcutta, any combination of horse, camel, elephant, bullock cart or sedan chair took five bone-rattling days. Although the idea for a rail connection was first mooted in 1847, the line was only opened in November 1903.

Himalayan Queen
Himalayan Queen (c) Rupert Parker
My carriage is packed with other tourists and the train starts climbing immediately, flanked by hills on both sides. I sit by the open window, enjoying the cool breeze and breathing in the smell of the pines as the engine chugs uphill. The average speed is around 11mph but on this stretch it’s much slower. In 20 miles we pass four stations and make our first stop at Dharampur, at 1500m. Everyone gets off to buy chai and samosas from the stalls on the platform. Just ahead I see a cow on the line, just one of the many hazards of train travel in India.

Building the railway was an extraordinary feat of engineering, with 103 tunnels, more than 864 bridges and around 919 curves. The line climbs 1500m from Kalka to Shimla, over a distance of 60 miles, and the train takes around five hours, passing 18 stations. In 2008 UNESCO added it to its World Heritage list along with the Nilgiri and Darjeeling railways.

Entering Tunnel
Entering Tunnel (c) Rupert Parker
Crossing Viaduct
Crossing Viaduct (c) Rupert Parker
The railway now starts cutting through the landscape in a series of tunnels. The longest is almost three quarters of a mile, just before Barog station. It’s named after the original engineer who decided to save time by digging from both sides of the hill. Unfortunately the two ends didn’t meet so he was fined one rupee and dismissed. Colonel Barog shot himself in disgrace, when walking his dog, and the tunnel was abandoned. For the new one they decided to play safe and employed the spiritual guidance of local guru, Baba Bhalku.