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The History
It was a cold wintry evening in London town and a young boy sat staring at the tea kettle on the stove while his mother fussed at him for wasting his time. The boy was James Wat who was to invent the steam engine, leading to the railway engine by George Stevenson in the eighteenth century. Trains caught man's fancy and spread rapidly to other parts of the world, each trying to outdo the other in luxury and elegance as the wheels and years rolled on the rails.

Trains came to India in the early part of the last century -- among the very first and most novel, is the famous Toy Train of Darjeeling. It is 117 years old having made its maiden trip in the September of 1881. Officially known as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, it is as much a pioneering work of achievement, projecting not only its engineering ingenuity but also a historic development of the 19th century British convalescent center in the remote north eastern Himalayas.

In 1870, an agent working for the Eastern Bengal Railway came up with a brilliant idea to reduce the costs of transport. His name Franklyn Prestage -- the idea -- the Toy Train. It took eight long years for Prestage to submit his scheme to Lt. Governor Sir Ashley Eden, who gave it immediate sanction. Named the Darjeeling Steam Tramway Co., it was changed to The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Co. on September 15th 1881. It remained as such till it was taken over by the Indian Government on Oct. 20, 1948. The construction had begun in 1879 and with the zeal shown by the workers, the first 20 miles from Siliguri to Tindharia station was opened in March 1880 for the Viceroy's special train only. After a further 11 miles to Kurseong were completed, it was opened to the public on August 23 of that year. Sonada was reached on February 1, 1881, the summit of Ghoom on April l4th, 1881 and finally on July 4th 1881 the baby locomotive and three coaches puffed right through to Darjeeling-a total of 50.75 miles.

The Toy Train at Batasia Loop

In 1914, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) was further extended down south towards Kishanganj and close to the Nepalese frontier for jute traffic and in 1915. Meantime the DHR was extended from Siliguri toward Sevoke by 10 miles and further to the north 16 miles on Kalimpong road. Until 1878, the journey from Calcutta to Darjeeling took from 5 to 6 days by the East Indian Railway from Howrah to Sahebganj, then by steam ferry across the Ganges to Charcoal, then by bullock carts on the river opposite Danger Hat, after crossing again by bullock cart or 'palki' (palanquin) to Purnea, Kishanganj, Titalya and Siliguri whence the ascent commenced via the Punkhabari road which finally joins the present cart road at Kurseong. In 1878, Siliguri was put on the map of the railway, the journey was cut to two days and another six to seven hours to Darjeeling.

The Journey
Puffing along a two foot gauge track, the gradient of which stays at a maximum of 1 to 20, the train passes through a region, the sheer beauty of which starts manifesting itself as soon as one begins the journey at Siliguri, a stone throw from Bagdogra. Dense jungle with solid walls of vegetation hem in the track as the train begins its climb to its destination by a system of special loops and 'Z' crossings or switch backs. Soon the landscape changes to tea plantation clinging to the steep mountains and forming narrow terraces looking like giant steps. The first station on the line is Sunk (146.5 meters) at a distance of 10 km from Siliguri Junction. From here, the train passes through thick and magnificent foliage of Sal, Toon, Teak and other numerous trees. The dense green is dotted with the purple of bougainvillea, the scarlet of the poinsettia and the exotic mauve of the orchid. In the distance are stately trees, rocks, boulders and lovely waterfalls while further away meandering rivers look like flowing silk ribbons in the extensive plains. From here, too, the painstaking ascent of the train starts and at about 18 km is the first spiral or 'loop' which runs partly through a cuffing, and again at 20 km the train stops for its first watering operations offering a good view of the valley stretching below.

Running on south at about the 22nd kilometer, is another beautiful and somewhat complicated loop. After winding through a third loop, at Chunamandi (2,000ft) the train comes to its "Z" crossing or switchback at about a distance of 28 km. Here, it starts zigzagging or reversing to attain a higher elevation, The first big station, Tindharia, 37 km from Siliguri, is at a height of 860 meters and has a workshop for repairs. Leaving the station, the train passes another "Z' crossing and at a distance of 6 km is Gayabari station at a height of 3,516feet where the line runs close to the edge of a precipice, the mountain terraced with tea bushes and wild flowers in flaming colors while in the distance is Pagla Jhora or "Mad Torrent", a roaring, cascading waterfall. This is the chief outlet of rainfall due to the clouds striking against Mahaldiram Range and after a heavy rain this course is a roaring torrent in which large boulders are helplessly tossed about. The train has now covered half the distance to Darjeeling.

A Moonlit Kanchenjunga Overlooking Darjeeling
Near Mahanadi station at about 48km, the train passes through a rock cutting and a fresh view of the plains is yielded. The rocks are very bluff and a large projecting rock is known as "Artilleryman's Rock" owing to an unfortunate man having committed suicide at that spot. Above the road is the Gladstone Rock aptly named after the famous Victorian statesman and Prime Minister, whose resemblance it is supposed to bear. Suddenly, after another kilometer or so the town of Kurseong, or "The Land of the White Orchid", jumps into view. The train is now on street level and at an elevation of 1,524 meters (4,860 ft). It goes by shops and is followed by excited screaming children who never tire of greeting every train. From here a splendid view of the plains is obtained and the wide belt of the forest at the foot of the hills can also be seen making the extent of 'Terai'. An important station on the line, Kurseong maintains a good bazaar and is well kept and clean.

Soon the train leaves this delightful station, fog appears and all of sudden is gone -- a will o' the wisp -- Mount Kanchenjunga first leaps into view showing off its mighty majesty. Running generally along the old Hill Cart road, the train reaches Toong station at an elevation of 1,724 meters (5,565 ft) and 8 kilometers from Kurseong. Toong abounds in Toomi trees. Sonada, enveloped in dense fog, at an elevation of 1,997 meters (6,552 ft) is eight kilometers away. The abode of bears, Sonada provides Darjeeling with its milk and fruits. Many tea gardens converge here along the Hope Town spur. It is also an important vegetable growing center.

Looking like a caterpillar, the train continues winding along the twisted paths crawling alongside, almost hugging the side of the hill. Ascending gradually, the train reaches Jore Bungalow Bazaar, from where a road leads to Senchal Lake, Tiger Hill, Kalimpong and the many tea gardens lying ahead. Soon it will reach the last town on the Indo-Nepal frontier -- Ghoom. Situated at an altitude of 2,225.7 meters (7,407 ft), Ghoom is the highest rail-road station in the world and the home of a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery. After Ghoom, the train starts descending towards Darjeeling for a distance of 6 km and the line falls about 182.9 meters (1,000 ft). In between is the graceful double loop -- Batasia -- from where a grand view of Darjeeling in all its glowing beauty presided over by mighty Kanchenjunga with all the other peaks-the land of perpetual snows, bursts before the eyes of the eager traveler.

Constructed on spurs of the Himalayan hills, the loops, once named "Sensation Corner" and "Agony Point", are very good viewing points and the passengers get the feel of the sheer drop below. No tunnels were ever dug since it was desired that the traveler got full views of the ever-changing scenery.

The Construction Costs
Originally estimated at a cost of rupees 14 lakhs, it escalated to 17 lakhs in 1881 and to 28 lakhs by 1887. By 1891 the costs had climbed to a height of 32 lakhs, or Rs. 60,000 per mile. After World War I in 1920, when the Batasia Loop on the final descent to Darjeeling had been built, the investment had reached Rupees 43 lakhs, truly a labor of love. A system of bogie stock consisting of four cars and one van pulled by a Garret or eight wheeled engine, weighing 28 tons and running on a 2 foot broad track, was introduced in 1909 and is traditionally continued till this day. From a quarter million passengers and 60,000 tons of freight in 1914, the traffic rose to 300,000 passengers in World War I and steadied at 260,000 passengers and 65,000 tons of freight in 1920. Recently the figures have been 1,500,000 passengers and 90,000 tons of freight per year.