As part of Great Rail Journeys India’s Golden Triangle – a 5* rail 13-day tour which comprises the Shatabdi Express and the Toy Train plus excursions to Delhi and Agra with its white marble icon the Taj Mahal on how the journey will move on.
Delhi to Kalka by Shatabdi Express
Early in the morning in the Delhi station, where it seems that an enormous proportion of the 23 million people who use Indian Rail daily have all decided to take the train altogether. Going to Kalka, I choose the Shatabdi Express, to take my journey to catch the narrow gauge “Toy Train” up to Shimla. The travel is about 4 hours and the air-conditioned Executive Class is cozy and comes out with a rather delicious spicy breakfast, finished with a few warming cups of Indian Chai.
We arrived in Kalka, right on time, and I pass over the platform to board the Himalayan Queen, waiting patiently for passengers. It’s dominated by the mighty Express, and why it’s known as the “toy train,” now I completely understand. As Executive Class gave absolute comfort, it was rather uncomfortable for the six rows of seats in the narrow gauge carriages. Thankfully I’ve been tipped to bring my own cushion.
To Shimla from Kalka on Himalayan Queen
The line was put up to ferry mem-sahibs of the British Raj up to Shimla from Kalka, a cool alternative to the steamy plains below, and regarded as one of the great railway journeys of the world. It will take five bone-rattling days when the town transformed as the summer capital in 1864, the 1200 mile journey from Calcutta, any combination of horse, camel, elephant, bullock cart or sedan chair could work. The line was only operated in November 1903 although the idea for a rail connection was first mooted in 1847.
My transport is full of other tourists and the train starts ascending immediately, bounded by hills on both sides. I positioned myself by the open window, adoring the cool breeze and gasping in the smell of the pines as the engine chugs uphill. 11mph is the average speed but on this stretch, it’s way slower. We pass four stations in 20 miles and Dharampur is our first stop at, 1500m. From the stalls on the platform, everyone moved off to try chai and samosas. I see a cow on the line just ahead, just one of the many risks of train travel in India.
It was a remarkable feat of engineering constructing the railway, with a total of 103 tunnels, more than 864 bridges and about 919 curves. Over a distance of 60 miles, the line conquer 1500m from Kalka to Shimla, and passing 18 stations, the train travels around five hours. UNESCO added it to its World Heritage list along with the Nilgiri and Darjeeling railways in 2008.