Starting at an elevation of only about 100m in New Jalpaiguri and rising to around 2,200m is the Darjeeling Himalayan railway – the world’s tallest railway network. Whilst the length of this track is only 78km long, the Darjeeling Himalayan railway (fondly know as the ‘Toy Train’) is a must-do for travelers to this part of the world.
Located in the state of West Bengal, Darjeeling was annexed to India by the British after the East India Company purchased it from the rulers of Sikkim in 1835. The station at Darjeeling was established when the British decided that the cooler climate here would be ideal for British residents who wanted to escape the heat of the Indian summer. The climate here was good for soldiers but also perfect for growing tea and it’s tea that firmly has placed Darjeeling on the world map.
Since it came into service in 1881, the DHR has managed to retain most of its original features and still runs 16 trains a day. The popularity of the DHR is undoubtedly in its use of steam locomotives that operate on a 2-foot narrow-gauge track. Despite being over 130 years old, the same steam locomotives carry passengers over a meandering single-track system through tea plantations and mountains to the terminus at Darjeeling. Use of the same steam engines evoke memories of a bygone age, but remain temperamental and labour intensive. After travelling on the Toy Train from Siliguri to Darjeeling in 1896, Mark Twain wrote that the railway journey is ‘so wild and interesting and exciting and enchanting that it ought to take a week.’
Despite all of this, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway has had its difficulties. In recent years, the main worry was that in order to survive the DHR would have to become an amusement ride, which would mean that it lost its place at the heart of the community. The DHR was almost scrapped by authorities in the 90s, but thanks to global petitions and local protests, the railway line was formally declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999. Today, the DHR’s future seems assured and, like tea, it has become an enduring part of the identity of Darjeeling.