‘This train is going to take us from 656 metres above sea level to 2076 metres above sea level,’ I said, ‘adding, ‘from Kalka to Shimla… and yet they call it a toy train.’ Specky, my wife smiled and said, ‘It is probably because it is a narrow gauge railway line.’
Well, travelling on a 2’6” broad track that is called narrow gauge, was really an adventure of sorts. I hardly had any time to even see who the other sixteen passengers were in my small compartment because I was looking out all the while and smiling as the hills seemed to grow bigger and as the plants began to change to the pines and the deodars. I was never really bored of the any of the 102 tunnels that we went through and yes, I did notice that many of them are like multi-level Roman Aqueducts and at least one of them has an interesting story connected to it.
Our toy train journey of almost 6 hours and covering 96 kms, took us heaving over 886 Arch bridges, through tunnels and negotiating sharp turns and twists form one hill to another until we were high enough to realise that the distant clouds could even come floating in through the open windows.
‘I’m glad the British thought about creating this hill passenger railway,’ I said and Specky informed me that the line was opened on 09 November 1903 and that this was one of the three railways included in the World Heritage List by UNESCO, listed under Mountain Railway of India on 08 July 2008. Specky is the math and stats obsessed one in the family and so I asked her if she could give me any extra information on the sharp turns our Shivalik Express seemed to be taking.
‘Well, the sharpest will have a curve of 48.12 meter radius,’ she said after spending a few minutes with the internet on her smartphone, ‘and if you care to count there will be around 900 curves!’
‘Phew!’ I replied, ‘that’s quite a few turns for a railway journey of a little more than 5 hours!’
Early morning in Kalka
We had got up rather early in the morning as the train we were to board was Shivalik Express that has small compartments that can seat 16 to 22 passengers on comfortable cushioned chairs. We also had the option of booking our journey on the Rail Motor which is just one carriage and shaped like an old-fashioned but quite glamorous bus with a snout! The Rail Motor goes a bit faster as well but booking seats on these early morning trains on long weekends and summer vacations can be quite uncertain as seats fill up as soon as the booking opens. Bookings open 2 months before the actual departure so planning your trip to Shimla on a Toy Train is essential or you just might end up taking a bus or a cab and miss out on a really romantic hill journey! Another caution for the traveller is that though seats fill up fast, a lot of them are booked by the agents and touts and so a reasonable waiting list getting converted into confirmed booking is equally possible. Well, I remember Specky getting up at 5 in the morning to book the tickets the day they opened… and could book just one and one was in the waiting list! Imagine the entire train getting filled in less than 5 hours from midnight to 5 in the morning! The Rail Motor starts from Kalka at 10 past 5 in the morning, Shivalik Deluxe Express at 05:30 hrs, Kalka-Shimla Express at 6, and the Himalayan Queen at 12:10 hrs… so choose your train according to your travel plan.
There are just two retiring rooms at Kalka Station… and we were able to book one of these rooms and were saved from rushing to some Hotel for a few hours of sleep. This also gave us the advantage to walk out to one of the two most talked about eating joints in Kalka and have our dinner in peace!
A walk early in the morning at Kalka station before the other passengers come tumbling in a few minutes before the train’s departure, is absorbing. You wonder at the strange emptiness of a station and the way it responds to your roving glance. The reflections from trains waiting for their turn, the sound of the hurried footsteps of the vendor coming in before the crowds come, the darkness outside hesitating to compete with the bright lights on the platforms… I realised that even a silent station has a lot of poetry embedded in it.
The first thing we noticed was that the chairs in Shivalik Express had a back-rest that could be pulled back to make the seat face the opposite direction… just like it was in the train to Katoomba in Australia. I loved this feature. A family of four can face each other and be a really involved group if they want. Or you could just give your back-rest a push, get up and face the other direction!
Well, these seats make sure that no one ever travels to Shimla watching Kalka all the time!
A top speed of 25 kmph isn’t much and so a sharply turning train has hardly any risk of falling off… because the gorges are deep and treacherous at times. The rail Motor does go a bit faster… but then who wants to save time on this journey. I wanted it go on forever and as we went by Dharampur, Taksal, Barog, and Solan (just a few of the major towns) I couldn’t prevent myself from wishing Shimla to move further away!
This is one train that stops at Barog for around 10 minutes where they serve you breakfast. Tea is also served just as the train leaves Kalka… so food should not be one of the things to worry about.
The funny story
Tell me of any journey that does not have at least one funny story, and I’ll say you’ve had the strangest one of all times. Even this short journey from Kalka to Shimla had more than its share of funny moments.
Just imagine a small family of three who have one seat in a different compartment… like us. We had, of course managed to exchange seats with a solo traveller who didn’t mind shifting… but this family decided to let their teenage son sit on their lap! Now if this isn’t funny, what else? Well, there is more… they had their big bags right in front of their seats and sat the entire distance turning and twisting uncomfortably despite my asking them to keep their luggage between the back-rests of the seats elsewhere in the compartment.
Yes, there will always be at least one woman in every hill journey who will be totally dizzy and will have her eyes closed throughout. Even in a toy train? Yes, we had one who did not open her eyes even once to see the sensual clouds and the happily whistling pines and deodars. Had they asked me I’d have suggested to take a cab as their torture would have been far less then.
The Barog story
Barog station is right after the train comes out from Tunnel No. 33 that is 1143.62 metres long and is the longest in the route. There is a rather sad story connected to this tunnel that takes us back in time to 1900. Barog was the Chief Engineer then and it was under his supervision that the tunnelling took place but his calculations went haywire and the two ends of the tunnel did not meet. This fiasco can also be visited if you have enough time to stay on and walk to the place which is around a kilometre from the station… but 10 minutes is barely enough to just walk up to the new tunnel that was finally constructed by H S Harrington between July 1900 and September 1903 with the help from a local sadhu called Bhalku. The money invested was 8 lakh and 40 thousand only… a fraction of the price one pays for a one-bedroom flat in a place like Delhi! If you are tempted to ask about the fate of Barog… well, the British government fined him Rs 1 for his error and as he found this too humiliating, he committed suicide.
Barog, like any of the other stations that one passes during this journey, is painted a nice and vibrant blue and white and is clean. And seems sleepy. I’ve noticed that as one climbs higher above the sea level, life gets easier and laid-back… and this is one thing that I simply love.
Well, all I can say is that one remains busy clicking the tunnels, the turns, the mountains, the stations, passing trains, and floating clouds… and the slightly more than 5 hour journey suddenly comes to an end.
There are always a few people who will want to compare this train journey with a road journey and all I can say is that the distance between Chandigarh and Shimla is around 120 Kms. (Shimla to Kandaghat is 90 Kms and from Kandaghat to Shimla 30). The time taken to cover this distance in a cab is around 3 and half hours.
Train to Shimla – video:
Some more pictures of the Toy Train from Kalka to Shimla…
26 June 2015