The British colonization of India left behind at least one institution that’s still maintained and cherished to this very day—a sprawling railway system. Though tracks span the length and breadth of the subcontinent, no part of the system is more impressive than the three mountain railways grouped as a single World Heritage site: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, and the Kalka Shimla Railway.
These lines offer riders an unmatched travel adventure in rugged mountainous terrain and stand the test of time as outstanding feats of engineering. Perhaps their most important role, however, was as socio-economic lifelines for isolated communities in this mountainous region. The railways helped to link rural people together as part of a rapidly modernizing India. [Related: Photos of Life Aboard the Longest Train Ride Through India]
The small-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway—often called the "toy train" for its diminutive size—opened in 1881. The engineering project that established this rail line was nothing short of monumental. The original 51-mile (82-kilometer) run climbed from 400 feet (120 meters) at Siliguri to some 7,407 feet (2,257 meters) at Ghum. The serpentine track employed an endless series of switchbacks, loops, hairpin turns, tunnels, and bridges to gain serious altitude at a sustainable grade.
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway spans 29 miles (46 kilometers) of mountainous terrain in Tamil Nadu state. Unlike the Himalayan railroads to the north, this steam-driven line climbs through southern jungles, rising toward its terminus at Udhagamandalam. In this hill station, once called Ootycamund or “Ooty,” British administrators sought relief from the heat.
The Nilgiri line was proposed in 1854 but regional topography was so daunting that work did not begin until 1891. It lasted nearly two decades before the line opened in 1908. The single-track line climbs toward the clouds from 1,070 feet (326 meters) to 7,228 feet (2,203 meters)—an incredible achievement a century ago and no less one today.
The narrow-gauge Kalka Shimla Railway, which runs some 60 miles (96 kilometers) and climbs some 4,659 feet (1,420 meters), was designed and executed during the late-19th century so that India’s foreign rulers could more easily escape the heat at the Raj’s summer capital—the hill station of Shimla.
The line delves through 102 tunnels, the largest of which is 3,750 feet (1,143 meters) long. It also crosses 864 bridges, many of which are viaducts with several levels of arched galleries reminiscent of ancient Rome’s aqueducts.
These railways are a historic holy trinity for train aficionados, but they are more than dusty relics of an empire. All three are still fully operational today, and a ride on any of them reveals the incredible engineering achievements that brought rail service to these rugged locales.
The railways face intermittent problems due to political unrest in some regions. They are also at the mercy of seasonal storms, which can wash out tracks (and roads) and necessitate extensive repairs. Maintenance of these treasures can be difficult and expensive, but their high appeal to tourists helps to keep them running.
How to Get There
The lower stations of these mountain railways are accessible by conventional Indian rail lines or by bus/automobile.
When to Visit
Potential riders should be wary of weather-related closings, including high snowfall in the northern mountains and rainy season washouts.
How to Visit
These train trips epitomize the old saying about the journey being as memorable as the destination. There are intriguing stops along each of these lines, leaving it up to the traveler to decide how long to linger en route. For those interested in seeing each line as a continuous ride there’s nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the scenery.