Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) Engine (part 1)

History by  Tony Phillips

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is one of the engineering feats of the world. Although the steepness of the gradients on this narrow-gauge line is eclipsed in other parts of the world, and the 7,407 ft. altitude of the summit at Ghoom station is less than half the height of some of the summits in the Andes, the achievement of the engineers who built the line more than a century ago is a noteworthy one in the history of railways.

This little railway has a gauge of 2 ft. and a length of fifty-one miles, with steep gradients and amazing loops. It climbs from the plains, which are most oppressive in the hot weather to the coolness of the "hills," as the British residents in India call the lower slopes of the Himalayas on which are situated the towns, or "stations," to which they go periodically to preserve their health. A map of the route is shown below:

At one time the journey from Calcutta to Darjeeling was an exhausting one involving many changes. The passenger went by train to Sahebgunge, 219 miles distant. Here a bullock cart had to be taken to the River Ganges, at a point opposite Dingra Ghat. After the river was crossed, by means of a steam ferry to Carragola, another bullock cart journey ensued to Purneah and Siliguri, over a hundred miles from Sahebgunge. At Siliguri the ascent began to Darjeeling. The whole journey took from five to six days. In 1878 the Northern Bengal State Railway was opened, reducing the time of the journey to less than twenty-four hours. The mail train from Calcutta left the terminus of the Eastern Bengal State Railway and ran 116 miles to Damookdeah. on the Ganges, where passengers and mails were taken across the river by ferry steamer to Sara Ghat, on the northern bank. From Sara Ghat the railway went on to Siliguri, a distance of 196 miles.

In those days dinner - the fish course of which was "strongly recommended," was served aboard the ferry and the vagaries of the great river made the crossing interesting. Since the river was constantly cutting away the bank at one place and increasing it at another, the points of departure on one side and of arrival on the other had frequently to be altered, sometimes by as much as several miles. As an aid to navigation of the ferry steamer at night, small boats were moored in the river, showing colored lights. In after years the Ganges was bridged to carry the line from Calcutta to Siliguri, and the Eastern Bengal State Railway now operates the territory formerly served by the Northern line. The Hardinge Bridge, which spans the river, was opened in 1917, connecting the 5 ft. 6 in. gauge lines of the system south of the Ganges with the meter gauge lines on the northern bank. It comprises fifteen girder spans of 345 ft. with three land spans of 75 ft. at either end.

It is at Siliguri that the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway begins its remarkable journey to Darjeeling. Before the railway was built, a first-class road, built by the Government at a cost of £6,000 a mile, wound upwards to Darjeeling. In March, 1878, a scheme for the construction of the railway was drawn up, and estimates and plans were submitted to the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, who gave it his support. The money for the enterprise was subscribed almost entirely in India. The Government undertook to maintain the cart-road, the route of which was to be followed by the railway, and guaranteed that the gross receipts of the railway should not fall below a certain figure.