Heritage · India · Photography · Travel Writing

The Shimla narrow gauge train


At Shimla station, there’s a board that explains more than i can remember about the importance of this railway line. Much has been written about this train on message boards such as these and in books and I recall a program on TV at some point of time as well. Hence, my hopes were a bit high. The train was to depart at a half past five and the forty five minutes I had at my disposal were to be utilized effectively and not frittered away – loitering like everyone else was.

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I was a bit wary of clicking photos as photographing a railway station is not permitted but I asked and it seemed Ok as there were plenty of others getting a photo taken with the locomotive for reasons best known to them. I helped this gentleman with a few shots.

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I spent time photographing the station itself. It is quaint, I give you that. ‘’Established in 1903’’ a board reads and ‘’heritage structure’’, etc. This little four wheeled trolley is apparently a Rail Push Trolley useful for inspecting the condition of the tracks.

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Here’s a shot of the Railway yard where trains are washed and they can reverse direction from what little I know about trains.

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Simla is well known for its monkeys – they are notorious for snatching what they can, when they can, off whomsoever they can. Most of the passengers waiting outside the train that stays locked till a half hour before scheduled departure time, were vary of these. The monkeys look for food – everywhere – like this one was – I could almost make this my avatar photo, no?

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I was to ride in the first class cabin of the train. Within a few minutes of the door getting unlocked, after I boarded the empty coach, found my seat and pushed the bag partially underneath it. However, the rains earlier that day had resulted in part of the coach getting some water and some seats were wet as was the curtain of my window. That was a bit disappointing. Here’s a photo of the coach for those of you who love this sort of a thing. Please note the odd seating arrangement.

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Shortly thereafter, a group of young men came inside the coach. From their chatter I could sense they didn’t have a reservation. To my great puzzlement, they started undressing from the waist down. At this time, it was only me in the coach and these methods of welcome alarmed me greatly.

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Soon the ticket inspector came running from nowhere and asked them to get off and go to an ‘ordinary’ compartment, which they did without creating a ruckus. I settled down in my seat and faintly smiled at the two couples who were to be my traveling companions. One of them was a research scholar at the IIAS. Originally from Kerala he had lived in various other developing countries and taught there- he had fond memories of Bolivia, Egypt and SE Asia and there was much to talk about as he had also spent time in Bangalore. The other couple was an Indian postal department official availing LTC. He was insufferable and didn’t stop asking questions ranging from why am I not married to how much will I earn in my next job. I clicked a photo of his missus and that surely told him off.

We left around scheduled time. The wooded slopes were splendid as seen from the windows. First they were this-a-way of the train.

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And then they were that-a-way.

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There were tunnels aplenty. Some were romantic. Others were dark, brooding and eventually they were one too many for my liking.

The train does go faster sometimes, at other times slow. Here’s a video to show you my experience.

Or these, even better, when it passes over viaducts – the big multi-arched ones.

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We crossed another narrow gauge train – and by the looks of the number of people attempting to board it, I was in decidedly better shape where I was.

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It was decidedly a once in a lifetime experience – the narrow gauge train. It was historic and quaint and something I had to get out of my system as I had never done it before.

Thanks to a UNESCO world heritage status, the mountain railways of India – all of them over a century old and well worth preserving for posterity, have received the much needed visibility. Railfans the world over, plan trips to ride this train and similar others that go up to Darjeeling and Ooty respectively.

However, all those thoughts didn’t take away from the discomfort of riding a longish distance, at a speed slower than a good car, in a seat of smaller than comfortable dimensions. I really wanted to fall in love with it, but honestly, the next time I need to go to Shimla, I’ll probably go by road – it is a bit faster.

Shortly after the photo above, the sun set and the world plunged into darkness. We stopped at Barog station, named after a british army officer of the same name. When this railway was planned, around 1903, Barog, the engineer, was responsible for designing a tunnel near the railway station. He commenced digging the tunnel from both sides of the mountain, which is quite common as it speeds up construction. However, he made mistakes in his calculation and while constructing the tunnel, it was found that the two ends of the tunnel did not meet. Barog was fined an amount of 1 Rupee by the British government. Unable to withstand the humiliation, Barog committed suicide and was buried near the incomplete tunnel. The area came to be known as Barog after him. This tunnel, no 33, is the longest on the Kalka Shimla route.

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Mercifully from Kalka to Delhi, I was in 1AC of Kalka mail. Uneventful with a dash of much needed luxury. While at Kalka station, I met a man from the deep south – over two thousand kilometer away. He was also on-board the same train (in a different coach). Earlier, at Simla station, I had helped photograph him next to the locomotive. As the kalka mail was delayed in leaving the station, we were chatting for a while. He was happy with his himachal tour of Shimla, Narkanda, Chamba, etc.

He asked me where I went on this trip?

I told him.

Was there any snow where you went?

Yes, a bit of snow, sure.

Oh, we came all the way from Tamil Nadu and the travel agent told us that for sure we will be able to play in snow. My children really wanted to see snow. Looks like we wasted our money.

I didn’t know what to say except that to enjoy the Himalayas, one has to go beyond the over-exploited destinations now. Go as far as you can till nature itself stops you from going any further. I think I’ll keep that in mind on my next trip as well.

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4 thoughts on “The Shimla narrow gauge train

  1. What a wonderful post, I “know” about Simla, as my parents spent much time there when they lived in India. My father worked on the railways in fact. Thank you for sharing this journey with me, I can picture my family on this train back in the 30’s and 40’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow. That is so personal! You must ride this train at-least once then. Also I wrote earlier about shimla on the blog focusing on the british era landmarks – some of which are truly spectacular. cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

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