Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) Engine (part 2)

History by  Tony Phillips

The cart-road, about forty miles long, some 25 ft. wide, and metalled throughout, was used by pack ponies, pack bullocks, bullock carts, palkee gharries, and pony tongas. The construction of the railway considerably reduced the cost of fares and transport, and made the benefits of a ”hill climate" available to the poorer European who had to work and live on the plains of Bengal.

The building of the railway aroused great interest in India. Work began in May, 1879, and in March, 1880, the Viceroy of India, Lord Lytton, traveled on a train as far as the eighteenth mile, which was then the limit of the line. In the following August the line was opened for passenger and goods traffic as far as Kurseong, 4,864 ft. above the sea and thirty-two miles from Siliguri. In July, 1881, the line was opened throughout to Darjeeling station.

Siliguri lies 398 ft. above sea-level. The summit at Ghoom, forty-seven miles from Siliguri, has an altitude of 7,407 ft., that of Darjeeling being 6,812 ft. As the line had to rise over 7,000 ft. in less than fifty miles, steep gradients and sharp curves were unavoidable. The surveyors plotted banks ranging from 1 in 19 to 1 in 36 and curves of 50 ft. radius. Later, however, these were reduced, the sharpest curve being 69 ft., the steepest short gradient being 1 in 23, and the steepest average gradient about 1 in 29.

The fact that it was decided to work the line by adhesion (rather than cog and rack) on the narrow gauge of 2 ft. restricted the weight of the trains, but there is nothing of a ”toy railway“ about the construction of the line or about the amount of passenger and goods traffic, that it carries. Steel rails weighing 41 lb. per yard were laid on wooden sleepers.

For the first seven miles from Siliguri station the gradient was easy, the ascent to Sookna station (533 ft.) being at 1 in 281. The heaviest piece of work in this section was the erection of a steel bridge, 700 ft. long, in seven 100 ft. spans, across the Mahanuddy River. This river has its source in the line of mountains ahead of the traveler known as the Mahaldirum Range, with an altitude of about 7,000 ft. The river at this point forms a boundary between the Terai, the jungle tract at the foot of the Himalayas, and the district of Julpaiguri. It is a tributary of the Ganges. The train passes streams and tea gardens on the way to Sookna. When the jungle was being cleared the area was fatal to many Europeans, a number of whom died from fever.

It is at Sookna that the real ascent begin. After passing the ninth mile-post, the train encounters the first sharp curves. Then a fine view opens out to the south, displaying a vast horizon, and the passenger notices how rapidly he is rising above the plain. Passing through giant bamboo’s and screw pines, the train reaches the first spiral, or loop. The engineers had to conquer an altitude of 871 ft. in the four and three-quarter miles from Sookna to Rungtong station (1,404 ft.), which is at the twelfth mile. Four and a half miles from Sookna the sudden ascent made a spiral unavoidable. The track described a sharp spiral through a deep cutting to gain the higher level. Four years or so after this had been constructed the rains of 1883 caused a slip of rocks and earth which fell into the cutting, completely filling it. This misfortune was turned to good account. The engineers had discussed realigning the section to reduce the gradient, and when the landslip compelled them to repair the line they eased the gradient, making a new track some distance below the original road. A section of the mountain line can be seen below: