Indian Hill Railways

Ffestiniog Travel actively encourages its customers to offer feedback on the tours and holidays they have taken with us and the more elaborate the better! So again we welcome another customer blog to these pages and one that captures the essence of our annual pilgrimage to India, combining journeys on the wonderful Hill Station Railways with visiting some of the Sub-Continent’s notable landmarks. This travel blog by Dave Firth chronicles his experience of our 2016 India Tour in which he describes the practical elements of the holiday, the interesting stops along the way and of course the railway journeys themselves!

Darjeeling Himalaya Railway Joy Train - © Bob Cable
Golden Temple at Amritsar - © Bob Cable
Kalka/Shimla Railway - © Bob Cable
Nilgiri Railway - © Bob Cable
Taj Mahal - © Bob Cable

Earlier this year I finally managed to visit the Indian Hill Railways on a Ffestiniog Travel Escorted Tour. Persuading my wife to accompany me was tricky due to her experiences with the hotels on a previous railway holiday! Maria Cook, the General Manager assured us that the hotels would be good and we can confirm that they were; my wife’s only disappointment was that she would like to have spent a longer period in some of them.

We started the holiday in Amritsar, and on our first day visited the Golden Temple. The coach which took us from the hotel could only go so far; we then had to continue on foot through an extremely poor area beneath an elevated highway. The contrast between our walk through the streets and the grandeur of the Temple and its environs was really striking but gave us a good introduction to India.

Our first railway journey did not happen due to ‘a rail strike’ so our journey to Kalka was therefore by road. On arrival at Kalka station we were given free access to the railway works of the Kalka-Shimla railway prior to our journey on the railway. Up the line to Shimla. The works were similar to Boston Lodge but a little more modern and they only deal with diesel locomotives, they also have a separate building for Carriages. We travelled up to Shimla on a special two coach train which gave us good opportunities to leave the train at various stations to take our photographs. Construction of this railway, which was originally started as a 2ft gauge line, was changed to 2ft 6in on the orders of the British army after they decided to standardise army railways on that gauge. The line is very heavily engineered with over a hundred tunnels and their distinctive viaducts. The line also makes considerable use of spirals to gain the height to Shimla. Although roads in the area have been improved for transporting freight, the line appeared to be extremely well used by the local population. I was particularly interested in there diesel Rail cars which I managed to photograph being turned at Shimla. Our hotel in Shimla was very much of the colonial style - we were lucky enough to be given a suite of rooms – but the style transported us back in time to the period of the Viceroy and colonial rule. Smoking in the hotel and throughout the town is prohibited with hefty fines if caught in the act! We were treated to a journey down the line from Shimla behind the line’s only surviving KC Class steam loco. The loco did not appear to be in very good condition and our journey was cut a little short after it was failed by the loco crew. An Indian television crew turned up to record the event for one of their television channels. Our return journey from Shimla to Kalka was on a normal timetable train with a scheduled stop for food and ‘chay’ which all gave us a very good insight into the way of life in the area.

From Kalka we travelled to Delhi on the Shatabdi Express giving us an introduction to the Indian standard gauge (5ft 6in) railways. Our sightseeing tours of Delhi included an afternoon at the railway museum which was packed with interesting exhibits and lots of narrow gauge examples including a steam monorail which, unfortunately, was not working and I believe had been out of action for many years. One of our days in Delhi included a train trip to Agra with a visit to the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort.

We left Delhi by train on the Rajdhani Express for an overnight journey across northern India to Jalpaiguri in West Bengal. As most trains in India are sleeping trains, owing to the long distances covered, so this journey also gave us another experience of Indian life as we travelled in two tier bunks through the night. After transfer to the Sinclairs Hotel and an opportunity to freshen up, our tour leader, Ray Smith, organised taxis to take those of us who could not wait for a visit to the Siliguri engine sheds of the Darjeeling Railway. I was immediately struck by the run down nature of the engine shed and of the locos both steam and diesel. It was obvious that they were warming up one of the B-class 0-4-0 tanks. When we returned the following morning, this was the loco that was going to pull our special two coach first-class train. I found their coaling arrangement interesting with a man walking up a plank with a basket of coal on his head. Ffestiniog Travel had some jeeps which carried our luggage and provided the opportunity for photographers to leave the train and be taken ahead to suitable sites for photography as the train zig-zagged across the road as it climbed up into the mountains. My assessment of the poor state of the locomotive was confirmed when, in addition to the five man crew on the loco (driver, fireman, two sanders, and a man to break up the lumps of coal), three fitters joined us in the front of the first coach. Thereafter at each station and water stop the fitters got to work on the loco shimming bearings etc. As our train approached the Tindharia Railway Works the scar of the enormous landslide which had swept away part of the works and line severing it for many years was clear to see. Apparently during the winter they had managed to blow up the unsafe boulders which had closed the line the previous October so our train was able to complete the journey up to the works, which we were then able to visit. I was surprised at the number of women working on the machinery of the well equipped works. A full overhaul on one of the B-class tanks was just approaching completion and was the only loco I saw during my visit to the DHR which could be said to be in good order and resembled the locos we are used to seeing on the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland. We continued on our special train to Kurseong and its terminal station.

Our night in Kurseong was spent at the Cochrane Place Hotel – a unique experience in a very ‘quaint’ hotel steeped in history. We were given the bedroom which had at one time been used by the resident engineer of the DHR and had been kept to a large degree as he would have used it. Other members of our group therefore came visiting to view and take photographs of the history the room contained! The following morning having had an opportunity to visit Kurseong’s bazaar, we rejoined our special charter train to continue the journey up through the Bazaar to Ghoom and then down to Darjeeling.

Our time in Darjeeling was slightly disappointing owing to the low cloud obscuring the views of the Himalayas. We did, however, take the opportunity for a very early morning visit to Tiger Tops to attempt to see the sun rise over the Himalayas. The morning was clear and very cold as our mission was accomplished and we watched the sun rise over Kachenjunga. The cloud soon rose out of the valley and again obscured the view of the snow-capped summits. Whilst in Darjeeling we had the opportunity of riding one of the Joy Trains up to Ghoom with a special visit to the Batasia Loop. Before making this journey I made my way to the engine shed and handed out F&WHR pens with pictures of our engines and presented the shed foreman with a copy of the TLC. I was made extremely welcome and the foreman arranged a short trip for me on the footplate up the line and back prior to coupling on to its train. We left Darjeeling by road for Bagdogra airport from where we flew to Chennai in the south-east of India.

In Chennai we visited the beach that had been hit by the great tsunami where we paddled in the Bay of Bengal, then later visited a Hindu temple and St. Thomas’s Cathedral. At Chennai Central Station we boarded a West Coast Express bound for Mangalore. (I was very surprised at the large quantity of fish loaded into the first two coaches of this train.) This was another sleeping train but we were not travelling through the night this time and alighted at Coimbatore. On this trip we were treated to an enormous variety of scenery as we travelled across India. At Coimbatore we travelled by coach to Mettupalayam Junction where we were to board the Nilgiri Rack Railway which was the last of our three narrow gauge hill railways or ‘toy trains’ as the Indians refer to them! The modern steam locomotives of this metre gauge line are oil-fired but have enormous diesel compressors to eject the oil into the firebox rather than steam as is done on the F&WHR. At Coonoor we changed the steam loco for a diesel using the same driver, for the last section of the non-rack part of the line up to Ooty. The gift of a copy of the TLC to the driver again got me on the footplate and on arrival at Ooty the driver wanted to continue our conversation about the F&WHR and so unfortunately I was responsible for delaying the departure of our coach to the hotel!

In summary, I have to say that this holiday gave us a wonderful introduction to India; in fact two of the people on our trip were not particularly interested in railways but had heard about the trip from friends the year before and had booked it for that reason. For me the extra bonus was visiting the three famous hill railways and learning a lot more about Indian railways. Our tour leader was extremely knowledgeable on Indian railways and great company. The Indian guides were also very good and of course spoke excellent English. I can wholeheartedly recommend this holiday to anybody!

We are currently finalising our 2018 Indian Hills Tour, but for a taste of what you can expect see our 2017 itinerary here and register your interest by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 01766 772030.

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