From beautiful old grand halls in Mumbai, to tiny pastel-colored stations in the Himalayas, the railways in India don't make for an ordinary train ride. We take a tour with Rail View along the winding tracks to find some of the best spots on the way.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, Mumbai
India's most impressive railway station for sheer size and ornate architecture can be found in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. Originally called Victoria Terminus, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus was built in 1888 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, and the station was the city’s first building constructed for the public. It was designed by Frederick William Stevens and merges Victorian Italianate Gothic Revival and traditional Indian architecture. Stevens worked closely with Indian craftsmen to build authentic features, such as the many overhanging enclosed balconies, known as jharokas.
Inside the building, the architectural details are just as intricate. The main booking office is known as the Star Chamber for the star-covered white panels sitting between dark wood ribs that meet in the centre of its ceiling.
Over 3 million people begin their journeys here every day, among the columns of Indian stone and polished red and grey Italian marble that support stunning vaulted ceilings and pointed Gothic arches. Look closer to see the elaborate carvings of flowers, plants and animals at the top of these columns.
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus is also home to a heritage gallery, where people can stop by to learn a detailed history about the Indian railways. You can take a virtual tour of it, here.
The grandeur of the building's design isn't masked by nightfall: once the sun has set the exterior facade is lit up with the colors of India’s national flag. The saffron yellow represents strength and courage, the white represents truth and peace and the green stands for growth and fertility.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was India's first hill passenger railway, running from New Jalpaiguri in the lower reaches of the Eastern Himalayas to the lush hills and tea plantations of Darjeeling in West Bengal. Building a railway through a mountain range is no easy feat, and the line incorporates many engineering innovations to cope with the difficult terrain. Built in 1881, the route consists of 6 zig-zags and 5 loops along its 80km of track to combat the steep hills of the Himalayas.
A railway zig zag is a part of the track where the train stops and reverses its direction back and up for a short stretch, before stopping and continuing forward again. Traveling back and forth like this at a gradual incline allows the gradient of the track to be a lot less than if the train travelled directly from point to point up the mountain. The famous author Mark Twain once rode the DHR route in 1895. He described it as the "most enjoyable day I’ve spent on earth" and that it "mixed ecstasy of deadly fright and unimaginable joy."
The highest spot on the route is Ghum, at 7,400 feet above sea level.
Like zig zags, loops help the train travel up the hills of the Himalayas without having to climb at a steep gradient. Loops rise over a curve to allow the train to gain height steadily, sometimes in a spiral shape so the track will pass back over itself as it rises. The DHR has three, Chunbati Loop, Agony Point and Batasia Loop (below), which provides a panoramic view of Darjeeling and Mount Kanchenjunga. You can navigate round the bend on Street View below:
The Kalka-Shimla hill passenger railway was built in 1898 to improve transport links to Shimla, which was then the summer capital of British India, sitting in the highlands at an altitude of over 2,000 metres. Currently, seven passenger services pass through the route a day, along which there are a number of charming open-air stations dotted throughout the mountains, such as Barog, which you can explore below.
The Kalka-Shimla route is one of the five other railway lines in India nicknamed the “Toy Train” as its tracks measure just 75cm wide. The route contains many accomplishments of engineering along its rise through the hills, including tunnels, over 800 bridges and more than 900 curves, the sharpest of which is around 48 degrees. Bridge 493, also known as the Arch Gallery for its multiple arches that mimic the style of Roman viaducts, was built in 1898 and is 32 meters long. Pan around to see the breathtaking view from the tracks.
The Kalka-Shimla Railway took 20 years to develop, due to the challenges presented by building in the Himalayan mountains and the intense rainy season and abundant snowfall that make up the climate of the region. The line initially had 107 tunnels, but now only has 102 as a result of damage from landslides.
The tunnel at Barog has a sad history. British Engineer Colonel Barog, who was in charge of the operation, tried to save time building the tunnel by having two teams dig from opposite sides of the mountain at once. Unfortunately his calculations were off and they did not meet in the middle as planned. The Colonel, unable to cope with the failure, took his own life and legend has it that his ghost still haunts station and the surrounding the area. The next attempt at the tunnel, a successful one, was built by H.S. Harrington and a local sage named Baba Bhalku, but it is still known as Barog Tunnel.
Along the route you can find the Kalka Heritage Rest House, where privileged passengers could stop and stay the night before rising early to continue their journey. It’s an example of Anglo-Indian architecture, built square like an English castle, but with Indian-style large windows, steep roofs and airy verandas.
Another of the Kalka Shimla Railway's rest houses, the Crow Borough Officers' Rest House was built in 1921 for engineers and high ranking officials of the KSR to stay in. It is an example of a typical early 20th century Himalayan mountain chalet architecture and has amazing panoramic views towards the valleys in the south. Pan around to take a look.
Kangra Valley Railway
The Kangra Valley Railway runs from Pathankot across difficult mountainous terrain to Joginder Nagar — it crosses over a total of 993 bridges along the way. You can explore one of them below.
It opened in 1928, although closed for a brief period during World War II when a part of its track was removed for war material supply. It was then restored 12 years later.
Traveling the full length of the railway is slow going, taking about 10 hours from start to finish, but there are plenty of beautiful views and quaint stations to admire along the way, such as Ahju below: