Take In­dia’s ‘toy train’ into the Hi­malayas,

It has the look of Le­gos and the feel of fam­ily

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - LIFE SUNDAY - Nancy Tre­jos USA TO­DAY

ON THE TOY TRAIN FROM SHIMLA TO KALKA, IN­DIA Anoop Rawat and his fam­ily are on their way home to Delhi from Shimla, the cap­i­tal of the north­ern Indian state of Hi­machal Pradesh, when they de­cide to adopt a stranger from New York City.

“Are you trav­el­ing alone?” Rawat asks as we board the so-called “toy train” from Shimla to Kalka, where we will switch to a reg­u­lar pas­sen­ger train to com­plete the trip to Delhi.

I nod and smile. Be­fore I know it, he’s mak­ing sure I’m well-fed dur­ing our 60-mile jour­ney from Shimla, the sum­mer cap­i­tal of Bri­tish In­dia from 1864 un­til in­de­pen­dence in 1948.

We are on the Hi­malayan Queen, the Kalka-Shimla rail­way that be­came a UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site in 2008. It runs on a nar­row gauge rail, about 2 feet 6 inches wide vs. the usual 5-plus feet. It is com­monly known as the toy train be­cause it looks like some­thing cre­ated by Lego. But it was ac­tu­ally built by the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment and opened to traf­fic in 1903 as a means to get to the much cooler sum­mer es­cape.

The train trav­els through 20 hill sta­tions, 102 tun­nels and over 889 bridges. It bends around 919 curves, the sharpest be­ing 48 de­grees. It slowly as­cends the foothills of the Hi­malayas through pine forests and sleepy towns at about 14 miles per hour — a limit im­posed ear­lier this year af­ter two Bri­tish tourists were killed dur­ing a speed-re­lated de­rail­ment in 2015.

Indian Rail­ways is one of the largest train sys­tems in the world, em­ploy­ing more than 1 mil­lion peo­ple. It is the main method of get­ting around this vast coun­try, car­ry­ing about 23 mil­lion pas­sen­gers daily on a variety of types, in­clud­ing the his­toric toy trains, long-haul sleeper cars and com­muter car­riages. There are about 8,000 sta­tions across the coun­try.

Prime Min­is­ter Narendra Modi has pledged to make the rails safer, more mod­ern and ef­fi­cient. The gov­ern­ment has promised to in­vest more than $130 bil­lion on the ef­fort through 2019, which in­cludes pro­vid­ing Wi-Fi, train­ing staff, ex­pand­ing the net­work, pur­chas­ing new cars and re­fur­bish­ing older ones.

“Trains have been very in­stru­men­tal in bring­ing peo­ple to­gether from the time of in­de­pen­dence,” Rawat says.

There are many types of trains, and classes within each one, and tick­ets sell out quickly to tourist des­ti­na­tions. I en­list the help of a travel agency to help me nav­i­gate the routes. Sad­hana Travel Ser­vices books me a first-class ticket on the Shatabdi Ex­press from Delhi to Kalka. The train trav­els about 188 miles in four hours. It re­sem­bles an older reg­u­lar Am­trak train with­out a café car. Wait­ers de­liver trays of food to each pas­sen­ger at var­i­ous points dur­ing the jour­ney. I get break­fast and af­ter­noon tea, all for about $20 one way.

In Kalka, the gate­way to Hi­machal Pradesh, I walk to the nearby track for the his­toric Hi­malayan Queen. Each car is yel­low and red and car­ries 13 pas­sen­gers. The cush­ioned seats are con­fig­ured so that two pas­sen­gers face an­other two. There are no arm­rests and very lit­tle legroom. But it’s hard to ex­pect much for about $5 one-way.

The lug­gage racks above are nar­row, so I keep a bag on my lap dur­ing the en­tire ride. I have no choice but to get very cozy with my seat­mates, a fam­ily from Cal­cutta. There’s no air con­di­tion­ing, but the win­dows are large and open, and the higher up we go into the foothills, the cooler it gets. The el­e­va­tion of our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion, Shimla, is about 7,500 feet.

Most of the pas­sen­gers in my car are Indian, but I do come across a cou­ple of tourists. Adam Dowis and Julie Evanoff, both from New York City, plan to spend just one night in Shimla.

“Mostly we wanted to take the train,” Evanoff says.

There’s no café car, but at each sta­tion, ven­dors are wait­ing with Indian treats for sale such as samosas and veg­etable biryani. It’s a free-for-all and the most ag­gres­sive pas­sen­gers get their food first. At some sta­tions, ven­dors board to sell bags of pop­corn or chick­pea salad out of a bucket.

Our car has a door, but it does not want to stay shut. That’s OK, be­cause some pas­sen­gers, es­pe­cially young chil­dren, like to sit with their legs dan­gling out of the car, star­ing down what at times is a pre­cip­i­tous drop.

When we reach each tun­nel, adults and chil­dren alike squeal and clap un­til we see light again. The long­est tun­nel is in the town of Barog, about 40 miles from Shimla, at about 3,753 feet. The re­sult: about 2 ½ min­utes of howl­ing.

“It’s the cra­zi­est train,” Dowis says. “It’s ex­cit­ing.”

It’s so ex­cit­ing that Anita Bentsen sends her lug­gage ahead to Shimla in a car so that she and her two daugh­ters can take the train. Bentsen grew up in In­dia and sum­mered in Shimla. She now lives in Los An­ge­les.

“I’ve gone on this train since I was 11,” she says. “They’ve painted them, but they haven’t changed the char­ac­ter of the train.”

The jour­ney to Shimla should have taken five hours, but we ar­rive al­most eight hours later. I spend three days ex­plor­ing the colo­nial-in­flu­enced town be­fore board­ing the toy train back.

That’s where I met Rawat and fam­ily. Af­ter agree­ing to switch seats so they could sit to­gether, he treats me to a bag of pop­corn. His daugh­ter and cousin ask to take a selfie with me. By the end of the ride, they’ve of­fered me a place to stay.

I po­litely de­cline, but that’s what hap­pens on the In­dia toy train. When you’re in close quar­ters, you just can’t help but make friends.

PHOTOS BY NANCY TRE­JOS, USA TO­DAY

This is one of about 20 hill sta­tions that the toy train stops at on its way to Shimla in north­ern In­dia.

There is very lit­tle legroom or room for lug­gage in­side each car. But the close quar­ters help you to get to know fel­low trav­el­ers.

The Barog stop is next to the long­est tun­nel along the route between Kalka and Shimla. The train passes through 102 tun­nels.

Pas­sen­gers stop for food on the way to Shimla.

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