Take India’s ‘toy train’ into the Himalayas,
It has the look of Legos and the feel of family
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.
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.