The British love affair with India continues to this day, and perhaps no more fittingly than with the steam locomotives still at work on its railways. Well, even in the subcontinent they are now almost a thing of the past. The British commitment to steam is matched with a passion for tea and in the foothills of the Himalayas. a picturesque and extensive 2ft 0ins gauge line was built in the days of the Raj. The hill country of India gives a pleasant respite from the intense heat of the plains, and in some of these exotic locations the Empire stationed resting troops, and many expatriate civilians lived and worked, as the British Empire spread its tentacles across more than half of the world. In construction and operation the Darjeeling and Himalaya Railway is about as far removed from ‘typically British’ practice, as it is perhaps possible to be. The original line, opened in 1881, winding its 50+ miles leisurely northwards and upwards in a series of frequent loops, ‘double bow knots’, and some sections of almost straight track – but not many! The original company was joined in 1913, by the newly formed DHR Extension Co., with a further 96 miles of line, and this section of route, across the plains of Sikkim Province in North Eastern India introduced two of the world’s smallest pacific locomotives in regular service. At one time too, the railway reportedly boasted a Beyer-Garratt articulated steam locomotive, although this too was only an isolated example.
The D & H Railway Co. proper, was formed in 1879, and, the story has it, that one George P. Spooner, son of Charles Spooner of Festiniog Railway fame, had a hand in its formation, and subsequent construction of the railway. The Darjeeling line has often been compared to the Festiniog, and is still perhaps the most well known of Indian railways, especially the narrow gauge routes in the “hill country”. Whether George Spooner was actually involved or not is still the subject of some speculation, although perhaps some resemblance may be seen between the Darjeeling’s famous Class ‘B’ tank engines. and those delightful engines operating on the Welsh narrow gauge. In any event, the D&H Railway still boasts a steam hauled service, and perhaps reflecting some aspects of’Jife in India, the journey by rail from start to finish reportedly takes some three hours longer than by road!
The railway is sandwiched between Nepal to the west, and Bhutan to the east, and lies to the north of what is now Bangladesh. Starting from New Jalpaiguri, the route strikes north towards the Himalayas, climbing almost 8,000 feet in the struggle to reach the terminus at Darjeeling, 50 miles distant. On the way, the single track passes the major intermediate stations at Siliguri, and Sukna, before beginning its contorted ascent, with gradients of 1 in 25, through the mountains to Kurseong. From Kurseong, the principal intermediate town, the line is less tortuous over the remaining distance to Darjeeling. Building a standard gauge railway in this terrain would have been expensive, if indeed it was technically possible.
The DHR was built to a gauge of 2ft 0ins, narrower even than the Indian ‘standard’ narrow gauge of 2ft 6ins. There are of course numerous gauges across the country, ranging from 5ft 6ins, to metre, and the standard narrow gauge, to the D&HR’s 2ft 0ins. Climbing through through some of the most attractive and impressive scenery, the railway and its motive power relies on adhesion only. No attempt was made to introduce a rack and pinion system, with numerous curves, loops and reverses employed to enable the trains to reach their destination. This, in turn contributed to operational difficulties with the first locomotives.
The most spectacular section of the route – in both operational and constructional terms – is the line between Ranglong, on through loops and switchbacks to Chunbhati, Tindharia, Gayabari, and Mahanadi. It is here that some of the most contorted tracklaying can be found, including loops, and “Z” reverses, as the tracks climb over one another to gain altitude, clinging, almost perilously to the steep hillsides. The first loop is encountered just south of Ranglong, followed by a reverse, and another loop before reaching Chunbati, The next station, Tindharia is sandwiched by a pair of reverses, whilst the final loop in the track is made before yet another reverse, south of Gayabari, beyond which, the final reverse completes this difficult section of the route, before reaching Mahanadi.
From Mahanadi onwards the line follows a less winding course past Kurseong, and the summit of the line at Ghoom, and with a ruling gradient of 1 in 25, the terminus at Darjeeling is finally reached.
Operations & Motive Power
The line has been powered almost exclusively by 0-4-0 saddle tanks, since its opening in 1881, almost 140 years ago, designated Class B. Ironically, the first locomotives, the Class A series proved inadequate to haul the trains up these severe gradients, and the later Class B’s became the mainstay of operations. On the DHR Extension Railway, from I913, two pacifics were used, and for a time, from 1910, a Beyer Garratt type also worked services, primarily on the extension lines. Neither the Garratt or the pacifies were as successful as might have been hoped, and may have been unique in narrow gauge locomotive terms, at least, for India.
The pacifics of the DHR Extension were ordered from North British Locomotive Co. in 1913, and with 2 ft 6ins diameter wheels, and 13.5ins by 16ins outside cylinders, perhaps looked more like a miniature than the real thing. Sadly neither of the two locomotives survived, and the abandonment of the DHR Extension Railway, left the Class B’s in sole charge of operations on the remaining railway.
Darjeeling & Himalaya Locomotives
The Class A saddle tanks delivered by Sharp Stewart for the line’s opening in 1881 were simply not powerful enough, and the company improved the design, as Class B, and went on to supply more of the type from its Atlas Works, beginning in 1889 until 1903. Apart from locomotives supplied by Sharp Stewart, and later the North British Co., the railway did produce some motive power of its own, but this construction of its own locomotives was not continued, the operators preferring to trust in the imported products.
On the tortuous section of loops and reverses is the location of the railway’s workshops at Tindharia, and here, in 1919, 1923, and 1925, three locomotives were built, to the same design as the famous Class B’s. The Tindharia built engines were reportedly rebuilds of three of the original Class B type from Sharp Stewart. The decision to build the new engines in the railway workshops may well have been responsible for the cancellation of an order to North British, originally placed in 1919, when Tindharia outshopped its first locomotive.
It may seem surprising, but even at the height of the British Raj, three locomotives were supplied to the jewel in the British Empire, by the ‘upstart’ Baldwin Co., of the USA, at the height of WW1, and resplendent its ‘Darjeeling blue livery’ provided pulling power for many years. The Class B saddle tanks were, and indeed still are, diminutive machines, with 2ft 2ins coupled wheels, and only 11ins by I4ins outside cylinders, and weighing only 16 tons. A tiny bunker was provided for the coal, with water in the saddle tanks, and a small well tank on some engines, carried between the frames.
Of the original total of 34 Class B types, from the four sources listed above, only 25 were kept in service after I950, following closure of a section of the line, whilst the Class A locomotives, the Pacifics, and the solitary Garratt had long since disappeared. Happily, one of the Sharp Stewart built Class B tanks was rescued and preserved in the National Railway Museum in New Delhi, as a static exhibit. This example is No. B777 (originally numbered B2), and first built in 1889, rebuilt in 1917, and withdrawn from service in 1952.
Both passenger and freight traffic has been, and continues to be carried by the D&H Railway, and typical operations today involve long trains from New Jalpaiguri being split into three sections for the climb. The locomotives carry a crew of five, with an interesting technique adopted for applying sand ahead of the coupled wheels. In service, foorplatemen take up positions on the front steps, and simply drop sand onto the rails, immediately ahead of the locomotive. After completing the long climb through the mountain section, the train’s sections are reassembled at Kurseong, for the final run to Darjeeling.
In common with all rail routes perhaps, the volume of traffic on the DHR has been much reduced over the years, and there has been heavy financial pressure to close the line. The competition with road transport is striking, and this is a major element in the economic pressures on the line’s continued existence. The loss of branch line traffic, and the D&HR Extension railway many years ago are obvious testimony to this, but the remaining D&HR has been recognised as one of the most attractive steam operated railway journeys anywhere in the world. Perhaps with support the line will continue to survive for many years to come.
It has been the subject of a TV documentary, and nowadays the area is a popular tourist destination.
- North British Loco Collection – Glasgow Mitchell Library
- The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – BBC Documentary 2010
- Darjeeling_Himalayan_Railway (Wikipedia)
Something a little different – a model of the C Class pacific