The Darjeeling toy train, officially known as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, transports passengers through the lower reaches of the Eastern Himalayas to the undulating hills and lush green tea plantations of Darjeeling. Like most other hill settlements in India, Darjeeling was once a summer retreat of the British. The railway was completed in 1881 and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Today, some of the few remaining heritage steam locomotives in India run along it. A ride on the toy train is one of the popular things to do when visiting Darjeeling.
Location and Train Route
The train route runs for 80 kilometers (50 miles) from New Jalpaiguri, in the state of West Bengal, to Darjeeling via Siliguri, Kurseong, and Ghoom. Ghoom, at an altitude of 7,400 feet above sea level, is the highest point on the route. The railway line climbs up steeply through a number of exhilarating reverses and loops. One of the most scenic of these is Batasia Loop, between Ghoom and Darjeeling. The train passes over five major brides and more than 450 minor bridges, plus it negotiates more than 870 curves!
New Jalpaiguri station is close to Siliguri, the second largest city in West Bengal. It's well connected to other parts of India by road and rail. There's also an airport in Bagdogra about 20 minutes away. Siliguri is about 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Kurseong and 65 kilometers (40 miles) from Darjeeling.
How to Ride the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway operates various tourist train services. These are:
- Daily Passenger Services -- "NDM-6" Class diesel locomotives running from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, with first class and modern new Vistadome air-conditioned carriages.
- Toy Train Joy Rides -- Diesel and steam locomotives with first class carriages that take passengers on 2-hour trips from Darjeeling to Ghoom return. The joyride includes a 10 minute stop at Batasia Loop and 30 minute stop at Ghoom Railway Museum.
- Safari Trains -- Diesel and steam locomotives running from Siliguri to Rangtong return with the highlights being views of picturesque Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, railway museum at Sukna, and "Z" reverses (where the train zigzags forwards and backward up the slope). Rongtong is the first high-altitude station on the route.
If you decide to go on the whole route between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling, do be prepared to set aside a full day. The train runs slowly, although a newer and more powerful diesel engine is used to minimize the travel time. There's one departure per day from New Jalpaiguri, at 10 a.m. You'll arrive in Darjeeling at 5.20 p.m. (see train details and timetable). The overnight Darjeeling Mail train from Kolkata connects with this passenger train service.
Alternatively, you can save time by taking the early morning passenger service from Kurseong, further along the route. It departs daily at 6.30 a.m. and arrives in Darjeeling at 9.05 a.m. (see train details and timetable). Note that luggage storage space is limited on this train, and it has first and second class carriages without air-conditioning.
The short joyrides between Darjeeling and Ghoom are the main attraction for tourists because most of them are pulled by historic steam engines. There are more than 10 daily joyride services during peak season. Only four continue to run during the monsoon season (July to mid September) and low season (December to February) though. These depart Darjeeling at 9.25 a.m, noon, 1.50 p.m., and 4.25 p.m. (see train details and timetables). The noon service has a diesel engine.
The safari trains are ideal for people who don't want to travel all the way to Darjeeling but still want to experience a toy train ride. The morning diesel engine service departs from Siliguri at 10.30 a.m. and arrives back at 1.35 p.m. (see timetable). A new afternoon service with a steam engine was introduced in late 2018. It departs from Siliguri at 2.45 p.m. and arrives back at 5.45 p.m. (see timetable).
Do check to see if train services are running during the monsoon season. They are often suspended due to the rain.
Ticket Cost and Bookings
Tickets are more expensive on steam train services, as the engines cost more to maintain and operate. Many tourists complain that the joyride fares are too high, particularly as cleanliness and hygiene are lacking. Prices are as follows:
- New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling Passenger Train -- 1,700 rupees in AC Chair Class/1,420 rupees in First Class.
- Joy Rides -- 1,500-1,600 rupees in First Class with steam engine/1,000 rupees in First Class with diesel engine. Entry to the Ghoom Railway Museum is included.
- Morning Safari -- 700 rupees in AC Chair Class/590 rupees in First Class.
- Afternoon Safari -- 1,200 rupees in AC Chair Class/1,000 rupees in First Class.
Reservations for travel on the toy train (both daily services and joyrides) can be made at Indian Railways computerized reservation counters, or on the Indian Railways website. It's advisable to book in advance, as the trains fill up quickly in peak season.
Here's how to make a reservation on the Indian Railways website. The station code for New Jalpaiguri is NJP, and Darjeeling DJ. For joyrides from Darjeeling you'll have to book with DJ as the "from" station and DJR as the "to" station. Safari trains run from Siliguri Junction (SGUJ) to Siliguri (SGUD).
What to See
There are distinct stretches of scenery along the route. These include the urban and agricultural plains between Siliguri and Sukna, dense forest from Sukna to Rongtong, hills and tea gardens to Kurseong, and the final section with Himalayan pine and tea gardens to Darjeeling.
The train does a loop around a manicured garden at Batasia, which provides a panoramic view of Darjeeling perched on the hill and Mount Kanchenjunga in the background (take a morning joyride for the best chance of clear vistas). At the center of the garden is a War Memorial in honor of Gorkha soldiers who sacrificed their lives.
Three railway museums are located along the route -- at Sukna, Kurseong, and Ghoom stations. The newly-restored museum at Ghoom is the most extensive, with the highlight being the Baby Sivok engine (the railway's oldest toy train engine). The exhibits at Sukna museum are mostly photographs, while the museum at Kurseong has more artifacts.