Mr. Franklin Prestage, later Sir Franklin, founder of the DHR.
A very brief history of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
Darjeeling came into existence as a refuge from the Indian summer heat for the more affluent people on the plains. Access to Darjeeling was slow and a typical journey from Siliguri entailed a three day journey up a rocky precipitous road. Later a better but longer road, the Cart Road, was built with easier gradients, and it still took about three days for the journey. Franklin Prestage of the East Bengal Railway, proposed a 2 foot gauge track following the Cart Road whose gradients were just on the upper limit for an adhesion railway.
This railway track was eventually completed in 1882 and the journey to Darjeeling was reduced to one day. To overcome the sections where the Cart Road gradient was too steep, loops and zig-zag reverses were used to gain height, the most famous of these loops is Agony Point where the train eases itself around a circle with a minimum radius of 59 feet right on the edge of a steep drop to the valley far below.
When completed, the line was about 51 miles long and rose from 398 feet at Siliguri on the plain to 7407 feet at the highest point at Ghum. The small 15 ton B class 0-4-0 locomotives have to climb an almost continuous gradient averaging about 1:22 and as steep as 1:18 in some places. The oldest locomotive still in use was built in the year 1900 and the newest was built in 1927.
In its hey-day, the line coped valiantly with washouts and landslides but still managed to provide sterling service to Darjeeling and the small hill towns along the way. Eventually, as road traffic absorbed the freight that had been one of the major sources of revenue for the railway, its continuing existence was in doubt. Indian Railways who took over the railway in 1948, were very aware of the affection that Indians had for their ‘Toy Train’ and continued to support it as a passenger carrying line. Despite this, the railway’s hold on life was tenuous and there were fears that it would close.
In the year 1999, fortune smiled and the line was granted ‘World Heritage” status by UNESCO. In effect this protected the fixed assets of the railway, but did not cover the locomotives and rolling stock. These costs are still covered by Indian Railways who have shown their commitment to the railway by providing two new NDM6 diesel locomotives to relieve the stress on the aging B class locomotives.