A journey by the Kalka-Shimla Toy Train is an experience of a lifetime! The UNESCO World Heritage listed train chugs up the mountain, past pretty as a postcard stations and hill-towns. Outside the window, the landscape is a technicolor film- from the scorched foothills to pale green forests of chir to the dense green of blue pine and deodar. The ride is a celebration of slow travel; the gentle rocking of the coaches will make you feel as if you have slipped into a time warp. Hours dribble away nonchalantly as the engine huffs and puffs its way up the Shivaliks. The sheer magnanimity of the 96.54 km stretch will leave you gaping- a total of 103 tunnels (Tunnel 46 is no longer in use), 864 bridges, and 919 curves, the sharpest being 48⁰, all serve the 2’6” track connecting the summer capital of the Raj to the plains below. Besides, you get to leave all that blaring horns and pungent smoke behind. 5 trains run a day, an extra summer special runs during high season, and confirmed tickets are difficult to get.
Here are 5 tips for an enjoyable journey if you're planning to take the Toy Train to Shimla:
#1. Halt overnight at Kalka, then start for Shimla the next day. Shivalik Express and the Rail Motor are your best options. They have the best seats. Remember that the journey can take anything between 5 - 7 hours and hard seats and cramped legrooms are undesirable. If traveling from Delhi, the best bet is to take the Shatabdi Express out of Delhi. If you are travelling from Kolkata, do keep in mind that the Kalka Mail has an average delay of 2.5 hrs and you might, like me, miss the toy train. Do note that the Indian Railway mentions "No refund shall be granted on the reserved ticket if it is surrendered for cancellation after two hours of the actual departure of the train."
Chugging up the hot foothills
#2. In the high season, reservations are extremely difficult to get. I booked on the day booking opened, and had an impossible waiting list number on the Shivalik Express. I do not know if the passenger volume was that immense but I did seem to notice that almost all people travelling with agents seemed to have confirmed tickets. So if you badly want a ride, consider booking through an agent despite the extra cost. Foreigners, try booking through the foreigner quota.
#3. Sometimes an extra train is scheduled in the high season. It starts in the afternoon, 12:45 pm, from Kalka. We strongly advise against travelling by it. The heat - it cooled down only after Barog- will drain you completely. I traveled in late May and inside the coach, the heat of the afternoon left me uncomfortable and sweating profusely! Besides, you will reach Shimla after dark and if you haven't pre-booked already, it can become quite a task to find an appropriate place.
Outside the Barog Tunnel: the longest tunnel on the route
#4. If you are waitlisted (which you probably are) near the top, hover around the TTE like a fruit fly and chances are that you will get a seat if some passenger doesn't arrive.
#5. Pack your own food. The Kalka station has a single tea stall. There is catering service but I am not sure of the quality. By 11:30 am, they had run out of food!
Despite the long wait and the slow journey (I sat through two halts of an hour each at Gumman and Koti in the sweltering heat), I can't wait to go back. The pretty train, the forests and the mountains- oh and those arch bridges- have woven their spell on me. So hop onto the toy train as it chugs it way up the winding tracks to charming Shimla.
Over the marvellous Arch Bridge
Photos & Article by: Mohana Das