History of the Kalka Shimla Railway Line


The Kalka Shimla Railway, often regarded as one of India's most remarkable engineering feats, bears testament to the colonial ambitions of the British Raj. Constructed during British rule, this narrow-gauge railway was conceived to connect Shimla, the erstwhile summer capital, with the broader Indian rail network. Let's embark on a journey through time to explore the fascinating history of this iconic railway line.

"I should be sorry leave Simla (Shimla) without giving my friend Balku (Bhalku) a few lines testifying to his value as a government servant. A more indefatigably industrious, single-minded and honest man I have rarely met in any grade. And I sincerely trust he may long continue to serve government on the Great Road which he loves so well, and which he has, to the utmost of his excellent abilities, helped to make what it is."

~William Montagu Hay

Deputy Commissioner, Simla - wrote a testimonial on March 2, 1862, which is kept at the museum.

In next article we read about the Baba Bhalku The Unsung Hero.

Engineering Marvel

Documented in "The Guinness Book of Rail facts & feats," the Kalka Shimla Railway stands as a testament to India's railway engineering prowess. Overcoming formidable challenges, including the construction of 103 tunnels (102 existing) and over 800 bridges, within rough and hostile terrain, underscored the remarkable feat achieved during its construction.It is considered as one of the most stunning hill railways in India.

Considered the "crown jewel" of the Indian National Railways during British rule, the railway was a manifestation of colonial ambitions to connect strategic locations. Under the direction of Herbert Septimus Harington, construction took place between 1898 and 1903, symbolizing the British Empire's engineering ingenuity.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Cultural Custodianship: Ambala Division is the proud custodian of “WORLD HERITAGE SITE-KALKA SHIMLA RAILWAY”. 

UNESCO Recognition: In a historic moment in 10th july,2008, UNESCO conferred World Heritage status upon the railway, categorizing it under the esteemed "Mountain Railways of India." This global acknowledgment celebrates its architectural and engineering brilliance, cementing its place in world history.

Shimla: British Summer Capital

Historical Context: Shimla is a town located at an altitude of 7,116 feet (2,169 meters) in the Himalayan foothills. It was established as a British stronghold following the first Anglo-Gurkha war. The Europeans had been looking for a summer escape from the sapping heat and humidity of their capital Calcutta and elsewhere in the Gangetic plains since at least the early 1800s. They established their first lodging in the area in 1819. By the 1830s, after buying land from the Maharaja of Patiala and the Rana of Keonthal, Shimla had evolved into a major British base, the headquarters of the British army in India.

As the town grew, it increasingly came to be visited by members of the British imperial bureaucracy. By the 1840s, it began to take the shape of a proper settlement, with public buildings, residences, amenities, commercial streets, and gathering spaces.

Railway Vision

In 1864, the British declared Shimla as the imperial summer capital of India. The viceroy and his council would move office from Calcutta to the hill station for seven months every year, from April to October. This was a daunting task, and the 1,600-km journey by horse, elephant, bullock cart, and sedan chair (paalki) took weeks of preparation and travel.

The idea of constructing a railway had been conceived early on, but it took several decades before it was finally commissioned.

The November 1847 issue of the Delhi gazette sketched out the route of the railway, and several surveys were carried out in the years that followed. But the proposal got a boost only after the railway line from Delhi to Kalka via Ambala was built. Approval to build the Kalka-Shimla Railway (KSR) finally came after a project report based on two surveys that were carried out in 1884 and 1885, was submitted to the Indian government in 1887. Two years later, on June 29, 1889, the Delhi-Umballa-(now Ambala) Kalka Railway Company signed an agreement with the secretary of the state to build the railway.

Due to the high capital and maintenance costs and difficult working conditions, the railway was allowed to charge higher fares than on other lines. Nevertheless, the company had spent 16,525,000 rupees by 1904 with no sign of the line becoming profitable, which led to it being purchased by the government on 1 January 1906 for 17,107,748 rupees. Once it came under the control of the government, the line was originally managed as an independent unit from the North West Railway office in Lahore until 1926, when it was transferred to Delhi Division. Since July 1987, the line has been managed by the Ambala Division from Ambala Cantt.

Technical Marvels

Constructed on 2 ft (610 mm) narrow-gauge tracks, the Kalka–Shimla Railway showcased unparalleled engineering prowess. Notable landmarks include one of the  world's highest multi-arch gallery bridge at Kanoh and the world's longest tunnel at Barog (at the time of construction), showcasing the remarkable technical achievements of the era.

Kanoh bridge

On November 9, 1903, the railway line " Toy Train" spanning 95.68 kilometers from Kalka to Shimla was inaugurated, with Viceroy Lord Curzon officiating the ceremony. Subsequent extensions, including the extension to Shimla Goods on June 27, 1909, further enhanced its connectivity and significance.

Legacy and Management

Government Ownership: The Kalka Shimla Railway, along with its stations, tracks, and rolling stock, is owned by the Government of India under the purview of the Ministry of Railways. Day-to-day maintenance and management are entrusted to the Northern Railway, ensuring the preservation and operational efficiency of this historic railway.

Interesting Features:

Absence of Girder Bridges: Initially, the Kalka Shimla Railway boasted a distinctive absence of Girder Bridges. Instead, it featured Multi Arched Galleries reminiscent of ancient Roman aqueducts, serving as the primary means of traversing ravines between hills.

Spectacular Bridges: Notably, Bridge No 226 & 541 stood out as the most remarkable bridges along this route, often captured in photographs for their architectural grandeur.

Unique Tunnels: Alongside its bridges, the Kalka Shimla Railway hosts several unique tunnels. These tunnels, while serving practical purposes, also serve as testaments to the engineering ingenuity employed during construction.

Barog Station:  Among the stations along the route, Barog station stands out for its pristine beauty. Legend has it that the station is named after British Engineer Mr. Barog, who played a role in the railway's construction.The Barog Railway Station's restaurant retains its old-world charm, offering visitors a glimpse into the past while enjoying modern conveniences.

Challenges and Natural Beauty

Adverse Weather: Despite its scenic beauty, the railway contends with the challenges posed by nature. Peak winter and rainy seasons present the most trying times for railway workers, with moderate to heavy snowfall being common occurrences.

On December 26, 1903, the first heavy snowfall caused traffic to be suspended for two days. The heaviest snowfall since the railway line's existence occurred during the first 11 days of January 1945.

Historical Significance: Beyond its aesthetic appeal, the Kalka Shimla Track holds historical significance. Mahatma Gandhi traveled this route in 1930 to meet Lord Irwin, while former President Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma favored the journey to Shimla.

Evolution and Convenience

Modernization: Over time, the journey between Kalka and Shimla has become more convenient, with the introduction of luxurious coaches and trains. These enhancements aim to make the Kalka Shimla rail journey even more memorable for passengers.

Over 110 years ago, the construction of the Kalka Shimla railway line involved the challenging task of laying rails on steep slopes in the Shivalik hills, amidst difficult and unfavorable conditions. This incredible feat of narrow gauge engineering stands as a testament to the skill and ingenuity of the people involved, as well as the awe-inspiring power of nature. It is evidence that amazing things can happen when humans and the environment come together.

 However, during the 2023 North India floods, landslides washed out several sections of the line.

Quick facts

Quick FactsDetails
Train GaugeNarrow (762mm)
Track LengthOver 96 Km
Project Launched in1898
Project Completed in1903
Train Service CommencedNovember 9, 1903
Longest BridgeNear Dharampur (70 m)
Chief EngineerH.S. Harington
Longest TunnelBarog (1.1 Km)
Tunnels103 (1 not in service)
Maximum HeightAbove 2000 m above sea level
Curves900 (70% track is in curves)
TrainAfter 1965, hauled by Diesel Engine
Heritage DeclarationHimachal Pradesh Government, 2007
UNESCO Heritage StatusConferred on July 10, 2008
Listed Under“Mountain Railways of India”

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