The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is the first, and still the most outstanding example of a hill passenger Railway. Open in 1881, it applied bold and ingenious engineering solutions to the problem of establishing and effect rail link across a mountainous terrain of great beauty. It is still fully operational and retains most of its original features intact. While Darjeeling was growing, Rowland Macdonald Stephenson was crusading his battle for railway extension in India. In 1849, he was able to extract favourable conditions including a guarantee of return on the capital. He promoted East Indian Railway Co. (EIR).
In 1858, Eastern Bengal Railway (EBR), a private company got concession for construction and management of Railway lines commencing from the left bank of Hooghly towards the Eastern and Northern part of Bengal, including a line to Darjeeling, but the directors were not willing to invest money in extensions including the one to Darjeeling as that might not be profitable. However, NBR(Northern Bengal State Railway) had no plan to take the rails to the hills, mainly because the hills were considered a formidable sphere. Where EBR and NBR failed as corporate organizations, Prestage succeeded, as an individual entrepreneur.
The Franklin Prestage, the agent of guaranteed Eastern Bengal Railway was fascinated by the ethereal views of Kanchenjunga floating in the mists of Darjeeling. When he took up the agent ship of EBR, the state owned Northern Bengal Railway was in advanced stage of construction of a line to Siliguri.
Franklin Prestage settled for a 2ft. rail gauge, and formed the Darjeeling Steam Tramway Co.with capital fully subscribed in India. On September 15, 1881, title of the company was changed to Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Co. and this company remained effective until the line was taken over by the Indian Government on Oct.20, 1948. All through that time the line was managed by the agency of ‘Gillanders Arbuthnot and Co.’ which supervised from its Calcutta office the financial, legal and purchasing interests of DHR and of other small railways. A manager and engineer were stationed at Kurseong, while the mechanical superintendent was at Tindharia.
The Darjeeling line was built to a gauge of 2 feet (600mm) to enable the line to traverse the tightly twisting route through the hills. In 1886, though, the well tanks and under cylinder wings were retained, a narrow saddle tank was inserted between the dome and the chimney, partly to get increased water capacity and partly to get better balance between the axle loads with the pull on the draw bar. Regarding the Official opening date of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) are, from Siliguri to Kurseong is 23-08-1880, from Kurseong to Sonada 01-08-1881, Sonada to Jorebunglow 05-04-1881, Jorebunglow to Darjeeling 04-07-1881 and from Darjeeling to Darjeeling Bazar is 16-06-1886. Usually the construction stage, light engines are worked on the section much before the official date of opening.
The Ghoom Station is the highest point reached by the railway (7,407ft), and from here there is a descent for four miles down a spur to Darjeeling Station (6,812ft). Loops are the speciality of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway it helps in gaining height for the rail line skiting along the mountain with the radius of curve as minimum as possible. Loop No. 3 at Chunbhati km 23/14 between Rangtong and Chunbhati station is popularly known as Loop No.2 and technically it is the first loop now. This loop is double circle. Loop at Agony Point km.32 was between Tindharia and Gayabari stations existed and is popularly known as Loop no.3, though it is the second loop. The last loop near Batasia, popularly known as “Batasia Loop” is km.75/1. This loop is the most beautiful loop out of the existing loops. There are 132 unmanned level crossings in the route.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Extensions Company was authorized to construct a line from Panchanai to Kishanganj in the plains and another line to Kalimpong in the Sivok Mountains. These two sections are known as Kishjanganj Branch and Teesta Valley Branch respectively. Though no more connected by rail, Kalimpong could be reached by railway line from 1915 to 1951. These line was abandoned, a large sections of it were washed away after severe flood damaged in 1951.
Most of the steam engines in these days have been replaced by diesel electric or electric traction. Some narrow gauge lines still feature the old "iron horses".
DHR is a work of genius and technological achievement of 1881. It has social and cultural importance. It is beautiful and has out-standing universal appeal. As one of the outcomes of the Industrial revolution and based on its unique features, it is considered to be of lasting significance to mankind. It must be saved for posterity. These are all the criteria necessary for World Heritage.
National Rail Museum (India), the focus of India’s Rail heritage, submitted a proposal to UNESCO on 29th June 1998 for inscribing the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) as a World HERITAGE Site. Accordingly, UNESCO’S World Heritage Committee inscribed DHR as a World Heritage Site on 2nd December 1999. The DHR has popularly known by the name as ‘Toy Train’ which is in fact was never an official term it is just a popular expression found in literature.