10 February 1995. The train took all day to climb from the warm Indian plain, panting its way foot by foot into the hills. All day it climbed, staggering around curves, backing into zigzags, always reaching for a sky we could not see. It grew colder as we left the plain behind. Passengers snuggled into their coats and gazed into the greyness. Water trickled down the windows and cinders spattered on the roof. The mist enveloped us and we were left with the sounds, wheel flanges singing out against the curves, the little engine panting and hissing and barking, its headlight probing the gloom. A sandman crouched on the front buffer beam, pouring sand onto the wet rails for the wheels to grip.
I was enveloped in a childhood memory of coal smoke and the reek of hot oil and thought of Alan Paton’s little train in Cry The Beloved Country clambering out of the Umzimkulu Valley. It climbs to Carisbrooke, and when it stops there, you may get out for a moment and look down into the great valley from which you have come.
At Ghoom the train paused and we got out to have a look but the valley was lost in the mist and people were heading home in the freezing dusk, not sparing a glance for the stubby, hard-breathing engine that had brought its train up into the foothills of the Himalaya. The driver whistled-up and we were on our way again, into the night, over the summit and then a fast, rocking ride down to the end of the line at Darjeeling. After a day of slog, the last mile felt like a runaway train. A perfect finish.
The train still runs (although it is temporarily closed because of monsoon damage). Diesels now work up from the Indian Plain, but a steam train still leaves Darjeeling every day for the trek to the summit. See www.dhrs.org for updates.