With 17,000 trains that cover 64,000 kilometres, the Indian Railways offer some fascinating experiences for the traveller. We list some of the best
The best things do come in small packages. This century-old narrow gauge rail link runs between Neral and Matheran and is one of the nicest ways to get up to the hill station. At the Matheran end, you can access the town only by pony rides, a very easy trek or on a palanquin, if you’re feeling a bit princess-y. The views of cascading green hillsides are a bonus on this 20-km journey, which takes two hours to complete and is the perfect note on which to kick-start a weekend.
Imagine an aromatherapy massage en route to the Taj Mahal. The Indian Maharaja is the country’s first luxury train, which means massive cabins (including two Presidential Suites), a conference car that can be transformed into a dance floor, two restaurant cars, and of course, the spa car. Their longest route is eight days and takes you from Mumbai to New Delhi, via Rajasthan, going via the fort cities of Udaipur, Jodhpur and Agra. Think of this as a travelling 5-star hotel, with ever-changing history and architecture unfurling leisurely around you.
More information: The Indian Maharaja
To live the lifestyle of the royals, one has to spend more than a week travelling on a train to visit ancient palaces, temples, forts and majestic ruins of a time gone by. Hop on board the Palace on Wheels, one of the finest luxury trains in India. This is a week of indulgence you are signing up for – with personal butlers, salons, a fabulously stocked bar, superb food (including Chinese) and, of course, the occasional bit of sightseeing through India’s Golden Triangle of New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.
More information: The Palace on Wheels
Travelling on the Golden Chariot has been likened to travelling through time – passing 4th- century caves of the Chalukyas in Badami, the 15th-century ruins of Hampi and the 20th- century Mysore Palace. This week-long journey gives you a crash course in South Indian history, almost making you a part of the once-lived lives around you. The Golden Chariot is a luxurious ride that pampers you like an aristocrat, and chugs past fortresses and golden beaches while you are waited on hand and foot.
More information: The Golden Chariot
The Konkan Railway connects Mumbai to key spots in Kerala. The line is particularly impressive considering the odds against which it was built. Engineers laid out tracks on a hostile loose terrain, working against frequent landslides. The resulting journey is a stunning ride, especially during the monsoons, when the world outside explodes in green and the water bodies along the track glisten in the moonlight. It inspires flights of fancy, even among the most pragmatic of us.
More information: Konkan Railway
This toy train weaves around the foothills of the Himalayas and takes you deep into the heart of tea gardens and forests of cherry and pear trees. Riding the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway might actually feel like reliving a childhood. The UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1999, and the route is simply stunning. The train snakes along the many loops that wind up to Darjeeling, including the Batasia Loop that, on clear days, lays open the township of Darjeeling at your feet, with the Kanchenjunga towering over you.
Riding over a harsh snowy terrain makes you realise the effort that went into building The Kashmir Railway, one of India’s most challenging engineering projects. Temperatures fall below zero in winter and go up to 38 degrees Celsius in summer, but these extremes, combined with a difficult terrain, make for a breathtaking journey. This train ride is an overwhelming experience, passing through 20 tunnels and 158 bridges across the rivers and valleys of the Shivalik Mountain Range.
Imagine a wildlife safari via train. The New Jalpaiguri-Alipurduar Passenger passes through the foothills of the Himalayas that teem with wildlife around the feisty Teesta River. As you pass through the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, Chapramari Forest, Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary and Buxa Tiger Reserve, you may spot a herd of elephants striding alongside the tracks that run through the deep forests. It’s a surreal experience riding in a coach that’s rushing through tiger territory.
Looking out into the stark ravines of Chambal brings up childhood stories of dacoits running wild over the dramatic, untamed and harsh landscape. The country outside your window looks like an inhospitable maze you could easily get lost in. As the Chambal Express chugs along, you can’t help but romanticise the brutality of which you’ve only heard stories. Although dacoits are near-extinct today, it’s still quite a thrill, not knowing what lurks behind the rocks.
The little over two hour journey from Kanyakumari to Thiruvananthapuram is a short and sweet way to experience the green that Kerala, God’s Own Country, is so known for. The morning ride takes you through forest canopies, bathed in a cooling greenish light. Look beyond the hanging creepers and lushness to spot everyday life – women and men working in fields against a backdrop of little white-washed churches and tiny houses.
One hundred and two tunnels and 900 curves – this is not a journey for the faint-hearted. The five hours transport you from Kalka to the idyllic and bustling tourist spot of Shimla, but at its own leisurely pace. It stops frequently, so you have the opportunity to hop off to have some tea and snacks en route. The ride itself is very picturesque and during the monsoons, riddled with spectacular waterfalls.