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Memories of the British Raj and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

by Raymond Rees-Oliviere (June 2007)

Background to the British Raj and the Railway in India:

The first railway was set up in India to carry goods and transport equipment for the British (East India Company) and Military units in 1844.

The first passenger train was put into service in 1853 and by the year 1947, after Partition and Independence of India and Pakistan, there were 42 Rail Systems in India.

The British Army (Corps of Royal Engineers, being one of several Regiments involved) with the military and civil engineers from the East India Company, built the original rail network throughout India.

In 1862 the Corps of Royal Engineers absorbed the British Officers and men of East India Company. In 1942 this group of engineers together with various other British Military Engineering Corps were amalgamated to form the present day Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers (REME; pronounced Reeme).

The above information is given to your readers as a background introduction to my family ties to the rail system in India. My Grandfather and Father were both part of the British Raj and Railways in India being Officers in the Corps of Royal Engineers and later, the REME.

Hill Stations and my (Boarding) Hill School:

With most of his postings in the North/East of India; Bareilly, Agra, Lucknow, Allahabad, Dhanbad and Calcutta, it was certain that my father would send the three of us brothers and sister to one of the Hill Stations and Boarding School.

The choice of School in those days was dictated by the relevant posting, as the Hill Stations were so far apart. From West to East they were; Dharmshala, Shimla, Dehradun, Mussoorie and Darjeeling.

My first Hill School was St Fidelis RC School in Shimla and I then followed my two brothers to Goethals RC School in Kurseong, just below Darjeeling. This was when I first caught sight of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (Toy Train) on the way to school and Kurseong.

Memories of the ‘Gathering’ for the Hill School Train:

The first thing was to get to Calcutta from Agra. That was a two-day journey but a pleasant break as we met our cousins there and had a great time before we caught the School Train to Darjeeling. So far I had only been on the Broad Gauge railways and even though my brothers had told me about the Narrow Gauge railways and the ‘Toy Trains’, I did not know what to expect.

The ‘Gathering’ for the School Train from Calcutta to Darjeeling was something out of a ‘St Trinnian’s’ movie, only with hundreds of boys instead of girls. We all had our Hockey Sticks and Cricket Bats, in our School Blazers and Caps and noise to wake the dead, as we greeted one another (bedlam x 100) at Calcutta Station. This was just the start of another day and a half travel to Goethals Memorial School (Christian Brothers Boarding School) Kurseong.

Memories of the Darjeeling Himalaya Railway and Hill School:

The broad gauge train from Calcutta (EAST BENGAL RAILWAY) took us to Silugury.

This was the station where the broad gauge railway met the narrow gauge, which we called the toy railway (DARJEELING HIMALAYAN RAILWAY).

The whole school disembarked from the Calcutta train and this was my first sight of the now famous Toy Train’ sitting at the station in Silugury. At first glance we wondered if this was what was going to take the few hundred boys up the hills to the school. I did not think the train would make it and at some time during the journey, we would all have to get off and push it up the hills.

When we were all on the train, the train driver gave a big whistle from the engine and with lots of steam and spinning of wheels we were off to start our nine months in the Hill School.

During the journey, there were times when we could walk and run faster than the train was moving. The senior boys told us not to get off the train and run beside the train GOING to school, as we still had nine months with the Christian Brothers and would be in trouble. However, when we were returning to the plains after the school term, we could try to out run the train as we were going home and the Masters would have forgotten the names of the boys after the three months at home.

I do not recall how long the journey took to get to Kurseong and the school; I only know that the views of the hills and valleys were fantastic. The beautiful river valleys and with panoramic views of the Himalayas. Also, the lush green of the countryside seen together with the Tea Plantations on the slopes of the hills.