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The Toy Train

Shimla to Kalka at 20kph

Story by Rupert Marlow January 1st, 2016

A damp morning

The toy train is a narrow-gauge railway line that runs from Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, to Kalka - a couple of hundred kilometres north of Delhi. Sadly, for us, the weather was cloudy and visibility was limited. There had been a large electrical storm the night before and the air was humid. This meant that, being so high up, thick clouds were obstructing our views of the countryside as the train slowly trundled along the tracks towards its destination.
Shimla’s station is small, with a long siding on one side and a far smaller, ‘pavement’ on the other. The trains approach on the outside and are moved over into their sidings when the tracks are changed - a little like a parallel park (only without the reverse start). This is very effective as one line is permanently kept open for the goods trains that would pass slowly by. While the smaller side is closed to passengers and presumably intended for maintenance access (if the signs are to be believed), no-one pays the blindest bit of notice and it’s essentially a free-for-all. This was a luxury for me wanting to photograph the area as I was able, being careful of course, to wander as I pleased to get the shots I wanted.
There were occasional breaks in the cloud but we were resigned to the fact that we weren’t going to be privileged to the impressive track-side views until nearer Kalka, where we’d be lower and the air would be less humid and the views less impressive. In hindsight, it was rather atmospheric. The engines for the Toy Train are now large diesel units but with the weather as it was, imagining the steam engines of old was not too tricky.

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In the car park, arriving in a taxi, we were immediately approached by a small crowd of porters (recognisable in their cloaks) but not really being used to having our bags carried for us, Sarah and I lugged them down to the platform ourselves. Had it been uphill, I dare say it might have been different. It was pretty steep.
The colour scheme was bold, red, yellow and blue, a cheerful combination that punctuated the otherwise magnolia and foggy grey surroundings. All around the station were monkeys, a few dogs and many people, some passengers, porters, a few beggars and some men sitting under the bridge by their small fire - just trying to keep warm. I had assumed these were railway staff having a quiet morning.
Arriving nearly an hour early meant that we could find our seats and stow our luggage. One thing we learned was that some Indians don’t travel light! We were lucky to have been on early and wedged our large, weighty bags under the seats.

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Carriage Portraits

The carriages were old and damp. We had been warned that ‘6-hours on a church-pew was not much fun’ the night before - conjuring up images of oak, vertical-backed benches in cold surroundings and immediate back ache at the very thought of this journey. However, we were pleasantly surprised. They were padded and fairly large: wide enough for two adults - maybe not two carrying the same bulk as me but we were comfortable and close enough to share warmth - possibly a deliberate plan in the original design as we found the carriage got particularly cold. The cold was mainly down to the altitude and damp but also because everyone (me included) was constantly opening the windows and doors to take photos at any gap in the clouds and or trees. When full, we were rather knee to knee but it wasn‘t as bad as we‘d feared.
It was at this point that we started to get to know our fellow passengers. There were a couple of families on board (among others) and their 3 children - both homeopathic doctors and friends taking a holiday in the hills. They were extremely friendly and within an hour or so we were sharing food and they were teaching us all about their delicious snacks that they had brought along. Indians love snacks. They travel with them between stops and at each station regularly hop off to get some more - whether they are peanuts, papads, cups of chai and some sort of fruity cereal mix that on this day was being eaten with small squares of what seemed to be cereal packet cardboard as spoons.
We got on very well and the gallery below is some of the images I shot while travelling together in the cold, wet Toy Train. The final shot is one of my favourite images of The Treasurer so far.

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Seating arrangements

Bookings for the Toy Train are made in advance. It can be very busy as it is a popular attraction for foreign and Indian tourists alike. These are then allocated closer to the date of travel with a long list pasted to the side of the carrier showing the seating arrangement and your allocated seat number. This is actually rather an effective system.
However, we were only about 30 minutes into the journey and on one of the many hairpin bends snaking the way through the mountains, when the water (presumably from the roof as it had started raining) came pouring into the carriage through the window seals and soaked the benches on the opposite side to us and from then on, all notion of ‘my seat’ went out of the window! As soon as someone stood up for a photo or trip to the bathroom, their seat was taken temporarily by one of the unfortunate passengers who had been displaced by the interior monsoon that had turfed them and their luggage away from their allocated seats!
The train was slow. At times, slow enough to get on and off, while not in a station and so slow on exiting the stations that people would hang about for photos of themselves pretending to run furiously to catch up when in reality, moving at about 1.5mph, this was more of a comedy slow-motion saunter for effect. Whatever the weather and cold, we all had a fantastic time and got to know some more, very friendly and generous indians.
One thing we couldn’t get the hang of was simply throwing rubbish out of the window. Sarah and I refused to - but were encouraged by our fellow travellers. We persevered, storing our tissues (we both had lingering colds) and water bottles, much to their amusement to ‘bin them’ once in Kalka.

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At some points, the train would just stop and people would get off the stretch their legs. Some stations were so small, they were little more than a tiny signal box and a tin roof, so everyone would walk a little way down to the stalls and vendors - whose numbers it seemed (logically) were proportionate to the size of the station. There wasn’t much choice at the smallest places!
In all, there are 102 tunnels on the line and numerous switch-backs so whichever side you’re on, you would, if it isn’t totally foggy, get decent views from either side. On the day we were travelling, I was left, given the poor visibility, to photograph what I could at the stations and on the carriage. However, the damp air and fog gave the colours a real vibrance.

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Arriving in Kalka

When we got off the train, Sarah was wheeling her bag and I’d lugged mine onto my back so that when our new Indian friends saw how little we were carrying (not an opinion shared by our parents I might add), they were amused as they passed bag after bag down the carriage constructing essentially a luggage igloo around a bench on the siding at our destination.
We said our goodbye’s and headed off in search of a bin and then our hotel. The Toy Train was an experience well worth a little cold and damp.

Footnote: All images were shot on Fujifilm’s excellent X100s, X-T1 or iPhone 6s Plus on 27 November 2015. Property of Rupert Marlow. All rights reserved.