DHR History in 19th Century
Adapted from compilation by Richard Wallace of DHRS
Historically, the origins of DHR date back to 1878 when Franklin Prestage, an agent of the then Eastern Bengal Railway (EBR), proposed a hill tramway of 2 foot gauge (610mm) following the Hill Cart Road from Siliguri to Darjeeling. The EBR had interests in developing rail links to the town as they and the Northern Bengal State Railway operated the respective broad and metre gauge systems - linked by a steam ferry crossing of the Ganga (River Ganges) - connecting Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Siliguri. Both these railways merged to become the East Bengal State Railway by 1887.
Construction of DHR by the Darjeeling Steam Tramway Co. commenced in 1879, the work being carried out simultaneously on unconnected sections to enable completion in the quickest possible time. By February 1880, good progress had been made and on 4th March a complete section of the line as far as Tindharia was available to allow a special train to be operated (hauled by the contractor's loco 'Tiny') for the Viceroy, Lord Lytton.
The line finally reached Darjeeling in July 1881 and in September the company's name was changed to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway co. Managing agents were appointed to oversee legal and financial matters and the firm of Messrs Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co of Calcutta was engaged. This relationship endured for over 50 years until the DHR was effectively nationalised, bring taken over by the Government of India in 1948, following the nation's independence.
The steep slopes of the Himalayan foothills presented a major challenge to the line's builders and this led to two significant types on engineering work being used, the loop and the 'Z' reverse, to enable the line to gain height within the power and adhesion limitations of the locomotives of the day. Despite the use of these methods, the ruling gradient of the line is between 1 in 16 and 1 in 22 - amazing for an adhesion railway. The choice of the 2 foot gauge for the DHR was also influenced by the terrain but also possibly by a set of engineering principles for hill railways had, at the time DHR was proposed, been published by Charles Spooner, who also had connections with the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales - another steeply graded line.
Due to the precarious nature of the DHR's trackbed, clinging to the sides of the foothills, the line faces a major and never-ending challenge in coping with the annual washouts resulting from the heavy monsoon rains. Due to this perennial problem, the railway and Hill Cart Road are continually the subject of repair. The number and siting of the loops and reverses have changed significantly over the years, so caution should be exercised when attempting to locate them from descriptions in older books and articles.
In 1885 a short extension to Darjeeling Bazaar was commissioned. Four years later, in 1889, the first 'B' Class locomotives began to arrive, a design which was to stamp its mark indelibly on the DHR - a link between locomotive design and the line which continues to this day.