Not too many countries on earth have a state budget made separately for the Railways, neither have they inspired authors and filmmakers for ages. The Indian Railways, carrying 30 million passengers and joining 65,000 km of India, isn’t unique only for these numbers, but for the diversity it carries along. It joins the length and breadth of India and touches her heart like no one else does. Probably the best way to see India is by taking a train ride, sneaking into her undiscovered cultures, gazing into her unexplored landscapes and soaking in her invigorating air. I have heard countless people from around the world talk about how much fun they have had traveling by train. One lady who was visiting from New Zealand couldn’t stop talking about how exhilarating it was to ride a railway across India instead of taking a car. We also talked about how she was able to afford this trip because she found cheap airline tickets to Mumbai from New Zealand earlier on this year. Which was refreshing to hear because India has a different kind of beauty and should be seen by everyone.
Being a passenger in the Indian Railways for over twenty years and having traveled on numerous routes, it isn’t an easy task to choose ten best routes; still I will try and do my best. The expensive special trains and their journeys will be kept out of this post for obvious reasons. Let the budget traveler rule the roost!
1. The Kashmir Railway (Jammu – Udhampur)
The Kashmir Railway is one of the most challenging engineering projects in India. The extremes of cold and heat along with the unfavorable terrain and political scenarios make this route one of the most thrilling of all Indian train routes. This route has 20 major tunnels and 158 bridges which offer awe inspiring views of the rivers and valleys around the beautiful Shivalik Mountain Ranges.
2. The Snow Sojourn (Qazigund-Srinagar-Baramulla)
This is a part of the Kashmir Railway, but currently work is going on the section between Jammu and Qazigund, thus making this another separate leg of the journey. When complete, this will be a part of the greater Kashmir railway which will connect Jammu to Baramulla, or rather the plains to the Valley.
The journey promises a refreshing ride through the Kashmir Valley, weaving through the snow capped peaks at a distance and the Chinar trees all around. The best part of taking this journey is during the winters when the surroundings are filled with snow.
There is only the option of an unreserved DEMU train currently on this route.
3. The Kangra Valley Odyssey ( Pathankot – Kangra-Palampur-Jogindernagar)
The Kangra Valley Railway belongs to the sub-Himalayan region in Himachal Pradesh. Starting from Pathankot in Punjab, it covers 164 kms to Jogindernagar in Himachal Pradesh, meandering through numerous passes, rivers and valleys. Even though it’s a laid back option of traveling across the Kangra valley, yet the views it offers compensates the speed. The sight of the snow capped Dhauladhar hills at a distance after Palampur rewards the tired soul exuberantly.
The journey of 165 km from Pathankot to Jogindernagar takes almost a whopping 10 hours.
The unreserved Kangra Valley Passenger is the only train on this route currently.
4. The Konkan Railway(Ratnagiri-Madgaon-Honnavar-Mangalore)
Amazing greeneries, plethora of water bodies, stunning curves and the magnificent Sahyadris join hands to make this one of the most sought after train travel experience for any railway enthusiast in India.
The Konkan Railway is also an example of the high spirits of the engineers of this country, who constructed this marvel battling against a hostile loose terrain with frequent landslide tendencies.
5. The Goan Experience ( Vasco Da Gama – Londa Jn)
Goa might be known for its pristine beaches and emerald waters, but there is another side of Goa which cannot be missed. The lush green villages, thick jungles and the abundant waterfalls constitute a charming world of Goan Rails. A train ride from Vasco takes you from the serene beaches to the precarious curves of Western Ghat Mountains offering a breathtaking sight of the Dudhsagar Waterfalls, one of India’s highest and most exquisite falls.
6. Nilgiri Mountain Railway(Mettupalayam-Udhagamandalam)
When the blue and cream colored coaches chug up the blue mountains, even the crudest of all hearts will skip a beat. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway, running for over a 110 years is another train journey, you simply cannot miss.
The steam engine covers the 46 km to Ooty in four and a half hours, twisting and turning through the rocky terrain, before slowly meandering into the sprawling tea estates. The familiar chuffing sound of the steam locomotive casts an old world charm and reminds of the legacies of the British Raj.
7. Himalayan Queen(Kalka – Shimla)
Being the only mountain railway in India, to be used by regular commuters, the heritage railway between Kalka and Shimla features in the Guinness Book of World Records for offering the steepest rise in altitude in the space of 96 kilometers
Built in 1903, it passes through 102 tunnels and 864 bridges, flanked by the picturesque Shivalik Hills on both sides. The train guzzles along the track, built over viaducts which resemble the arch galleries of ancient roman architecture. A morning ride on this stretch, wrapping the fresh air, whistling past the oak, pine and maple trees has all the ingredients to make it a journey of a lifetime.
8. The Toy Train-Darjeeling Himalayan Railway( New Jalpaiguri – Darjeeling)
The oldest of all mountain railways in India, the Toy Train is also a World Heritage Site, declared by UNESCO in 1999.Loops are a special feature of this railway to give it a natural ascent. The most popular being the ‘Batasia Loop’ which offers stunning views of Darjeeling town and the snow capped Mt Kanchenjunga on a clear day.
On its ascent from Sukna, the train crosses a few settlements and towns weaving through the tea gardens, tea factories and small forests of maple, chestnut, pear and cherry. One can also sneak a peek into the hustle bustle of the Gorkha settlements on the way. Gorkhas are an ethnic group of this region with Mongolian features known for their valor and bravery.
The train chugs alongside the busy highway and often intrigues the traveler with its slow, yet effective pace.
9. Matheran Hill Railway (Neral-Matheran)
Matheran, nestled in the Western Ghats, is one of the favorite weekend destinations for busy Mumbaikars. It still holds its charm, thanks to no vehicles being allowed in the town. One has to take a pony ride or walk on the dusty and muddy roads to go around Matheran.
The Matheran Hill Railway is the only heritage railway in Maharashtra. This narrow gauge rail link between Neral and Matheran was built by Abdul Hussein Adamjee Peerbhoy between 1901 and 1907 at the cost of Rs.1600000. The route, through large swathes of forest territory, covers a distance of 20 kilometers in about one and half hours, is full of panoramic views .Any lone visitor will surely enjoy the tranquility this ride offers.
10. Dooars Voyage (Siliguri - New Mal - Hasimara –Alipurduar)
A vast expanse of dense forests brimming with wildlife, murmur of streams trotting down from the hills of Sikkim and Bhutan, interwoven by tea gardens and dissected by the gorging Teesta River make Dooars a unique palette of nature.
The train route recently converted to broad gauge has minimum traffic but passes through notable wildlife sanctuaries abound in a fascinating diversity of flora and fauna. It crosses Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, Chapramari Forest, Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary and Buxa Tiger Reserve along with numerous stream crossings. You can get down at Chalsa, Hasimara or Rajabhatkhawa to get drenched in the Dooars experience.
11. Flavors of Assam (Guwahati-Lumding-Silchar)
The aroma of Assam runs into your senses as the train inches into the lush greenery of the adjoining valleys of Haflong, before joining the banks of River Jatinga and meandering along with it. A few hours later catch the flavor of the tea gardens of Barak valley, before running into the plains. This track now goes south and connects Agartala (the second largest city of North East India) to rest of the country.
12. Desert Queen ( Jaipur-Jaisalmer)
Jaisalmer is the gateway to all the camel safaris in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan. A train journey from Jaipur to Jaisalmer can be a great experience of viewing the barren stretches of the Thar Desert. The vibrant settlements of colorful mud huts and stray camels grazing in the flat desert against the rising sun can be a sight to cherish forever in life.
13. Arakku Valley Railway ( Vizag – Arakku)
Arakku Valley is a popular hotspot for nature enthusiasts, boasting of thick forests and coffee plantations. Vishakhapatnam, an important port city of East India has a rail link to Arakku, which lies on the Kothavalasa and Kirandul (KK) Line. This is one of rare broad gauge hill railways of India, which was built to transport iron ore from the mines of Chattisgarh to the port city of Vizag, presently known as Vishakhapatnam.
The rail route is one of the better ways to travel to Arakku Valley, crossing quite a few caves and waterfalls on the way.
14. Malnad Magic (Hassan – Mangalore)
The picturesque green paddy fields and Areca nut palm trees of the Malnad region encompasses this route. The best stretch is the one between Sakleshpur and Subramanya stations, where the train chugs through 57 tunnels offering a stunning view of the misty mountains and the sparkling waterfalls all around.
15. The Sea Bridge Ride( Mandapam- Pamban- Rameswaram)
The bridge that connects Mandapam in TamilNadu to the Pamban island is the second longest sea bridge in India and even if you are not a pilgrim to the Varanasi of south, you will fall in love with this train ride crossing the Gulf of Mannar.
16. The Western Ghat Saunter( Karjat - Lonavala)
As the train passes Karjat in Maharashtra, it enters the hinterland of the Western Ghats, not the mightiest in terms of height but extremely rich in biodiversity. During monsoons, this journey comes alive with numerous streams and cascading waterfalls on its way. The dense foliage with the backdrop of the hills will make you move out of your seat and enjoy the scenery at the door.
The train passes through the village settlements of Thakurwadi before hiking up Monkey Hill, then crossing the romantic Khandala reaches Lonavala.
17. Chambal Express (Agra to Gwalior)
The infamous Chambal region has been in the news for decades, thanks to the dacoits who might have created a record for the maximum number of extortions, robberies and murders in the region. But there is something about the ravines of Chambal that impresses the eye. The terrain has been supporting the sons of her soil since ages, with its unique diversity of undulations that makes it easier for the villains to rob and escape. A train ride through the Chambal ravines can bring a rush of adrenaline to the adventurous and a sense of curiosity to the landscape lover.
18. The Kerala Anubhavam (Ernakulam-Kollam-Trivandrum)
There isn’t a better way to experience the magic of Kerala, than by taking a train ride from Ernakulam(Cochin) to Trivandrum via Kollam (Quilon).It is like a holiday package which offers you all in one. The enchanting backwaters, the pristine lakes, the coconut palms fencing the water channels and a peek into the rural life of Kerala living in islands formed out of the backwaters.
19. The Travancore Railway (Kollam-Punalur-Sengottai)
The erstwhile Maharaja of Travancore had flagged off the first train on this route, way back in 1907.The section from Punalur to Sengottai crossing the beautiful Cardamom Hills is the best part of this journey in terms of the lushness of nature and the architectural marvels. The famous 13 arched bridge is a sight to remember on this route.
This section is currently closed for gauge conversion. Once complete this will connect Trivandrum to Chennai in the fastest way. Expected to complete by 2013.Currently one can take a ride up to Punalur only.
20. Unknown Andhra (Guntakal – Guntur)
The section between Dhone and Cumbum on the Guntakal – Guntur boasts of a scenic journey through the Eastern Ghats. Most of the express trains pass this stretch at night, but there are a few passenger trains that can be taken to experience the scenic beauty of this unexplored part of Andhra Pradesh. One can also alight at Cumbum station to see the Cumbum Lake, the oldest manmade lake of Asia.
21. Tribal Orissa Odyssey( Koraput – Rayagada)
Popularly known as the KR line, the Koraput-Rayagada line is an off shoot from the Kirandul- Kothavalasa (KK) line. Koraput is about 800 meters above sea level and the journey till Rayagada at 200 meters is an enchanting downhill experience. The dense forests and horse shoe curves add a charm to this unknown ride.
22. Lake View Chilika (Bhubaneswar- Brahmapur )
Take a morning ride from Bhubaneswar to Brahmapur in Orissa to experience the grandeur of the Chilika Lake on your left and the Eastern Ghats on your right. Chilika is the second largest lagoon on earth and a haven for migratory birds. If you are into bird watching, make sure you sit on the train window with a binocular.
23. Aravalli Adventure(Himmatnagar – Udaipur/Mavli – Marwar)
The Aravalli range runs across the state of Rajasthan from north to south. These old mountains consist of steep rocky ridges, formed due to erosion of an ancient folded mountain. They are rich in the history of Rajasthan which unfolds when a journey is taken to the interiors meeting the locals, listening to the folklores.
A train journey from Ahmedabad to Udaipur passes through a section of the hills and is a nice experience.To travel into the interiors of Aravalli, the meter gauge line from Mavli to Marwar is ideal. Mavli is 43 kms from Udaipur City and is waiting for a gauge conversion to be sanctioned between Mavli and Marwar.
24. Gir Safari (Junagarh-Delvada)
The Metre gauge railway from Junagadh to Delvada in Gujarat is an interesting journey through the wooded hills of Gir National Park. It is an extremely slow journey but for the laid back traveler planning for a stopover at Gir and looking to soak in the culture of Saurashtra (western region of Gujarat), this is a journey to look for. The train stops at Sasan Gir station, which leads to start of the National Park. One can also head to Diu using this train passing through the coastline of western Gujarat.
25. Shindavane and Ambale (Pune-Satara)
The ghats of Shindavane are known for the barren and lofty Sahyadri Mountains. The railway cuts deep through the mountains and passes through loose rocks on all sides. This lies in the Pune-Satara section of the Central Railways.
- The routes mentioned here can be closed due to various reasons, like gauge conversions, landslides or other unavoidable circumstances.Be well informed about the train availability on the routes before you plan a ride.
- Do check the official website of Indian Railways for all train and route related information: www.indianrail.gov.in
- Image Credits : Wikimedia Commons and IRFCA
- Special thanks to Apurva Bahadur, Jay Balakrishna, Lalam , Mohan Bhuyan, Bharath M,Naren Damodaran and Tushar from IRFCA for their support.