India's most epic rail journeys for intrepid travellers

A handful of far-flung rail routes stand out for their understated beauty and the ways in which they serve up history and culture. A decade on from the publication of Around India in 80 Trains, author Monisha Rajesh chooses her favourite routes.

The Himalayan Queen en route from Kalka to Shimla.

Photograph by AWL Images
By Monisha Rajesh
Published 27 Feb 2023, 06:00 GMT

In 2010, I bought a rail pass and spent four months travelling the length and breadth of the railways to research my book, Around India in 80 Trains. Full disclosure: I didn’t care for trains when I arrived, nor did I come from a railroading family or have stories of trains from my childhood. But I knew that a rail ticket would allow me to immerse myself into a cross section of society and gather stories from modern-day Indians from every walk of life.

Along the way, I was often reminded, as a British Indian, that these impressive railways were built by the ‘Britishers’. The truth is many people remain blinkered to the motivation behind their construction, which was far from an act of benevolence by the British Raj and more a fast-track plan to govern and plunder resources more efficiently. All the while, the Indian taxpayer footed the bill and wasn’t even allowed to travel in the whites-only carriages.

Over the many years I’ve spent travelling India by rail, a handful of trains have stood out for their understated beauty — often on far-flung and unassuming routes — and the way in which they taught me history or enabled me to engage with people of different faiths, backgrounds and cultures whom I otherwise wouldn’t have had the fortune to meet. Here are four routes I’d recommend for travellers seeking a deeper understanding of the country.

Himalayan Queen from Kalka to Shimla
With a couple of jerks, the toy train rolls out of Kalka station to hoots and claps and begins its ascent to Shimla. Opened in 1903, the line was built to enable British colonisers to set up a summer residence in the cooler climes of the Himalayan foothills and, despite frequent closures, it’s survived as one of the most charming train rides, with 102 tunnels and more than 800 bridges on the five-hour climb. Winding its way through forests of maple and sharp-smelling pine, the train teeters along cliff edges where the odd sandal can often be spotted — lost by those hitching a ride. There are stops for tea and thick triangles of hot bread pakora, consumed while milling around making friends and admiring the views down flowering valleys.  

Guwahati Ledo Intercity Express from Tinsukia to Ledo
In the heart of the easternmost finger of land that points towards China lies the state of Assam, home to the loudest, most exhilarating journey. Starting at Tinsukia, the train fills with vegetable sellers balancing scales, tea pickers hoisting baskets, and labourers who quickly doze off in their seats. Its doors latched open, the train sets off at a pace, tearing past plantations where bent-backed women in radiant saris are polka-dotted around the fields, baskets strapped across their heads. Gripping the door handles, passengers lean out, hair streaming back, as the train blares its horn. It careers around corners and skims the backs of villages so closely you can reach out and touch drying laundry before arriving 90 minutes later at Ledo, the end of the line and the easternmost point of the rail network.

Goa Express from Vasco da Gama to Londa
For a spontaneous afternoon adventure, board the Goa Express from Vasco da Gama station to Londa, and take a seat on the right for views of the Arabian Sea. Over the thud of wheels, passengers will hear the shrieks of families fleeing the roar and fizz of waves on Cansaulim Beach, and pass groups of friends squatting around games of rummy. Pulling away from the coast, the train curves inland towards the Western Ghats and pushes through jungle packed with mango trees and spikes of aloe vera, the air thick with the smell of jackfruit smashed on the ground. Post-monsoon, the mountains are rippled with waterfalls, the spray reaching into the carriages, and olive-green rivers bursting their banks.

Vivek Express from Dibrugarh to Kanyakumari 
Not for the fainthearted, the longest train in the country connects Dibrugarh in Assam with Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, a journey of 2,580 miles that takes 74 hours and passes through eight states. Launched in 2011, the train is a bucket-list endeavour, though few passengers manage the full three-night, four-day journey. Those that do are rewarded with tea estates, forests, temples, salt mounds, mosques, rivers, mountains, beaches, villages and highways, all rolling by the windows in an unfiltered slideshow of everything India has to offer. Like speed-dating, passengers can expect to come face to face with everyone from trainee nurses to tech engineers, professors to potato sellers, and arrive at the final destination with the feeling of having completed a journey of a lifetime.

Monisha Rajesh is the author of Around India in 80 Trains (2016, John Murray Press), among other publications. RRP: £10.99.

Published in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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