The Nilgiri Mountain Railway toy train is back in action after 10 months. MetroPlus hops on board for a ride
It makes a dramatic entry. Painted in blue, the train emerges from a backdrop of steam and smoke. Chugging towards me, it whistles before halting at platform Number 1 with a hiss. It is early in the morning, the air is nippy, and I am at Mettupalayam Railway Station, thrilled to ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) toy train, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005. Just across the platform is the NMR museum that celebrates the history of this iconic train (see infobox). The train services were suspended from March 2020 due to the pandemic; and restarted recently, after nearly 10 months.
“The first-ever trip of the train was on June 15, 1899. After nine years, on October 15, 1908, it got extended till Udhagamandalam,” says K Natrajan, founder of Heritage Steam Chariot Trust. The train connects Mettupalayam with Udhagamandalam via Coonoor after passing through Kallar, Adderly, Runnymede, Wellington, Aravankaadu, Ketti and Lovedale stations.
As the train starts moving in a slow rhythm, I sit back and enjoy the scenery unfolding outside my window. For the first five kilometres, it chugs along flat plains cutting through banana plantations, arecanut farms, and fields being readied for farming. A peacock shows off its plumage beside the track, unmindful of the steaming train trundling by.
- The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is one of three Indian railways which were recognised by UNESCO as ‘outstanding examples of hill railways’. The other two are the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway that runs between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling in West Bengal and the Kalka–Shimla Railway that connects the Raj’s summer residency at Shimla with Delhi.
- Nilgiri Railway Company constructed the railway from 1886 to 1899. In January 1903, it was purchased by the government and construction between Coonoor and Udhagamandalam was completed in 1908.
- The train has six coaches including the first-class and general class compartments. You have to book your tickets much in advance on the IRCTC website as the train has been running full with 180 passengers.
- The train starts at 7.10 at Mettupalayam and takes fours hours and 50 minutes to reach Udhagamandalam.
- Coimbatore is the nearest city to reach Mettupalayam. From Coimbatore, it is just an hour journey in a bus.
- The Museum at Mettupalayam station is a walk through history of how NMR came into being. A number of old photographs taken during the construction of the railways, visits of personalities and inaugural journeys grace the wall. It houses models of of some of the oldest locomotives and coaches used on the Nilgiri mountain route, and other rare artefacts related to the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) The first loco, made at Swiss Locomotive and Machine Works Winterthur in Zurich in Switzerland, which pulled the NMR on one of its first rides on the Western Ghats in 1899, is on display.
- Miniatures of narrow gauge, meter gauge and broad gauge railway lines with fish plates, the LHB Coaches( that have been developed in Karpurthala and in use since 2000) designed to use higher operating speed and accomodate more passengers, coaches of Duronto, Jan Shatabdi and Rajdhani trains, Metro trains and Electrical Multiple Units, and the unique rack and pinion system are showcased. The coaches and wagons used to transport coal are also displayed.
- A vintage ticket machine that is used for punching the ticket and assigning a serial number can be found inside the hall. Other exhibits include old weighing machines, paraffin gas lamps and Berkefeld Filter, rious models of signalling lamps used by Indian Railways as it went through an evolution, Morse code machine and Magneto Telephone.
- You can also see a five-tonne manually operated crane manufactured at Bradford that was used to move defence materials by train from Mettupalayam to Wellington
At Kallar, the first station on the route, the rack and pinion system engages and the train begins its ascent through bridges and dark, winding tunnels taking you physically along the stunning views at every single twist and turn.
The railway between Mettupalayam and Coonoor was constructed using alternate biting teeth technology in rack and pinion arrangement between the rails. “The rack and pinion is a striking engineering feature. It is designed to climb the steepest gradient of 1 in 12 feet, making it the second steepest climb in the world. The rack and pinion extends up to 19 kilometres which is the longest in the world,” explains Natrajan.
Powered by steam
At Adderly, engineers refill the water tanks and I notice that the locomotive bears the name of Nilgiri flycatcher, an endemic bird that can be seen only in the Nilgiris. “As the train is powered by steam locomotives between Mettupalayam and Coonoor, it halts at regular intervals, to refill water,” says S Prasanna, Station Master. It uses 4,000 litres of water every five kilometres.
Workers, who conduct regular maintenance checks for the engine, tell me that the train crosses 250 bridges and passes through 16 tunnels. Each time we enter or emerge from a tunnel, passengers on board cheer loudly. When an Indian gaur shows up, striking a pose amidst the greenery, there are collective sighs all around.The signature whistling, steam and the rustic wooden coaches with long windows take me back in time to the iconic film Sadma featuring Kamal Haasan and Sridevi, where the train features in songs and key scenes.
The stretch from Mettupalayam to Coonoor — the first 27 kilometres of the total 46 — trundles through deep valleys, thick forests with dense greenery, and by leafy walls covered in yellow, red, and orange wild flowers that are so close, you can reach out and pluck them. As we near Runnymede, neatly trimmed green patches of tea plantations with towering silver oak trees take over. The place is so green, it tempts each of us to step down and soak up the view. A railing has been erected to mark the forest boundary and down below a stream gurgles. There are garden chairs for passengers to sit and stare. Natrajan points out that Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were immersed in the nearby wild stream, at the sangamam point of two rivers along the Runnymede.
At Coonoor, over sweet masala chai, onion samosas and paruppu vada, we bid goodbye to the oil-furnace-powered steam locomotive. It is detached and replaced by a diesel engine for the last leg of the journey from Coonoor to Udhagamandalam. Onward it goes through tea plantations, and the blue-green expanse of the Ooty lake. The air is cooler than before, and a whiff of eucalyptus hangs light.