The 46km line took 54 years to build—from the first proposals in 1854 to completion in 1908. Three companies tried their hand. Two were daunted by the terrain and gave up. The third managed to finish it. Part of a Unesco World Heritage Site today, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway was among the most ambitious engineering projects of the British Raj.
Nearly all tracks, bridges, viaducts and tunnels from a century ago are intact. Trains continue to ply on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, its steam locomotives stirring memories of another time.
Ooty was a largely British town in pre-independence India, far from the heat and humidity of Madras Presidency. Alfred Tennyson referred to the “sweet half-English air of Neilgherry”. For Lord Lytton, viceroy of India, Ooty had “Hertfordshire lanes, Devonshire downs, Westmoreland lakes, Scotch trout streams and Lusitanian views”.
Ooty’s remoteness was part of its charm. While officers could manage the hazardous climb across the Nilgiri mountains, transporting wives and families wasn’t easy. As Ooty grew into the summer capital of the Madras Presidency, the British decided to invest in a railway line that would reduce travel time from 10 days to 5 hours.
Walking in the woods, I reach Ooty’s railway station shortly before the 2pm departure of the Udhagamandalam (Ooty)—Mettupalayam passenger. The platform isn’t crowded. There are some 60 people, most with baggage and cameras marking them as tourists. Most locals prefer the faster, 2-hour bus ride.
At the stroke of 2, the four-bogie train slinks out of the platform. Soon, the train plunges into the first tunnel, and the profusion of the Nilgiri mountain range reveals itself. Travellers’ cameras immediately jostle for space in train windows.
The first two stations, Lovedale and Ketti, are buried deep in the woods. Tall, thick eucalyptus trees surround stations. Compact station houses look like log cabins. Snatches of birdsong fill the air. Sometimes, green curtains of forests open up to reveal wide valleys with tea plantations and terraced villages. Aruvankadu, with the appearance of an industrial township thanks to its cordite factory, offers a break from the greenery. Wellington takes me back into the woods.
Into the past
It isn’t just the town names that are evocative of the British Raj. Old-style semaphore signals lie on the route, not modern electric signals. Drivers hand in a bamboo hoop with a metallic tablet at every station—this “token” is used to confirm a train’s arrival. A metallic safe-like device called Neale’s Tablet Token Instrument is used to regulate traffic. Old-style telephones, ancient clocks and handwritten registers fill railway stations. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway stubbornly keeps out electronic equipment.
Vintage steam engines ply on part of the route. Bogies are tiny, with multiple coupes, each with doors on either side. With its average speed of just over 10km per hour (kmph), there’s no haste. Much of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway feels like travelling in British India, before the advent of fast transport, before crowded trains.
Coonoor is the only place on the route that looks like a big town. There are houses thrust together—there’s dirt, grime, the bus stand is teeming with people: It’s a gentle reminder of the rest of India.
Coonoor is where the diesel engine that has drawn the train so far is replaced by a steam engine. Passengers alight, watching the steam engine attach itself to the train. Inside its distinctive black chamber are gauges, pipes, knobs and analogue metres right out of a 19th century science fiction book.
Yet, what made the railway quaint, also made it an anachronism. Steam engines more than 50 years old became increasingly difficult to maintain. Hard-to-find spare parts, frequent breakdowns and landslides affected services. The railway became unprofitable. The railway ministry repeatedly contemplated shutting down the route, but yielded to public protests every time.
Time travel: (From left) The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is a Unesco World Heritage Site (Pandiyan V/Flickr.com/Photos/Pandiyan); and only steam engines can safely bring the train down the gradient from Coonoor (Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan/Selectiveamnesia.org).
While the railway survived, the pressures it faced brought changes. Diesel engines began to be used on part of the route after 1998. Steam engines were completely modernized in 2006—they now use furnace oil, not coal with its characteristically tangy odour. Old-style Edmondson card tickets have now been replaced by computerized tickets. Some stations on the route—Adderley, Kateri Road and Fernhill—are now closed. Yet, the retention of steam for part of the journey isn’t purely for nostalgic reasons.
The Coonoor-Mettupalayam stretch is steep, at times with a gradient of 1 in 12. The only way to overcome this gradient is the 19th century rack-and-pinion system. Along the centre line of the two rails is a rack pad with two sets of metallic teeth. Between the two sets of wheels of a train is a pinion—an extra wheel with metallic teeth. These pinions latch on to the rack pads as the train moves, gripping it like the feet of a man climbing a rope. They stabilize a train, preventing it from sliding down.
However, only steam engines have pinions, not diesel engines. When the railways tried replacing steam engines with diesel engines on inclines, these started to slide. Thus, steam engines are still used on the route because only they are safe enough to ply.
My train leaves Coonoor, the steam engine’s shrill whistle triggering a buzz of anticipation. The real descent begins here. The train’s exertion is palpable as it starts and stops, almost panting as it struggles to stay under control. As the descent steepens, brakemen standing behind each bogie furiously turn brake levers to rein in the train.
There are no houses, towns or people around now. There are only misty hills climbing away in the distance. The thin black thread of a highway meanders below. At Runnymede, the train clambers across a gushing stream. The station is a forlorn two-room tiled house, wedged between a rock face and a chasm. Not surprisingly, the station master’s house at the now-defunct Adderley station was called “Vanavasam”, or exile.
A small break in the hills reveals a flatland, a sprawl of houses on plains in the distance—a momentary glimpse of Mettupalayam below. The view is shrouded by green hills again.
Hillgrove station is completely inaccessible—a 3km trek through jungles from the nearest road. The steam engine simmers as it drinks from a water column, as passengers eagerly get close to it with their cameras.
Beyond Hillgrove is the steepest part of the route. The train’s chug is laboured. It jerks down the precarious slope beside gorges. The engine toils to keep from slipping down the descent. It walks a tightrope across viaducts that have grand stone piers and arches.
As the descent continues, the flatland with the sprawl of houses approaches below. Coconut and palm trees draw closer. As the last hills fall behind, houses, shops and political posters spring up. The engine sighs, as if with relief.
After more relaxed chugging on the plain, the train crawls into the godown-like Mettupalayam station, just past 5.30pm. As I walk past lowing cows and look back, the misty silhouette of the Nilgiri hills in the distance appears like an indistinct memory.
Steam engines piping in a shed and the semaphore signal nearby are the only signs that I’ve just taken an ancient train ride.
(The writer thanks K. Natarajan, V.M. Govind Krishnan and the Indian Railways staff at Lovedale, Ooty, Ketti, Wellington, Coonoor, Runnymede, Hillgrove and Mettupalayam for their assistance with this piece.)
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