Experience Travel

Rails over Nilgiri mountains

Snaking around the bend The Niligiri mountain train at Kattari Bridge near Coonoor, the wooden carriages and a view of the tracks

Snaking around the bend The Niligiri mountain train at Kattari Bridge near Coonoor, the wooden carriages and a view of the tracks  

A century-old steam engine chugs back to life for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway’s summer special ride

It is difficult to imagine a 28-kilometre train ride generating so much excitement but, in my household, it does.

One, because the husband is mad about trains; two, because the journey will culminate in Coonoor where I want my ashes scattered; and three, because our daughter loves history and can’t pass up an opportunity to ride in a train where the carriages and engine are nearly 100 years old. The four stations where the train will stop — Kallar, Adderly, Hillgrove and Runneymede — are also more than a century old, I have been told.

We set off from Coimbatore in a cab to Mettupalayam. On the way, Raju shoots railway questions at us and then answers them himself, even before we have cleared our throats. How old is the Nilgiri Mountain Railway? Well, the stretch from Mettupalayam to Coonoor, that we were travelling that day, was inaugurated in 1899, while the extension up to Ootacamund was ready in 1908. How many tunnels are there from Mettupalayam to Ooty? 208 curves, 16 tunnels and 250 bridges/culverts. What is the altitude of Coonoor? 6070 ft… and so on. These, coupled with memories of longer train journeys (sometimes of two nights and three whole days), keep us occupied till Mettupalayam station.

The original carriages are beautifully refurbished in blue

The original carriages are beautifully refurbished in blue   | Photo Credit: Pankaja Srinivasan

And there she is! The Nilgiri Queen. With an engine straight out of Hogwarts and a grand total of three carriages. Primped and painted in dark blue and yellow for us. These are the original wooden carriages. I see plaques on two of them — one was manufactured in Birmingham and the other in Leeds in the 1930s. The beautiful hissing engine is a confusion of pipes and levers. We exchange a few words with the driver Gopalan and the mechanic Subban, who pose with quiet pride next to her when we beg for a picture. She is an old steam engine refurbished at the Golden Rock loco workshop at Tiruchi. Instead of coal, she is now oil-fired, they tell us.

A lovely long ear-splitting whistle and, with much waving of the green flag, we are off! But not before friendly railway officials hand us goodie bags filled with water, a juice pack, Nilgiris tea and a souvenir key chain. They come in a brown paper bag with an engine on it and 17 stars in the Indian Railway logo, which Raju (before he sticks his head out of the window) announces represent the 16 railway zones plus one for the Kolkata Metro.

Once the fingers and cheeks stop twitching from all the selfie-taking and we are done with waving to total strangers on the road, I put my phone away and go back to the 1900s. Not difficult to do, as soon we start climbing. I gaze at the hills, all prettily swathed in mist. But it is a fine day as we rock through tunnels (with a lot of whoooooo from the train passengers), over solid bridges and culverts, all built 100-odd years ago.

The rack and pinion system that prevents the train from rolling right back to the plains!

The rack and pinion system that prevents the train from rolling right back to the plains!   | Photo Credit: Pankaja Srinivasan

A dog chases the train for a good distance and, as its barks fade, I begin to get into the mood. Butterflies flit along my window, birds ignore us from tree branches and bursts of green provide relief to my weary city eyes. The train goes Dadakdadak dadakdadak dadakdadak… I lean back, adjust my Ray Bans on my nose and hope my windblown hair gives me the ‘sapnon ki rani’ aura. But, my Rajesh Khanna is more seduced by the rack and pinion.

We disembark at Kallar, specially to see the Rack-and-Pinion system. Chief Commercial Inspector, B Chitti Babu, explains how for every metre the gradient rises by 12.5 feet. He points to the grip running on the centre of the rail track that prevents the train from rolling right back to the plains. He also tells us why we paid so much for our tickets. “This is a heritage train. And it runs on steam. Just maintaining the old mechanism is very expensive. The running cost is actually ₹700,000 to transport 130 passengers to Coonoor! But it is heavily subsidised and that is why we are able to run it. To preserve that bit of history and heritage.” In 2005, UNESCO declared the Nilgiri Mountain Railway as a World Heritage Site. We see a plaque bearing this declaration at Runneymede station.

Bursts of purple announce that it is Jacaranda season and my heart lifts, as now I can see the green slopes of tea. (I think of the several lovely hillsides and valleys in the Nilgiris where I have had life-saving tea). As if on cue, we steam into Hillgrove station and there are samosas and sweet hot tea awaiting us (specially laid out for travellers on this heritage trail). It is obvious the railway officials in attendance are immensely proud of the NMR. They patiently answer questions, point out interesting facts and press more tea on us.

Best of all, once the tea break is done, even senior officials clear up the debris, ensure the station is spotless once again before we chug off.

At Runneymede we get off the train once again and stroll through a pretty village. Where else can one get off the train and wander around Jacaranda trees? We see birds and the butterflies, lilies and Lantana. (There are 3,300 flora species of flowering plants in the Nilgiris of which 132 are endemic). We see waterfalls and streams.

It has taken us three-and-a-half hours to cover the 28 kilometres. But we don’t notice it. It is exactly what TLC channel routinely tells us: “It is the journey that matters, not the destination”.

Book your ticket

The Nilgiri Summer Special Train runs only on weekends from Mettupalayam to Coonoor and back. It departs from Mettupalayam at 9.10 am and reaches Coonoor at 12.30 pm. The return from Coonoor is at 1.30 pm and it arrives in Mettupalayam at 4.20 pm. The service is on only till June 24, 2018.

The fare is ₹1,210 per head for First Class and ₹815 per head for Second Class. This includes a welcome kit and refreshments.

For booking, visit the IRCTC website and the Railway Reservation Office.

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 2:46:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/a-century-old-steam-engine-chugs-back-to-life-for-the-nilgiri-mountain-railways-summer-special-ride/article23502177.ece

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