Locomotive | Tamil Nadu

Nilgiri Mountain Railway: As old as the hills

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With a 14-year World Heritage tag, the 111-year-old Nilgiri Mountain Railway is the grande dame of toy trains

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My first ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) was as an eight-year-old with my cousins. I remember how we screamed - partly in excitement, partly in fear - each time the ‘toy train’ went through the 16 tunnels it crosses from Mettupalayam to Ooty. We held our breath when it chugged over bridges (there are 258 of them), awed by the vista of mountains and valleys, tea estates and waterfalls that lay below.

On July 15, NMR celebrated the 14th anniversary of its induction as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Now, along with the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the Kalka-Shimla Railway, NMR is also part of the heritage ‘Mountain Railways of India’.

NMR has more than a few distinctions. On its 46 km journey, the little blue train climbs from 325 m to 2,240 m, negotiating along the way the steepest gradient of any railway line in South Asia. It does this with its rack and pinion system - it is the only rack railway in India - where cog wheels mesh with a toothed rack rail to ease the climb. It is also India’s only train that uses a Swiss X-class coal engine, one of the world’s oldest engines.

When this railway was completed in 1908, the last stop was the hill town of Coonoor. The line was later extended to Ooty (Udhagamandalam). It now passes through 13 stations: Mettupalayam, Kallar (now closed for passengers), Adderley, Hillgrove, Runnymede, Katteri, Coonoor, Wellington, Aravankadu, Ketti, Lovedale, Fernhill and Ooty.

The train leaves Mettupalayam at 7.10 each morning, switches from a steam to a diesel engine at Coonoor station, and chugs into Ooty at noon.

Text by Sofia Juliet R. and images by M. Sathyamoorthy

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