The Nilgiri Mountain Railway: Steam Travel in South India

India’s most southerly state, Tamil Nadu, is the home to 46km of railway that, since July 2005, holds the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway, which opened in 1899, twists its way up from Mettupalayam, on the hot and dusty plain, into the lush countryside and altitude-induced coolness of the Nilgiri Hills.

The Indian railway network, of course, hosts a number of sections that attract fans of rail journeys and a trip on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway is widely regarded as one of the world’s classics.

The scenery of the undulating Nilgiris – meaning “blue mountains” in Tamil – is just part of the attraction. The rolling greenery of the region’s tea and coffee plantations are a stark contrast to the plains around Mettupalayam. Traces of hill station life linger in the towns of Coonoor and Udhagamandalam (which the British found tricky to pronounce, so christened it Ooty, by which it is still popularly known). These are still popular retreats from the raging summer heat of April to June, holiday months in which the train is most crowded.

The more technically minded passengers enjoy gaining insights into the feats of engineering – including more than 250 bridges – which make the line workable. Others take special pleasure from a trip on the stretch up to Coonoor, which is still served by steam locomotives.

Eight veteran ‘X’ class locomotives, built by the Swiss Locomotive and Machine Works company, of Winterthur in Switzerland, provide power for the cream and blue coloured carriages of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. These steam locomotives run along the lower 27km of track, between Mettupalayam, at 330m (1069ft) above sea level and Coonoor, at an altitude of 1858m above sea level. Even the most recently built locomotive has clocked up more than a half century in service. The oldest debuted during the 1920s. This helps explain why the railway was chosen as a set for David Lean’s film, A Passage to India, the adaption of the 1924 E.M. Forster novel which so graphically captured aspects of Anglo-Indian life during the Raj of the early twentieth-century.

The engines chug through the plantations, at a maximum speed of 30km an hour. The speed, though, is usually closer to walking pace. Passengers are rocked from side to side and slide, ever so gently, on the polished wooden benches of the carriages. From time to time acrid smoke wafts through the open windows, usually when passing through one of the many tunnels.

The train rocks past stone cottages set among the greenery of the hills, landscape not dissimilar to that found in parts of Scotland. Stations such as Hillgrove and Runneymede have English sounding names and it’s easy to imagine that, long ago, many of the British in this distant part of the Empire must felt pangs of homesickness on seeing scenery so reminiscent of “home”. The stations look remarkably similar to some of those built in Yorkshire during the same period; yet these nestled in the Nilgiris are blessed with significantly more hours of sunshine each year.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is sometimes known as the “miniature mountain railway” due to its narrow gauge of just 1000mm (3ft 3in, for those of you who still think in Imperial measurements). Two similar railways exist in India. One runs to Shimla, the erstwhile summer capital of British India, and the other to Darjeeling.

As with Darjeeling, it was in the business interests of British plantation owners in the Nilgiris to have a railway, in order to transport their produce. Yet it took until June 1899 for a railway to link Coonoor with the markets of the British Empire. Even during the Victorian period – famed for its daring engineering projects – bureaucracy and indecision delayed work on the line.

Plans were initially discussed in 1854, but it was not until 1891 that work began on the 27km of track between Mettupalayam and Conoor. Swiss consultants recommended that a ‘rack and pinion’ Alternate Biting System should be used to successfully overcome the altitude difference of 1528 metres separates those stations. Passengers can hear the rattling as cogs grip against the bars set into the track to ensure safe, if not smooth, progress up and down the line. An extension of the railway, from Conoor to Ooty, situated at 2200m (7228ft) above sea level, was completed in 1908.

The first Britons to settle in the area arrived over eighty years prior to that. John Sullivan, regarded as Ooty’s founder, traversed the difficult terrain of the Nilgiri Hills in the 1820s and purchased a swathe land from the Toda tribespeople. He paid one rupee an acre, a rate which some now regard as exploitative. His investment made him a fortune when it became clear that cash crops – such as tea, coffee and spices – thrive in the mild, moist climate of the Nilgiris. Even now, in an age of global warming, the summer temperatures rarely rise above 25°C in the hills.

The railway helped improve accessibility to Ooty in the years following 1908, and its fame spread. Even today Ooty proudly uses the epithet won a century ago,“The Queen of Hill Stations”.

A journey along the complete length of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway lasts approximately four hours and fifty minutes on the way up to Ooty, but just three and three-quarter hours on the way down. During that time, several opportunities exist for passengers to climb down from carriages and give tired posteriors a welcome break from the wooden benches.

Passengers can purchase refreshments at Hillgrove and the stops at Hillgrove, Adderly and Runneymede provide excellent opportunities for enthusiasts to observe how steam locomotives take on water.

Further Information

For more information about travel and tourism in Tamil Nadu see the Tamil Nadu Tourism website.

Written by © Stuart Forster 2013.

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