Never has any train been so grumbled about. Every passenger is whining: about the train’s snail’s pace, about the non-cushioned seats, about the absence of a restroom on board. Right from the indignant voices at the ticket counter to the tiffs about unreserved seat occupation, it’s one continuous groan.
“Q please,” the little piece of white cardboard in the Mettupalayam station says weakly in blue ballpoint ink, and people rush to line up in front of it. A German lady doesn’t quite grasp the idea, and decides to follow the stationmaster around, a wad of rupees scrunched in her hand. But each time she flashes a hopeful beam at him, she is shown the “Q”, where her more worldly-wise partner stands already. Others who hadn’t thought of booking their tickets in advance stand in jump-train readiness, clutching their bags and babies.
Amid all the chaos, a sharp, long whistle from the distance gets the queue straightened. The blue train chugs into Mettupalayam station, and its arrival is downright dramatic, what with it emerging from behind steam and smoke, and coming to a halt with a tired hiss. This ‘toy train’ has all of five coaches, but as first-timers look nervously around for aid, porters, canteen waalas and railway employees of various ranks dish out much-sought advice and well-deserved slaps on the wrist. I am steered into the Second Class reserved coach by a couple of cops. Judging by their shock when I leave my seat after depositing my bag there, I am not to leave my place till the TTE arrives.
When he does, he awards two seconds per head to the passengers revelling in the benefit of their forethought, before going on to the unreserved coaches, where I suspect he has more fun.
The First Class coach is the only one blessed with cushions. But luxurious sitting is hardly a requirement in a train that, instead of just showing you breathtaking scenes, physically takes people through them. Each halt station on the route is sightseeing heaven, which makes every single person step down to ogle at brooks, waterfalls, and tea estates, or buy weak chai that must be had for its nose-warming steam.
The broad-gauge rail system of the Nilgiri Passenger, also called the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR), is the steepest in Asia (gradient 1:12.5) and covers the longest distance, 46km, compared to other mountain railways in India (Darjeeling and Shimla). Connecting Mettupalayam (326m) and Ooty/ Udhagamandalam (2,203m) on the Nilgiri hills, the NMR takes me so deep into the mountains that I can judge the sheer drop, discover varying tastes of mint tea in every station, count the tealeaf pickers, and smile at kids waving at the train.
The recurrent whistles of the steam engine when it stops at quaint military towns seem to come right out of colonial times. The NMR used to be the vehicle for the British in India to get away from the sweltering heat of the plains. Its first section was only halfway up the hills from Mettupalayam (MTP), up to the cantonment area of Coonoor (CNR). Since it was extraordinarily steep between Kallar (the second stop after MTP) and CNR, the train was run by a unique rack and pinion system designed by a Mr Riggenback, the Swiss inventor of Rigi System of Mountain Railways in 1876.
Rack bars with teeth-like grooves were laid in between the two conventional rails to form a sort of ladder up which the engine climbed and pushed the train. Powered by coal and steam, the NMR, till today, takes a serpentine course through sloping hills, manoeuvring curves as sharp as 18 degrees.
Started in 1882, the NMR project was completed in 1899 by the Nilgiri Railway Company with Riggenback’s help. The train is now just another line owned by the Railways, and to get more mileage out of its track record, they extended the line another 27km to Ooty, the ‘queen of hill stations’ in South India.
The NMR makes only one trip up and down everyday, taking five hours uphill (Mettupalayam-Ooty), and four hours down (Ooty-Mettupalayam). And except for the special train that runs in the peak season from April to June, there is only a single train. Also, the steam engine operates just for the first section—19km from MTP to CNR.
I’m informed that uphill traffic is very little, and that most takers for the NMR are first-time tourists. The locals, apparently, have seen enough of the foliage, and like to get about faster.
Extensive rice fields surround the 7km stretch between MTP and Kallar, and all that fresh cool air takes me by surprise. When I mention it to the TTE, he smiles and asks me if I would accommodate some more people in my coupe, so “they can also enjoy the fresh air”. Since Kallar is what is called an operational stop, there are many ticketless line workers hopping on at MTP, claiming to be close relatives of the country’s railway minister. But they come with their own version of the train’s magic, and jump off at Kallar anyway. After that, those left on the train are passengers who’ll stay on till Ooty. By the time the next (and most scenic) stop, Runnymede, arrives, faces start to get familiar, smiles are exchanged, biscuits passed around, and honeymooning couples identified.
Most people on the NMR seem to have hopped on assuming it would be just another train journey. But the small 30-seater coaches, detachable windows and wooden seats confuse them. Most of all, they cannot understand why the train must dawdle so. The average speed is supposed to be 13kmph, and there are brakesmen sitting in little balconies in front of each coach, manually maintaining this pace. Over 13kmph could apparently cause broken teeth on the rack with too much friction, and less than 13kmph could cause the train to simply slide backwards down the hill. Of course, as soon as this is explained to us impatient passengers, we think it better for everybody if we just shook off the restless city attitude, and enjoyed the trip.
When Coonoor station comes, it is abuzz with activity. The steam engine must be removed and the train attached to a YMD4 diesel engine. The diesel engine made an appearance on the NMR only in 1993—to supplement the ageing steam loco fleet. However, the YMD4 class of diesels can only work the relatively flat incline from Coonoor to Ooty, and the rack section is still in the hands of the capable steam locos.
The NMR stops in Coonoor for almost 15 minutes and I do some looking around, while curling cold fingers around a cup of blissfully warm mint tea. In the Coonoor Loco Shed stand five steam engines, of which only three are in working condition. And those oldies, too, require a refill of water at almost every station now. It’s fascinating to look at the whole process of water and coal replenishing, and routine nuts-and-bolts checks at every stop, handled by unimpressed railway employees who offer matter-of-fact explanations to tourists.
The camaraderie between the tourists gets stronger with each collective howl filling every one of the 16 tunnels the train passes through. After Coonoor, most stops are very brief, just long enough to take a picture and grab a vada and beverage. The rest of the journey is now a blur of terrace gardens, streams, and craggy, grim-looking ‘blue mountains’. There are now halts at little towns with seemingly one-dimensional identities. So, Wellington is a military town with one of the best officers’ training colleges in the world; Ketti is the world’s widest valley and has a needle industry; Aravankadu houses the Cordite factory; Lovedale is almost synonymous with the Lawrence School. It isn’t possible to take a walk in these towns during the journey, of course. (Later, though, I rent a bike to hit all the towns by road. T0 ride parallel to the NMR, seeing waving people and hearing their howls ring from inside tunnels is worth it in the cold rain.)
Rain, from inside the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, has to be the most uplifting sight ever. Some people keep their windows open and stick their tongue out. I choose to keep my window closed and watch it shudder as the rain hits it. When we finally arrive at Ooty, people disembark, but stick around for a few minutes more. Yes, they look like they’re checking their luggage. But maybe another cup of mint tea will warm them enough to admit that they’re actually gazing affectionately at the toy train that gave them a journey that was, strangely, not about the destination at all.
—The Nilgiri Mountain Railway ‘toy train’ leaves Mettupalayam every day at 7.10am and takes nearly five hours to do the journey uphill to Ooty (arrives 12pm). The train arrives in Coonoor (where it switches from steam to diesel) at 10.40am. It does the return run in under four hours, leaving Ooty at 3pm and arriving at Mettupalayam at 6.35pm.
—The train covers a distance of 46km, travelling through 208 curves, 16 tunnels, and 250 bridges.
—Private rail excursion tours are available, where you can book the entire train for a private party. From Ooty to Runnymede and back, covering Lovedale, Ketti, Aruvankadu, Wellington, and Coonoor in between.
By rail: Coimbatore is the nearest big city accessible to Mettupalayam. Train connections between the two towns include the Coimbatore-Mettupalayam Passenger (leaves 6.45pm), which does the run in one hour. But this will necessitate an overnight stay in Mettupalayam, avoided by doing the journey by road instead. Visitors from Bangalore can take the overnight Kanyakumari Express to Coimbatore (leaves 9.45pm, arrives 5.10pm), and then do the Coimbatore-Mettupalayam by road. From Chennai, the Nilgiri Express offers a convenient overnight connection to Mettupalayam: the train leaves 9pm and arrives the next morning at 6.20am, just in time to take the toy train an hour later.
By air: The nearest airport is Coimbatore, 100km away. You can catch a direct flight to Coimbatore from Chennai, Kozhikode, Bangalore and Mumbai.
Where to stay:
In Ooty: The biggest hotel in Ooty is the Howard Johnson Monarch (0423-2444408), The Willow Hill (2444037) is a charming inn-like option. The budget option is the local Youth Hostel (2443665).
In Coonoor: The high-end option here is the Taj Garden Retreat (2230021) with great views. A cheaper option is the Bamier Inn (2232561). The local YWCA Guesthouse (2234426) is a good budget option. The rooms are clean and spacious and It’s usually booked up in season, so reserve well in advance.