Nilgiris - Mountain Railway

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is now a World Heritage site.
Ride it to enjoy nature at its best.

Early this month, during the 29th session of the World Heritage Committee meeting at Durban, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway(NMR) was declared a World Heritage Site. A historic moment not only for the NMR, but for the residents of the Nilgiris and for all those who have travelled on this train.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) was inscribed in 1999. Jointly, these two sites have been designated as "Mountain Railways of India".

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway connects Mettupalayam in the foothills to Ooty — as Udhagamandalam was called. There was a time when the Nilgiri hills were inaccessible to the common traveller. One had to ride up on horseback following a bridle path or be carried on "dollies" through the forests to reach either Coonoor or Ooty.

Dream Project

A railway to connect the beautiful hill stations of Coonoor and Ooty, to the plains became necessary. The idea was mooted in 1854, but work on this dream project could begin only in 1891 and was completed in 1908.

A Swiss inventor named Riggenback offered to construct the Nilgiri railway on his patented Rigi pattern. But his conditions could not be met and his proposal fell through. However, in 1882 he came to the Nilgiris on the invitation of the Government and submitted a detailed estimate for laying the line. A local company called "The Nilgiri Rigi Railway Co. Ltd." was formed. But it was 1886 before work finally commenced on the Rigi-system in metre gauge.

Coonoor was the destination until 1899 and then the tracks were extended to Fernhill in 1908 and finally to Ooty a month later. The Madras Railway Company managed the railway line for the government.

On the toy train

The ideal way to begin your holiday in the hills would be to take this little toy train. It sets the pace for a leisurely, stress-free break from tests, exams, school, teachers and yes, parents too. And as the train goes up hill and down valley, through tea estates and tunnels you get to see Nature at its best. You will be pleasantly surprised by the brilliant green of the tea bushes, the thundering sound of the waterfalls and the startled cry of the hoopoe as it flies out of a tree.

As the train slowly chugs its way over the viaduct, you may gasp as far below, you glimpse the trickle of the mountain stream on its way to the plains.

Clinging to the mountainsides, the train manoeuvres the sharp curves, huffing and puffing along.

The stations with their quaint names Runnymede, Hill Grove, Adderly, Lovedale... are picturesque. The stations are relics of the Raj.

Mettupalayam is at an elevation of 330 metres and Udhagamandalam at an elevation of 2,200 metres. So you can imagine the steep incline the train has to climb.

From Mettupalayam to Kallar, the ride is practically on a level, but as soon as you leave Kallar the climb begins. The line is a metre gauge and the train uses the rack and pinion system to climb the incline. This train is still fuelled by a steam engine.

Finally, ensure you get a window seat, so you don't miss out on anything.

The rack and pinion system

This rail system is unique because it uses the Alternate Biting System (ABT) or the rack and pinion system. A special toothed-rack rail is mounted on the sleepers between the running rails. The train is fitted with cog wheels, that mesh with the rack rail. From Coonoor to Udhagamanadalam, it runs on a non-rack system.

Normally when we travel by train we see the engine in the front. But in the NMR don't be surprised to see the engine at the tail end when climbing. This is because it has to push the train up. And while descending the engine is in front making sure that the train comes down gradually.

The maximum speed of the train is 33-km per hour. It traverses 16 tunnels, 26 bridges, with one big viaduct over the Bhavani. These are indeed feats of engineering, as they merge with Nature — never incongruous, never unattractive.

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