The Nilgiri Mountain Railway

I was awakened at 05:45 by my the lights in my sleeping compartment being switched on and a friendly “good morning” from the elderly gentleman who had occupied the lower bunk. “We will soon be arriving in Mettupalayam” he said. I packed up my belongings, and as my cheerful cabin mate had said, we arrived in Mettupalayam about 15 minutes early at 06:00. There was no hurry to leave the train, as this was the last stop and my next train didn’t leave for about 90 minutes. I packed up my luggage, and finding that I still had about 750ml of a 1 litre water bottle left, I sculled it rather than carrying it. When I stepped out onto the platform into the cool morning air, the scene was not as I had expected; the town was small and set against the spectacular backdrop of the Nilgiri Mountains, rising out of the surrounding plains.

The metre gauge yard at Mettupalayam against the backdrop of the Nilgiri Mountains

The metre gauge yard at Mettupalayam against the backdrop of the Nilgiri Mountains

A 0-8-2T X class steam locomotive was shunting in the metre gauge yard, preparing the train for my next journey; the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. The little X class steam locomotive had a diesel generator and fuel tank where its bunker was. As I could see no coal, I presume it was an oil burner, and the generator to supply auxiliary electricity.

An X class steam loco shunts at Mettupalayam

An X class steam loco shunts at Mettupalayam

The Nilgiri Mountain railway is a 46 km long metre gauge railway which runs from Mettupalayam to the mountain station of Udagamandalam (more commonly known as Ooty). The line is still run by steam locomotives on the section between Mettupalayam and Coonoor (28 km), where the steam locomotive is changed for a diesel for the last 18 km. There is one round trip per day between Mettupalayam and Ooty, which connects at Mettupalayam with the Broad Gauge Nilgiri Express to Chennai in both directions. There are an additional 3 return services which run only between Coonoor and Ooty. Although the line is run primarily as a tourist railway, it is operated by Southern Railways and ticketed though the Indian Railways computerised ticketing system.

A metre gauge X class steam locomotive

A metre gauge X class steam locomotive

There was a queue forming near the little train, so I joined it, presuming we were waiting to board. There were rumours going around that there may not be enough seats, and as I had reservations already, I left the queue. I went to see the Station Master, who was very dismissive and said “Wait for TC to come, he will sort it out”. “TC?”, the Station Master looked at me like I was an idiot, “yes, TC… Ticket Collector”. I waited for about 5 minutes, until it was evident TC was coming no time soon, I started to wander, until I found a reservation list pinned to a wall, which had my name listed against seat 5 in car FS-1. Then it all clicked; the queue was for passengers without seat reservations (I later saw the sign indicating this, which had been obscured by the queue earlier).

If you have a pre booked ticket, don't join this queue!

If you have a confirmed pre booked ticket, don’t join this queue!

I found seat 5 in car FS-1, which was already occupied. I told the man sitting there that it was my seat, assigned on the chart. The man said no, this was his seat and showed me his ticket (which said seat 5 in car FS-1). I said that today’s reservation chart showed me here and he said “you must be in the other seat 5”. “There are two seat 5s?” “Yes, this is second class, you must be in first class.” I found my seat in first class (which looked identical to second class) and loaded my luggage under the seat.

The carriages on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway were very different to those on the Kalka – Shimla Railway. These carriages had a small veranda at each end (not accessible from the cars). The passenger compartments were facing bench seats which ran the entire width of the car (meaning there was no corridor). There was an outward swinging door on each side of the car for each set of facing bench seats. The doors were only open-able from the outside. My section filled up with two older Germans from Frankfurt and 5 young Indian men, all in high spirits.

It was getting close to departure time and the little steam locomotive had finished shunting about 15 minutes before, but was still at the rear of the train. Being India, this was not a big surprise, I presumed it would go to the front of the train when the Driver was ready. The doors were being locked, and suddenly it didn’t seem such a good idea to have sculled 750ml of water. I needed to go, so I reopened the door and gave one of the Indians in the compartment strict instructions not to let it be closed until I got back. I ran off to the toilet and was back within 30 seconds. The guard was waiting at the open door, and gave me a condescending look as if to say “there’s always one…

Whistles were blown, and flags waved, but the locomotive was still at the back of the train. I was surprised, when the locomotive started propelling the little train out of the the platform! Our train was the lead car, and on the the veranda sat 2 brakemen. I looked closer, and there was a brake handle, a car horn and a small headlight. The train reached speeds of up to 40 km/h (and crossed several level crossings) as we chugged backwards out of Mettupalayam. The only reason I could think that the locomotive would propel the train would be in case of a breakaway; the train climbs all of the way from Mettupalayam to Coonoor, and if a carriage broke away from the end of the train, it could potentially run down the mountain at high speed and derail. With the locomotive at the Mettupalayam end, gravity would hold the train together

The front of the Coonoor bound train. The brakeman sits on the veranda.

The front of the Coonoor bound train. The brakeman sits on the veranda.

As we rattled along, I felt the effect of the water about to cause trouble again, and wondered how far it was until our next stop. The journey to Coonoor was just over 3 hours, but surely we would stop before that, wouldn’t we? My question was soon answered, when we made a stop at Kallar (which mercifully had a toilet close by my car). After pausing at Kallar, we were again propelled by the little locomotive which slipped as it pushed us out of the station. It didn’t slip for long, as our little locomotive had a party trick; a cog wheel in underneath the centre of the locomotive, which engages in a toothed “rack” in between the two normal rails. This gives the train 100% adhesion as it slowly climbs grades of up to 1 in 12.5 – 8% (the steepest grade for conventional trains is usually 1 in 30 – 3.33%).

The toothed rack rail visible in between the running rails

The toothed rack rail visible in between the running rails

As we climbed at a steady speed of about 20 km/h, we entered beautiful tropical rainforest. Apart from the railway, there was little sign of human activity, with unspoilt views outside the carriage. We quickly climbed, and were treated to views over green valleys, large rocky outcrops and the occasional waterfall. The only thing that spoilt this view was the disgusting Indian habit of dropping their rubbish out of the train windows. The track immediately outside the train had a steady covering of empty bottles, aluminium meal trays and chip packets. It was disappointing in this forested wilderness that humans had had such a negative impact in a careless way.

Beautiful views from the train

Beautiful views from the train

After about 45 minutes, we stopped again in a clearing. The doors were opened and we were treated to a spectacular view over a green valley as our locomotive took on water at an overhead water tank. After about 15 minutes, the whistle sounded and we all made our way back to our carriages. We continued on through the beautiful rainforest for another 45 minutes, before we stopped at the small station of Hillgrove. The station appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, but there was a kiosk on the platform selling snacks and drinks.

More beautiful views from the train

More beautiful views from the train

The train again took on water, and as we stood on the platform, I noticed some movement in a nearby tree. A small monkey came down to the platform to beg for food, a passenger had a packet of chips, and gave the monkey a few. Instantly, about a dozen more monkeys descended on the platform, looking for passengers who had food. Small fights broke out between the monkeys, and they ran around screeching at each other. A passenger bought a samosa from the kiosk and didn’t hold it close enough; a naughty little monkey ran up and grabbed it out of his hand, running off and climbing the signal gantry.

Watch out for the monkeys at Hillgrove!

Watch out for the monkeys at Hillgrove!

We remained at Hillgrove for about 30 minutes, before the whistle again sounded and we clambered aboard the coaches to resume our journey. We chugged on up the hill with more spectacular views over unspoilt green valleys, climbing through the low clouds. After another hour, we arrived at Runnymead, where the forest ends. We stopped again for our hard working locomotive to take on water, and alighted to admire the new views of endless tea plantations on the surrounding hills. Workers toiled in the plantations, carefully plucking each tea leaf by hand and dropping them into baskets.

Tea plantations near Runnymead

Tea plantations near Runnymead

Our locomotive’s thirst again quenched, we started the final stretch for Coonoor. The train passed through much different scenery now; tidy tea plantations covered the hillsides on both sides of the line, homesteads perched on hilltops, surrounded by colourful gardens. We chugged through the tea plantations for about 45 minutes, before arriving in the small mountain town of Coonoor. I had elected to break my journey here, and would catch a later train from Coonoor to Ooty.

Arriving at Coonoor.

Arriving at Coonoor.

I left the carriage, and entered the booking office. I asked where the cloakroom was and the booking clerk said “oh, sorry sir, we have no cloakroom here”. This was a blow, as I had intended to walk around the town, but was certainly not going to lug my bags around. I was booked on a train 6 hours later, and asked if I could change my booking to the 12:30 train in 2 hours; “oh no sir, you cannot change your ticket, only cancel and reissue.” I showed my rail pass, and the booking clerk looked confused. She went to get the Station Master, and together, they looked at the unfamiliar piece of documentation. After a rapid fire exchange in either Tamil or Hindi, the clerk said “sir, the 12:30 train is unreserved. You can use the pass to take the train freely.”

YDM4 class locomotives at Coonoor

YDM4 class locomotives at Coonoor

Satisfied with this, I headed out to the platform, where the steam locomotive was being removed and replaced with a YDM-4 class diesel locomotive. The YDM-4 class is a metre gauge Alco locomotive, which has been converted to operate on biodiesel. Judging by the amount of smoke coming from the exhaust, the biodiesel conversion had not upgraded the engine!

Green flags - off to Ooty!

Green flags – off to Ooty!

Time came for the train to depart, and I was interested to see that the diesel locomotive was on the front of the train. Whistles were blown and passengers boarded, the green flag was waved and the old locomotive chugged out of the station with its train. It got about 200m up the track, when a red flag appeared from the veranda on each carriage. The train ground to an abrupt halt and after a few seconds the red flags were exchanged with green ones. The train shot off in the opposite direction, now with the diesel propelling the carriages.

Resleepering - the old fashioned way!

Resleepering – the old fashioned way!

I waited on the station, where there was plenty of rail action; another diesel shunted the next train and a track gang was manually resleepering a section of track; one man was manually drilling holes in the new wooden sleepers with a tool that looked like a giant corkscrew before another couple of men would pound a dog spike into the new hole with sledgehammers. I hadn’t yet had breakfast, so I bought a container of passable veg biryani from the station kiosk.

Up the mountain, the diesel working hard!

Up the mountain, the diesel working hard!

My train was shunted into the platform, and I secured a good seat early. The train filled up quickly and we departed right on time at 12:30. As with the earlier train, we were pulled up into the short section of track, before red flags came out. We stopped, waited for the green and were then propelled up the line at a sedate pace. We ran out past the locomotive depot, and paused at the small station of Wellington before leaving Coonoor behind. The countryside then opened up to more agricultural land; neat rows of tea and vegetables covered the hillsides with labourers working in the sun. Our next stop was Aravankadu, where the station was next to a large munitions factory (strange place to have it, in the mountains), with a sign outside stating that people must not loiter, find illegal entry or picnic in the area.

No picnics!

No picnicing!

We stopped for a few minutes in the crossing loop at Aravankadu and waited for a Mettupalayam bound train to pass us on the single line, before proceeding on our slow trip up the hill, stopping at the small stations of Ketti and Lovegrove and finally arriving in Udagamandalam about 5 minutes early.

Passing at Arvankadu

Passing at Aravankadu

I left the station, not knowing in which direction my hotel was. Unfortunately, my pocket Wi-Fi was not working in this small mountain town so I wasn’t able to resort to my usual friend Google Maps. Fortunately, there was an information booth outside the railway station. I stepped up to the window, and was completely ignored by the two men inside. I was used to this by now, and just started talking: “Excuse me, would you please tell me where the Green Apple Lodge is?” One of the men looked at me and said “Ah, Green Apple Lodge is not so good, I know better hotel… cheaper!”. Nice try mate “I’ve already prepaid, I’ll stay there”. The man grinned at me as if to say ok, you win “Green Apple is in Main Bazaar. You go up that road” he pointed to a narrow street leading up a hill “and take first right.”

It's clear who's in charge in Ooty!

It’s clear who’s in charge in Ooty!

I thanked the man and walked up the narrow street. Sure enough, Main Bazaar was the first street on the right. It was lined with 2 and 3 story buildings, mostly shops and some hotels. I knew I was looking for a bright green building, but bright green seems to be Ooty’s colour and was used on about 1 in 4 buildings! I didn’t have to walk far, and soon found the Green Apple Lodge. A scruffy Indian man who appeared to be slightly drunk came up to me and started extolling the virtues of the establishment I was about to enter (in English). I don’t think he was actually associated with the hotel, as the Manager shooed him away before helping me with my luggage. Formalities completed, I was shown to my room.

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