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From track to incline: The one-of-a-kind Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Heritage Directorate, Indian Railways

India's mountain railways
While a train journey through the length and breadth of the country has its romance, this cannot be compared to the allure, beauty and charm of a trip on a mountain railway. There are five mountain rail lines in India, and each one of them has an aura of its own. The British, because of their love for the mountains, laid these five railway lines in the 19th century to link their summer retreats set up in the hills with their normal places of governance and residence.
Three of these mountain rail lines are located in the Himalayas, one in western India, and the steepest of them all takes you to the Victorian hill station of Ootacamund (or Udagamandalam) in southern India. This last one is the Nilgiri Mountain Railway - only one of its kind in Asia, operating on metre-gauge “rack and pinion” traction to combat the steep gradient of 1 in 12.50 required to be negotiated. The only other place to see similar “rack” railways is in distant Switzerland. This scenic 46-kilometre railway links the plains at Mettupalayam with the hill stations of Coonoor (elevation 1,800 meters) and Ootacamund (elevation 2,200 meters) in the densely forested Nilgiri Hills.

This 115-year old railway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005. It was one of the most ambitious engineering projects of the erstwhile British rule in India.

The railway line was opened on June 15, 1899 up to Coonoor, and subsequently extended to Ootacamund on a milder gradient without “rack” rails in 1908.

A glimpse of the Ketti Railway Station, one of the most spectacular points along the Nilgiri Mountain Railway.

After the phasing out of steam traction on the Indian Railways in the early 1990s, many among the present generation have neither seen a steam engine in action or experienced a ride in a steam hauled train.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway affords this opportunity, it being the only one in the country (along with the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway) where steam engines still rule.

X-class locomotive (No. 37399) of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway.

Only specially fitted steam engines built by Swiss Engine and Machine Works, Winterthur, are able to operate on the rack railway.

Even though most of the aging Swiss-built coal-fired steam engines in use on the line have been converted to oil-firing since early 2000, and four brand new oil-fired steam engines have been built from scratch at the Golden Rock workshop of the Railways at Tiruchirapally, just one train runs each way on the scenic rack route between Mettupalayam and Coonoor – to connect the Nilgiri Express between Chennai and Mettupalayam.

The journey, through sixteen tunnels and over 250 bridges over seemingly bottomless gorges on the verdant forested route, is picturesque and enchanting.

Many of the tunnels cut through hard rock are unlined, and one of these opens directly on a bridge spanning a deep ravine. Many bridges are curved masonry structures and a visual delight, providing a good photo-op from a vantage window seat as the steam engine pushes its load of carriages uphill from the rear at a leisurely pace of 8 miles/13 kilometres per hour.

The second last stop on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway is the quaint little town of Fern Hill. Take a look around its idyllic station.

Such sights add to the charm of this unique railway, where each turn en route offers a panoramic view of the landscape.

Sooner rather than later, you are enveloped in moist and fluffy clouds with mist and zero visibility. A perceptible drop in temperature and a nip in the air awaits you as you enter the vast tea gardens near Runneymede.

Being blessed by a shower or two on your ascent toward Ootacamund adds to your spirit of adventure.

Have a look around the scenic route of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway!

What is a “rack & pinion” railway?

In a normal railway, the steel wheels of an engine grip the steel rail through the adhesion between them. The adhesion is normally sufficient only to take care of an uphill inclination of 1 in 14.5. These figures mean that for every 14.5 units of forward movement, the track rises 1 unit.

For steeper gradients, one of the methods used to prevent slipping is to have an additional rail with teeth (a rack) against which a toothed wheel (pinion) on the engine meshes.

Since the grades on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway are as steep as 1 in 12.5, a “rack” railway was built to negotiate the inclines.

The best way to experience the fun, ferocity and fury of steam along with the serenity and tranquillity of the countryside, is to take the train on the uphill run. Seated beside a window, at the rear of the train, listening to the music of the steam whistle and the sound of the engine puffing along rhythmically with awesome determination, gives one the best of sounds and sights of this journey.

The train passes through an almost uninhabited, tropical jungle via the Burliar bridge while moving towards Coonoor.

Take a walk around Ketti station, one of the stations of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway.

The next stop after Ketti, is the little town of Lovedale. A notable tourist attraction in the Nilgiris, it is just 5 kms away from the 'Queen of Hills', Ooty.

Truly, it is one of the greatest steam experiences still left in the world, and you can ponder over the engineering skill of the era past in laying the track on a tough mountainous terrain. As trains bring out the child in all of us, the hill railways are among the few romantic trains still left in India.

VM Govind Krishnan
Credits: All media
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