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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.