Nilgiri Mountain Railway, India

India’s Nilgiri Mountain Railway: a train journey into the clouds

Image credit: Len Williams

We take a ride on South India’s iconic Nilgiri Mountain Railway – a classic of Victorian engineering – and learn how the UNESCO world heritage railway line came to be.

I was going to miss the train. As the bus, which was supposed to arrive 45 minutes earlier, crawled into Mettupalayam, I’d resigned myself to the fact. There was only one train a day, leaving at 07:10 and my watch said 07:08. Still, I leapt from the bus as it pulled into its stop and frantically waved down the first available autorickshaw. “The train station - and fast!”.

We careered through winding lanes and pulled up at the station. I lugged my suitcase across the tracks, but the train wasn’t in sight. My heart dropped. But then, I heard the unmistakeable whistle of a steam engine. Dragging my belongings past the waiting rooms, which had obscured it from view, I now saw the sky-blue train at the platform, starting to chug towards me. I ran to a guard, who stood on a carriage platform waving the piece of paper frantically: “Please, let me on! I have a ticket!”  

He took the ticket from my hand. Frowned at the paper. Then pulled the brake.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is one of three Indian railways which, in 2005, were recognised by UNESCO as “outstanding examples of hill railways”. Opened between 1881 and 1908, they applied bold and ingenious engineering solutions to the problem of establishing an effective rail link across a mountainous terrain of great beauty.

Rising from the humid lowlands of Mettupalyam, a workaday town in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the line runs 42km, climbing to the Raj-era tea plantation town of Udhagamandalam (widely known as Ooty – a tour guide tells me the British struggled with pronouncing the local name). The track rises from about 325m above sea level at the start of the journey to 2,240m at Ooty. The line is situated in the Western Ghats, India’s second highest mountain chain, which cuts south to north through six south Indian states.

Crossing 250 bridges (of which 32 are major) and passing through 16 tunnels, the railway’s most striking engineering feature is its rack and pinion system, designed to climb gradients of as much as 1 in 12ft, making it the steepest climb in Asia. As the locomotive clings to the mountain side and sheer drops fall away to lush valleys below, it makes for a breath-taking and dramatic journey. The Nilgiri range, which translates as ‘blue hills’, seem to rise abruptly out of the plain and in the morning haze the mountains do indeed look like huge blue clumps of rock, before a landscape of verdant tea estates fades into view as the train gets closer.

I had long wanted to ride one of India’s classic railways since watching Wes Anderson’s 'The Darjeeling Limited' as a teenager. While that quirky film is set in the north of the country (on a train that doesn’t actually exist), I was determined to travel by rail as much as possible during my visit to India, and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway was surely the most romantic and intriguing route in the south of the sub-continent. And in a moment of life imitating art, I found myself running for an already departed train, just as Bill Murray does at the start of the Wes Anderson movie.

The region around Ooty was largely ‘discovered’ and developed by John Sullivan, a clerk of the East India company in 1818. Sullivan realised that the cooler climes in the mountains would be ideal for growing tea and went on to become very wealthy growing the crop. That legacy lives on and the Nilgiris still produce around a quarter of India’s tea. Over time, the towns around the tea estates became a popular summer retreat for officers of the empire seeking to escape India’s stifling summer heat. There are some curiously out of place names, such as a junction in Otty named Charring Cross or a train station on the line called Runneymede.

In the 1850s, a railway line was first proposed which would, via Mettupalyam, connect with Coimbatore, the closest big town. That in turn would connect the tea plantations with Madras (now Chennai), the administrative capital of south India under the British.

That said, work didn’t begin on the line until 1891, when the steepest part of the track was built, connecting low-lying Mettupalyam with the tea town of Coonoor, opening for business in 1899. A further, relatively flat section was constructed and opened in 1908, connecting Coonoor to Ooty. The train still climbs and descends over the first leg once per day – although heavy rains occasionally force the line to close. There are then more regular trains from Coonoor to Ooty.

I lugged my suitcase onto a seat, and the other passengers in my compartment grinned at me. The journey begins in lowlands and, even at just after 7 in the morning, the air was hot and humid. The first couple of kilometres are flat, cutting through banana plantations and fields where cows ruminate, watching the steaming toy train trundle by. But, shortly after stopping at Kallar, the first station on the route, the rack and pinion system engages and the train, which has no more than four carriages, begins to be shunted forward by the locomotive.

How it works

The rack and pinion system

Rack and pinion railway lines are an ingenious method of allowing trains to scale steep gradients. The first rack and pinion railway lines were pioneered in the UK, Switzerland and the US, but the Nilgiri line was also among the first.

There are two parts to the rack and pinion system. The rack can either appear as a kind of ladder or a steel line of teeth, which runs down the middle of the track. The pinion is a toothed wheel found underneath the locomotive and each carriage. Its teeth engage with the rack, allowing the train to ‘grip’ onto something as it climbs a steeper gradient, or to hold against when descending.

A standard ‘ladder’-style rack and pinion isn’t especially good when there are curves in a track, since the pinion could easily slip out of place on bends. For this reason, the designers of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway chose a Swiss design, the Abt. In the Abt system there are two parallel racks whose teeth are out of step with one another. These engage with two alternating sets of teeth on the pinion in turn. The Abt system means it is impossible for the pinion to slip off the rack as curves are negotiated.  

The other unique feature of rack and pinion railways is the way the locomotive is designed. In a normal steam locomotive, steam drives one set of pistons, which drive the wheels. But in a rack and pinion system, an additional set of pistons is required to simultaneously drive the pinion and engage the rack, so the train is shunted along against both rack and rail.

It’s a somewhat eccentric way to travel, with the train gently juddering forward, rising up a steep path at no faster than a light jogging pace. But the speed is deceptive – before long the train has risen high up the mountains and sheer cliff drops fall away to the side of the track. We pass through narrow rock-hewn tunnels where, looking back, the locomotive’s steam fills the view. We also cross a series of dramatic bridges over roaring mountain rivers. Passengers hang out the windows in awe at the 50ft drop below; others sit on the conductor’s platform, dangling their feet over the abyss.

We stop for longer at some of the stations where the train’s engineers refill the water tanks and tap hammers and wrenches against the machine. Intrigued, I ask what they’re doing, but the language barrier gets in the way. At one station we’re joined by a gang of baboons, who make off with packets of crisps and biscuits much to everyone’s amusement.

Eventually we reach the town of Coonor, where the oil-furnace-powered steam locomotive is detached and replaced by a diesel engine that will push us much faster along the relatively flat remainder of the journey. I have time for a cup of masala chai – the deliciously sweet and milk way Indians prefer their tea – and a couple of breakfast samosas, before the final leg to Ooty through a patchwork of tea plantations, pines, and multicoloured wildflowers, the air cooler than before.

The journey is undeniably romantic and drastically different to modern railway journeys with their strict inflexibility. I imagine the chances of a British train conductor stopping an entire train for a delayed passenger like me! We take our time at various stations where engineers tinker with the engine and time slows to a dawdle as passengers take in the view; it takes almost five hours to travel the track’s 42km.

Many of the train’s old-fashioned rituals are still practiced. KK Ramesh, station master at Ooty, explains to me the system of communication between the train driver and his conductors. Each carriage has a separate conductor’s platform, where the staff apply and release the train’s brakes. Three whistles of the steam engine tell the conductors to apply the brakes, a single whistle lets them know it’s time to release. A system of semaphore-waving platform managers along the track also add to its old-worldly feel – although this antiquated system is partially enforced by the line’s UNESCO status, which prevents much modernisation.

Nevertheless, it is no relic. Station manager Ramesh tells me it remains very much a working railway line and that new engines and parts have been added to the system when older machinery wore out, and replacement parts of the rack and pinion system are still manufactured in the nearby city of Tiruchirappalli. While most passengers are tourists today, Ramesh says schoolchildren still ride the train on the more regular trips between Ooty and Coonor, as do a handful of commuters.

For the three days I spent in Ooty, I would see trains coming in and out of town around the artificial lake, an iconic and memorable view. Elsewhere in India, the government is in the process of upgrading and electrifying the country’s vast network to make the system more efficient and modern, something which will help millions of travellers every day. It’s pleasing to know that some unique lines, such as this one, will keep using classic technology for generations to come.


India’s other UNESCO World Heritage Railways

Besides the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, UNESCO also registered two other Indian lines in its records as the heritage of humanity. Both are found in the north of the country, in the foothills of the Himalayas:

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Completed in 1881, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway runs between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling in West Bengal. The narrow-gauge line uses a series of loops and zigzags to gain altitude and trains are driven by diesel-powered steam locomotives. It climbs from about 100m above sea level to 2,200m at Darjeeling.

The Kalka–Shimla Railway

Completed in 1903, the Kalka - Shimla railway was built to connect the Raj’s summer residency at Shimla with Delhi. Beforehand, the army and its administrators had to be carried uphill by ox and cart, so the line proved a more efficient alternative. It climbs from 656m above sea level at Kalka to 2,075m at Shimla.

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