Kunzum Travel List #18: The Nilgiri Mountain Railway: A toy train you must ride

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway at the Ooty station
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway at the Ooty station

Wheeeee! I am on a toy train ride. Starting from Ooty or Ootacamund, now officially renamed Udagamandalam, going downhill all the way to Mettuppalayam in Tamil Nadu. And it figures in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The train passes through some picturesque tea estates, the Nilgiris mountains, villages and towns with some retaining their old world charm – and skies with changing colours. The train negotiates 208 curves, 13 tunnels and 250 bridges.

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You could refer to it as a toy train, but it is a real one. Going back to 1886 when the Nilgiri Railway Company started work on laying the line between Mettuppalayam and Coonor, eventually completing it in 1899. They used the ‘Alternate Biting Teeth’ technology in the ‘Rack and Pinion’ arrangement between rails. Its gradient of 1:12 is the steepest in Indian Railways. The Government bought the company in 1903 and extended the line to Udagamandalam (Ooty) by 1908. The 46 kms (29 miles) journey takes the train from 6,159 feet (1,877 m) altitude in Mettupalayam to 7,228 feet (2,203 m) in Ooty. You could plan a marathon along its tracks – a full course is 42.195 kms (26 miles 385 yards).

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A few years back, a diesel engine was introduced for the leg between Coonor and Ooty – it is a treat watching the process of changing to a steam locomotive at Coonor or vice versa. Watch out for the water spraying from the engines.

The Coonor railway station for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway where the diesel / steam engines interchange
The Coonor railway station for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway where the diesel / steam engines interchange
Inside the steam engine of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway
Inside the steam engine of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway

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Trains have an official schedule, but they rarely stick to these. Mine left Ooty 30 minutes late, while the return leg got delayed in Coonoor by a couple of hours! To kill my boredom, I walked on the tracks to the next station, Wellington, and still had to wait a while there. If you decide to walk on the tracks, be sure to be wearing thick soled shoes. The stones between and along the tracks can be quite a bother. It may be warm in the day, but do carry a light jacket – can be a bit chilly in the evening especially with open windows.

It is best to book a first class seat in advance on the net. You may not get tickets on the spot, and the other classes are too cramped to fully enjoy the views. The upper class is also at one end, giving you views from the front window too. Even other windows are bigger in first class. Try to get a window seat. But the computerized booking may not allow you to pick and choose. Suggestion? Block a few extra seats. Tickets are cheap.

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If you are putting your head out to take pictures, be careful you don’t take a knock against mountain sides, trains and poles. The train was slow, but moved faster than the one in Matheran I think. You may fancy the idea, but I don’t think you can walk / jog along the train and keep up with it.

Carry water and some snacks with you – you may not be able to get any if you are just going for a ride and back.

 

The Schedule (can change over time)
Train Number From – To Departure Arrival
56141 Coonoor – Udagamandalam Pass 07:45 09:05
56136 Mettupalayam-Udagamandalam Pass 07:10 12:00
56143 Coonoor-Udagamandalam Pass 12:35 13:50
56138 Coonoor-Udagamandalam Pass 16:30 17:45
56139 Udagamandalam-Coonoor 09:15 10:20
56142 Udagamandalam-Coonoor 12:15 13:20
56137 Udagamandalam-Mettupalayam Pass 14:00 17:35
56140 Udagamandalam-Coonoor 18:00 19:10

Travel Tips

You could just do the Ooty – Coonor segment or go all the way down to Mettuppalayam – or the other way round. And do the return leg by road which would be much quicker. Do book tickets in advance at www.irctc.co.in.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway going under an overbridge
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway going under an overbridge
You can always pick up snacks (at your own risk) at stations along the route of the Nilgiri Mountain RailwayYou can always pick up snacks (at your own risk) at stations along the route of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway
You can always pick up snacks (at your own risk) at stations along the route of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway
A speed limit sign for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway
A speed limit sign for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway
A sign marking 100 years of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in Ooty, Tamil Nadu
A sign marking 100 years of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in Ooty, Tamil Nadu

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