Saturday, April 26, 2014

Nilgiri Mountain Railway & Ooty

Ooty aka (Udhagamandalam) was chosen as venue for annual convention of rail enthusiasts for 2014. Ooty is arguably the most popular hill station in southern India. It is nestled in Nilgiri hills or Blue mountains. It derives its name from eucalyptus trees which grow on these hills. About the reason for these hills to be called "blue" mountains, quoting from wikipedia,

The Nilgiri hills have a history going back a good many centuries. It is not known why they were called the Blue Mountains. Several sources cite the reason as the smoky haze enveloping the area, while other sources say it is because of the kurunji flower, which blooms every twelve years giving the slopes a bluish tinge.

However for rail enthusiasts its main attraction is the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) which is a UNESCO World heritage site. 
UNESCO World Heritage plaque
The line is meter gauge and starts from Mettupalayam (MTP) to Udhagamandalam (UAM). The line has two main sections one from Mettupalayam to Conoor and other from Conoor to Ooty. The first section is special reason being that it has special rails; there is a rack rail in the center of the rails. This is laid to provide support to the train going uphill. 
Rack rail in the middle of tracks

The locomotives are special with a separate pair of wheel arrangement to engage with rack. This arrangement is similar to the rack system one can see in joyrides in any entertainment park. The locos for first section are X class locos. These locomotives run on steam. Earlier they were coal-fired but they have slowly been converted to oil-fired. The earlier aroma of burning coal is now replaced with diesel fumes which we encounter everyday in cities, however steam is the saving grace. This was my first time to Ooty and on NMR so was very excited to ride on this train.

My route to Ooty was taking train from Pune to Chennai then overnight train to Mettupalaym (MTP) in Coimbatore and finally the NMR to Ooty. There is only one train which goes to Ooty in the morning @ 7AM. The overnight train from Chennai to MTP connects to this train. One can also come to Coimbatore and then travel to MTPto catch this train.

There were lot of people from our group traveling in this train, so morning time before the train departed was exciting. Mettupalayam station and shed near it is full of heritage. Everyone was clicking snaps and trying to take in as much of the locomotive and surrounding as possible. The coaches of this train are all old style wooden still working. There is simple bench like seating and each bay has its own door. The braking system of the train is also remarkable. Each coach has to be braked separately. Due to this there is a brakeman standing at the front of each coach. There is a sense of pride in people working on this line as was seen by their smart dresses and discipline.
X-Class steam locos of Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR)

Destination Board of the train
The train pulled out a little after 7AM. The train chugs its way up the hills and has several curves. Lot of people were peeking out of windows, taking pictures and videos and watching the hard working engine puffing out smoke & steam. This being winter time and golden sun peeping through the foliage was so soothing. The rack section starts from the first station called Kallar. The train stopped at each station to refill water which gave ample opportunity for people to get down, roam around, take in the sun and have some refreshments.The station themselves are quaint & from bygone era. When its not looking at the train, one can at the beautiful hills.
First stop at Kallar station

First Class coach of the train. Note the seating and door for each bay
Leaving Kallar station
This is a video of locomotive chugging away

One of the tunnels enroute
People admiring the ride and beauty of Nilgiri hills
Hillgrove station
Old style station notices
Passengers taking break at Hillgrove station
Leaving Hillgrove station
Assistant filling water in the loco
Runnymede station
Beautiful valley in Nilgiri Hills
We reached Conoor where the locomotive is changed from steam to diesel. This section does not have much elevation so does not have rack system. From here startsthe stations which are all familiar in our movies. Lovedale. Ketti station is where the famous last scene of Sadma was shot. This was told by our coach's brakeman. Wellington has staff college of Indian military. The train has featured in several Indian movies like Mera Naam Joker, Sadma, Dil Se & even hollywood movie A passage to India.

We reached Ooty by 12 PM. We were going to stay at Hotel Monarch which is situated at the top of a hill. Incidentally it is owned by Mithun Chakravarthy. After freshening up we went for a little sightseeing. There are usual points like any other hill station. First one was Doddabetta peak which is highest point of Ooty. One can see far and wide from this point but only if the sky is clear which sadly was not the case for us. After that we went to Botanical garden. It has lot of different type of trees, shrubs and orchids. The garden was curated by an englishman in 1800s. It was quite beautiful. It would have been better had it been a little sunny. Next point was Ooty lake which was typical lake in hill station. We walked through the market and streets of Ooty which were crowded selling woolens and other artifacts. There's a fountain at the central square there.
View from Doddabetta peak
Ferns and flowers inside glasshouse 

Apart from eucalyptus, Nilgiri hills are known for their tea estates. Tea, eucalyptus (and other herbal) oil and homemade chocolates are the main things to buy from this place and are available everywhere. Don't know whats the origin of homemade chocolates. There are several shops selling different variety of tea and chocolates and have similar rates. Plastic is banned in Ooty so they pack these things in paper covers.

On third day of convention we had a field trip going from Ooty to Conoor and back. At Conoor we managed to visit Sims park which has trees from all over the world. Here witnessed a little action of the NMR again. The X-class steam loco was going to be attached to the downhill train to Mettupalayam. The loco was going to come of the shed, reverse and then attach.

This is a video of locomotive attaching to the train

The last day of the trip was good. Ooty could get very cold as I experienced. But on last day sun was out since morning. It turned out there is a tea garden right beside the hotel with a small road circling it. I went on the road soaking in the sun and gorging on the view of sloping tea garden. The real beauty of Nilgiri hills was visible from vantage point of our hotel. Undulating hills making valleys filled with mist and haze.
Ooty hills in mist and haze
In the afternoon everyone started their return journey. I hitched ride with a group to Bangalore. The road winds and passes through Mudumalai and Bandipur sanctuaries. Deer were so common to spot but it is not allowed to stop and take pictures. Instead of going  through Mysore, passed through Ramanagar etc and avoided the sunday evening rush from Mysore to Bangalore which was good decision. Next day flew back to Pune and back to the grind.


Prakash Parag said...

Ooty is the Queen of the Hill Stations, also known as Blue Mountains is one of the most beautiful hill stations in India. This hill station has splendid green downs and lofty hills of extraordinary scenic beauty and is endowed with a salubrious climate similar to the English summer. Ooty is a beautiful and all time favorite destinations of all tourists. Tourist across the seas comes here to visit the amazing location and for many travelers who prefer to stay at hill view resorts in Ooty.

Amit Sinha said...

Nice article, just wanted to know if steam locomotive is still in use between Mettupalayam and coonoor section, or steam locomotive runs on any specific day of the week ?

Roopesh said...

@Amit - The steam locomotive runs everyday between Mettupalayam & Conoor as far as I know. That is the main attraction of the line and the authorities their work hard to maintain that.

Amit Sinha said...

Thanks Roopesh .

dimpy roy said...

Nice pictures. Thanks for sharing your trip experience. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway that chugs at about 10.4 km per hour is made for those who are not in a hurry. Perhaps, the slowest train in the whole of India, it connects Ooty to Mettupalayam, which lies at the foothills of the Nilgiris. It's one of the rare trains which still runs on locomotive engines built by Swiss Locomotive Works. Check out all mountain railways in India also.