We decided that The Nilgiri Mountain Railway was going to be on our travel itinerary for our latest trip to Southern India and booked in through IRTC (Indian Railways) when back in France and it is highly adviseable to book as it can get very packed and sells out pretty quickly. When we arrived at the station at Metupalaiyam at 06:30am in the morning, there were queues everywhere. Just be careful when booking anything in India, as there seems to be a great difference in the way placenames are spelt from maps to administration and to buses, so be creative with your spelling whilst in India.
The railway was built by the British and opened in 1899 and extended to Ooty in1908 as the train terminated in Coonoor before this and was used by the British Army and administration when they moved the whole of the goverment from Madras (Chennai) to the hill stations to escape the sweltering heat of the Indian summers, Ooty being dubbed The Queen of Hill Stations. In July 2005, UNESCO added the Nilgiri Mountain Railway as an extension to the World Heritage Site of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. The site then became known as Mountain Railways of India.There is a commemorative Stone as the train leaves Mettupalayam marking the death of a railway worker who was killed by an elephant.
Between Mettupalayam and Coonoor, the line uses the a rack and pinion system to climb the steep gradient, you can see this underneath the train when you are at a stop – – it basically helps the train to clim the gradients and then not to slip back down again, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway is the only rack and pinion railway in India.
The pinion action on the rack
The rack system on the railway line
We booked our tickets through IRTC but don’t just turn up to the train and get on the awaiting train as you need a boarding ticket which is available by giving in your etickets to the booking office, which is opposite the station, if you are early you can choose your seats, if not, you will be assigned what is left.
Try and get a left side seat for the trip to Oooty and a right hand seat for the return journey for the best views. There are no toilets on the train, but it makes multiple stops along the way for calls of nature, around 4 or 5 stops before a longer stop for an change of Engine at Coonoor, and another 4 or 5 stops before finally reaching Ooty.
Inside the station there is a bustling snack bar that sells delicious idlis and sambar, samosas, vadas and uttapams along with tea or coffee, so stock up here for the trip – all the Indian travellers appear to do this.
On the train there are two classes, First and Second, which are almost the same but the First class has cushions on the seats.
Just note that the name for Ooty on the IRTC website is not Ooty, but Udhagamandalam, which is the real Tamil name for the town, the name Ooty being used by the British in the 19th century.
Train N°56136 METUPALAIYAM to UDAGAMANDALAM leaving at 07:10 am and arriving in Ooty at 12 noon
Train N° 06171 leaves at 09:10 and arrives in Ooty at 14:25 in the afternoon, but only in use on Saturdays. A first class fare costs ₹470.00 / just over 6€
The train travels a distance of 45.8 kilometres with 108 curves, 16 tunnels and 250 bridges (some that are quite scary when you look down at the drop).
You can do the trip from Ooty to Metupalaiyam, which is quicker, taking around 3.5 hours, but for me, the attraction of this train is the uphill speed, which gives pleanty of time to admire the landscape and if you are going to go on a mountain train, you may as well go up than down. The uphill journey takes just under 5 hours, a very leisurely way to spend a morning and still time to do some sightseeing in Ooty when you arrive, or alternatively you could spend the day on the train by buying a return ticket.
Passengers are greeted by hordes of monkeys who come out of the jungle for scraps of food thrown them by the passengers at the numerous stops and water stops along the way.
There is another busy chai and snack stand at Coonoor, where the steam locomotive is changed for a diesel locomotive for the final section of the journey – Coonoor station was one of two used as locations in the David Lean film A Passage to Indi and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway has been the backdrop for many Bollywood and Tamil films.
This is an awesome, historical trip that will be loved by young and old and is almost worthy of being added to any bucket list, just for the unique quality of the train and the voyage.