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Monday, May 13, 2002

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Rlys to seek heritage status for Nilgiri Mountain line

R.Y. Narayanan

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway train puffs its way through the picturesque mountain range enthralling passengers.


THE Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR), a star tourist attraction on its own merit and which provides a rail link to the popular hill station Udhagamandalam, is set to have a vintage tag with the Railways proposing to get `world heritage' status from the UNESCO for it.

The metre gauge rail-line, linking Mettupalayam in the plains and Udhagamandalam, a distance of about 45 km, passes through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Western Ghats and is considered a technological marvel in view of the fact that it was built at a time when infrastructure facilities were almost non-existent.

Part commissioned in June, 1899, it is the oldest, steepest and the only operative rack rail system in the world today. While the Mettupalayam-Coonoor section was commissioned in 1899, the Coonoor-Udhagamandalam section was completed in 1908. In fact, the Railways have tried to retain the old world charm of NMR- the locos are of 1925 vintage and the coaches belonging to that era have been given a face-lift. Engines are always at the downhill side and the steam engine still puffs from behind on the journey to the hill station.

It is said that among other Mountain Railways in the world, only the Swiss Mountain Railway System of the Alps could be compared with NMR in terms of technology and ruling gradient.

The Mettupalayam-Udhagamandalam section has 208 curves, 16 tunnels and 250 bridges. The line passes through deep ravines and steep hills and no wonder this is hugely popular with the film industry and has been frozen in cinema frames -including in the filmi rendering of E.M. Foster's classic `A Passage to India'.

The NMR trudges along the distance of 45 km in about four hours from Mettupalayam to Udhagamandalam. Though many may consider this a rather tedious journey, for children and nature lovers, it provides an unforgettable experience.

The Railways do not make any money in running this service. It rather incurs a huge loss. It costs the Railways around Rs 3.50 crore annually to operate and maintain the NMR whereas the revenue generated is just a fraction of it. This is because of various factors including the limited seats available and the limited number of services operated.

In view of the non-viability of the operation, there were talks that NMR may be wound up. But this has faced stiff resistance from the locals who fear that a major tourist attraction would be gone forever if the NMR is closed.

The Railways too have been receptive to the argument that economy of operation should not be the sole criteria in deciding the issue.

Now with the Railways itself mooting a proposal to get a heritage status for the NMR, any fear about the continuance of it would be history. The Director of National Rail Museum, Mr Rajesh Agarwal, had a personal experience of the thrill the NMR provides when he travelled from Mettupalayam to Coonoor in the NMR as part of the commemorative run to mark 150 years of the Indian Railways. And, keeping him company was the Union Minister of State for Railways, Mr O. Rajagopal.

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