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Friday, May 21, 2004

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Chugging on the Blue Mountain

N. Nagaraj

Once the train starts on the ghat section, the pace suddenly slows down, from sprinting speed to a more steady and breathless pace. The journey is not so smooth now, and you can feel the strain of the engine as it huffs and puffs up the grade.

The Nilagiri Passenger

It is early in the morning, and as you are waiting to buy the tickets at the counter, you can see the wisps of smoke rising behind the Mettupalayam Railway Station. The sound and the smoke make you think that there is a giant Englishman with great side-whiskers sitting with his pipe and puffing away. Only, the smoke doesn't reek of tobacco, and, it is not an Englishman but a Swiss-made X-class steam locomotive.

The train is pushed by the engine up the Nilgiris mountains from Mettupalayam to Coonoor. We have a smooth journey till Kallar, where the ghat section begins and the famous racks come into play. The tracks are so steep that the racks are laid between the rails to form alternating "teeth" which hold the engine and the coaches, preventing the train from slipping or sliding back.

The train crossing a viaduct between Coonoor and Udhagamandalam.

After a 30-minute travel, our engine's thirsty, so we halt in Kallar to fill water. In fact, almost all the halts en route from Mettupalayam to Coonoor are made for this purpose. Not many passengers embark or disembark at these stations.

Once the train starts on the ghat section, the pace suddenly slows down, from sprinting speed (about 25 kmph) to a more steady and breathless pace (about 12 kmph). The journey is not so smooth now, and you can feel the strain of the engine as it huffs and puffs up the grade. Each of the steam locomotives in the Nilgiris Mountain Railway is between 50 and 80 years old. About 15 minutes after you leave Kallar, the landscape changes completely. You are on the mountain and not just approaching it. The forest seems thicker, the greens a bit deeper and the air slightly cooler. If you can't handle the tension as you approach a sheer rock, just start a conversation with the brakeman - each coach has one - who will be most willing to give you lots of gratuitous gyaan.

The trip between the Kallar and Hillgrove stations is riddled with long tunnels, beautiful bridges, gurgling waterfalls and scenic views. If you are lucky, you can even spot elephants in the wild. We were not so lucky and all we could see were their footprints on the tracks. The brakeman pointed out for us the elephants' favourite jackfruit tree and the half-tunnel, a natural arch.

Hillgrove station is the only one on the route to Coonoor where you can get refreshments. So, pack your lunch or a picnic hamper. This is also where the train stops for quite a while and if you are an enthusiastic photographer, here is where you can get some of the best pictures of the train, the engine, the people, and the things that go into running the train — filling water, stoking coal, clearing ash, oiling the joints, and of course, wiping the grime.

From Hillgrove to Coonoor, it's just a blur of tea estates, with a brief stop to let the locomotive catch its breath and fill up some much needed water at Runnymede Station. In no time we are at Coonoor where a foreign lady waits on the tracks to photograph the approaching train. At Coonoor, the old engine gets a well-deserved break, and a diesel locomotive is attached to the train to take you to Ooty. We did the trip to Ooty another evening, and were fascinated by the Ketti Valley. However, that journey wasn't as charming as the one from Mettupalayam to Coonoor. And children know best: In the first leg of the trip, some of them were going `ooh-aah' and excitedly pointed to things outside the windows; in the Coonoor-Ooty leg, they just wanted to know when the train would reach the destination! No amount of stories about Englishmen smoking pipes would keep them quiet either.

Pictures by Bijoy Ghosh

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