Having chugged along tenuous times, Ooty's `toy train' looks to reclaim its romance and heritage.
After being granted a World Heritage status by the UNESCO, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) may have at last found its sanctuary. With this, the financial ghosts haunting this `marvel of engineering skill' from the very beginning, will hopefully be laid to rest. It is heartening to learn that a new company may be formed to promote this hill train, irrespective of its losses.
But the fairytale run of Udhagamandalam's popular `toy train' nearly came to an end in the late-1960s. Faced with mounting losses, the Railway Board suddenly announced in 1968 that all `uneconomic' rail lines would be closed.
The NMR, along with three other obscure branch lines, was poised for closure in the then Madras State. The spontaneous uproar across the State against the closure of NMR was only to be expected. In an article, The Hindu warned, "The proposal to dismantle the 70-year-old mountain railway, which occupies a vital position in the slender economy of the Nilgiris district, will upset the economy and may well result in the migration of a large number of people to others parts of the country in quest of livelihood."
The Mail commented: "Taking into consideration the loss sustained by the railway because of ticketless travel, the loss sustained in the maintenance of the Nilgiris railway is nothing."
Rani, a Tamil weekly, said, "Ooty without the railway will be like a flower which has lost its fragrance." Dinamani, a Tamil daily, observed that the rail line was a work of art that needs to be preserved for posterity, at any cost.
The South India Chamber of Commerce said in the context of the Government's endeavour to promote tourism, it would be "extremely short-sighted to abolish amenities and tourist attractions such as the NMR."
Readers were also forthcoming in their opposition. "For those who experience nausea and vomiting while travelling by road on this ghat section, and for pregnant women, sick people and children, the railway journey is a boon," wrote a reader.
"Already, owing to natural calamity, the fair name of Dhanushkodi, a place of religious importance on the southern railway, has disappeared. Why should the Railways dismantle the useful and attractive Ooty line," asked a correspondent.
A `puzzled' traveller wondered whether the Government would also scrap the Shimla line, which was a bigger loss-making line, and asked, "Is it again a case of discrimination to prove that the North is North and the South is South? "If it comes to that, the Madras Government may take over the line and run it on its own account," said another.
M. Karunanidhi, who was then the Minister for Public Works, assured the State Assembly that the State Government would urge the Centre not to scrap the line as "it was an essential amenity for tourists and should not be viewed from economic grounds alone."
The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi assured a local MP that she had informed the Railway Minister to carefully consider "all relevant aspects before taking the decision to scrap the line."
The NMR escaped the axe when the Railway Minister announced in the Lok Sabha in March 1969: "There would be no dismantling of uneconomic lines in any part of the country."
Subsequently too, rumours persisted about the possible closure of the line due to recurring losses. The NMR, in fact, has been plagued by financial problems from the beginning. In 1876, Riggenbach, the Swiss inventor of the Rigi system of mountain railway, offered to construct the line between Mettupalayam in the plains to Coonoor on the hills at a cost of about Rs 64 lakh subject to "free land, guarantee of 4 per cent return on cost and tax exemption for ten years."
After the Government turned down the "outrageous" proposal, Riggenbach came back with a revised proposal in 1882 at a reduced cost of about Rs 21 lakh. The Government agreed to give the land free of cost but declined to guarantee a return of 4 per cent on cost.
Eventually, in 1885, a new company was formed which raised Rs 25 lakh in London and started work in 1891 based on the comparatively less expensive alternate biting tooth (ABT) system.
Apparently, the company had underestimated the construction cost on the steep gradients for heavy engineering work, rock cutting and blasting.
To quote a south Indian railway spokesman in 1935, "Those engineers must have been nature lovers when they decided on the alignment. Aside from the question of utility, the wee train, as it winds its upward way, passes through a panorama of diversified scenery unrivalled anywhere."
Unable to carry on, the company went into liquidation in 1894.
Another company was formed in 1896 to complete the Mettupalayam - Coonoor line by 1898 at a cost of about Rs 38 lakh, but it folded up soon after and was sold to the Government in 1903 for a similar amount.
Finally, the Coonoor-Ooty line was completed around 1908 at a cost of about Rs 32 lakh, even though the rack rail was dispensed with for this stretch.
Ever since, efforts have been made to improve the efficiency of the line and reduce the cost of operation. Electrification was mooted from the early days without success. Later, dieselisation of the locomotive was tried but that failed too owing to technical reasons. The only major innovation so far has been the substitution of coal with furnace oil to run the steam engines.
During the centenary of the mountain train in 1999, the Swiss Locomotive Machine Company, which originally supplied the engines, came up with a package offer to modernise the line. The proposal included increasing the number of locos, making them more eco-friendly, adding coaches, nationwide and international marketing efforts and raising the second-class fare 400 per cent and first-class fare 100 per cent. But nothing seems to have come out of this effort.
The UNESCO heritage status is only the beginning. There is a need to promote the railway line inside and outside the country. It also calls for increased passenger comforts and a hike in tariffs, apart from professional marketing efforts. These will bring down the NMR's annual loss of around Rs 4 crore.
Other suggestions include transparent or even open coaches (an open coach, at least during summer, can be a hit with tourists), lesser but more comfortable seats, convenient reservation, improved waiting room facilities at Mettupalayam and Ooty, improved catering and toilet arrangements en route and tourist-friendly staff. Awareness on the mountain rail and Nilgiris can be increased through attractive brochures and souvenirs such as postcards, calendars and CDs (with popular songs featuring the train).
(The author is the co-ordinator of the Save Nilgiris Campaign).
Pictures by Bijoy Ghosh