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Nilgiri Passenger Riding the Iron horse - The Nilgiri Passenger is a gutsy little fighter that has conquered the Blue Mountains time and again
The antiquated steam engine made a grand entry, huffing and puffing as if steamed into Mettupalayam station in Tamil Nadu before taking its position at the rear of the train. Yes it would push, rather than pull the Nilgiri Passenger up the Blue Mountains that loomed ahead of us. The arrival of the iron horse sparked off flurry of activity as passengers climbed aboard and railway officials made last minute checks.

Finally, which clanging of bells, a blast of whistles and much hooting from the locomotive, the station supervisor, dressed in a spotless white uniform, flagged us off on our journey to Ooty (Udhagamandalam). The township Of Mettupalayam slowly slipped away and little kids with runny nose and bare bottoms waved good -bye from the hutments along the track.

Soon we were rolling through farmlands painted green with paddy fields, plantations and orchards. By the time we reached the foothills, the engine had started to strain as though it was on its last leg. I could not help but wonder id it would over make it to the top of the mountains that towered menacingly ahead of us. But over the next five and a half hours I discovered that the 75- year old iron horse was all heart, a gutsy little fighter that had conquered these mountains tike and again oven if occasionally it had to take an eighty count. as it did on this journey.

Swiss built engine
It happened half way through the journey when the X-series, Swiss built engine started to gasp and wheeze. Somewhere it had sprung a leak and steam escaped from its boilers in a shrill voice. Emergency brakes brought the train to a grinding halt. The on- board team of engineers started tinkering with the engine before giving the driver the go ahead signal. The engine puffed and toiled and we started to roll backwards instead of moving forward. Emergency brakes came into play once again.

Four times, we went through the routine and with each failed attempt I started to fret and wonder if was going to be a victim of the Nilgiri Railway's first and only major passenger train disaster. Once more the engine belched smoke and labored. Once more we starred to slide down the mountain slope, but this time only fractionally so. Then , for a brief quivering eternity, the train stood still before it slowly, ever so slowly, started to edge forward. Everyone on boards the Nilgiri Passenger cheered the old stream engine on as they might a veteran fighter who refused to stay down.

They say that getting there is half the fun and it could not be ore apt than in the case of the toy train in the Nil iris. For the quaint little line, Built over a century ago, brims with the Raj nostalgia. The 40 km track to Ooty traverses through 16 tunnels and over 362 bridges, snakes up mountains covered with virgin forests, rolling green meadows, tea plantation and rural settlements.

Wildlife from the window
Monkeys in Nilgiri Wildlife If lucky, passengers also get to see wildlife -elephants, bison deer monkeys and even an occasional tiger The chance of spotting elephants id fairly good during the summer months when waterholes in the jungle dry out and the behemoths descend on the track and rip out the water popes that run alongside, for a drink. Indeed, a team of plumbers ride each train during this period to repair the damage the elephants may have caused.

The pipeline is an integral part of the line, for every five km, the engine, stops for a fresh supply of water. It also gives the crew of 10 - a guard, four brakemen, two firemen who feed the engine's furnace, a driver, a fitter and his assistant - an opportunity to service the engine. Since spare parts for these Swiss made engines are no longer available,. They have to be fabricated by the engines, four old and the other four new, Of course, new means 65 years old!

In pure economic terms, the engines should have been retied long ago. But the Nilgiri Passenger is more than just a matter of profit and loss; the unique train is part of the history of the region. Its heritage goes back to the time when the British discovered the 'peaceful English countryside serenity' of the Blue Mountains, and proposed to build a railway link from Mettupalayam to Ooty. By 1899, the line reached Coonoor and was extended to Ooty in 1903. Since the track was built at an almost constant gradient of 1:12.5 (or a climb of one meter over every 12.5meters), the engineers who built it devised an engineers who built it devised an ingenious system, the first of its kind in the world, that operates on three tracks - the centre one comprising of teeth that mesh with crank wheels attached to the undercarriage of the engine and all the carriages.

The system worked remarkably well for, in all its years of operation, there has been only one major disaster. This happened in 1982 when a goods train plunged into a ravine. No one know what really happened that day for all the eight crew members on the train perished in the tragedy. Then in 1993, the network was disrupted when a landslide swept away a section of the track. But luckily there was no train on the line the time. After the brief hiccup, we rolled safely into Coonoor station. Here the steam engine was replaced by a diesel engine, which took us over the last segment of the journey on conventional double -line tracks. Soon we were chugging past a lake with colourful boats and moments later, pulled into Ooty.

Outside the railway station, I was set upon by private taxi and autorickshaw drivers demanding exorbitant fares to fake me to my hotel. Yes it was like chugging out of the dream world of the past into the realities of the present. In the background, the train whistled and I had already started missing it.

The frothy cascaded tumbling over the rocky Knoll formed a picturesque waterfall. Elsewhere, icy streams burst forth from ravines and while sweeping grasslands swept past the open window, splendid views of tea gardens vied for attention as the train chugged up the hillside on narrow meter gauge rails. Sitting in the first- class compart- ment of the Ooty toy train, I had an unhindered view ahead of me, since the vintage steam engine pushed the six coaches from behind are I was in the first coach up front with nothing blocking my view. As the twin tracks snaked past quilted carpets of green and disappeared around the mountain side, I was buffeted by the crisp, snappy breeze lent fragrant by the soaring eucalyptus trees that stood all around like mute sentinels. Soon a tunnel came up and the train plunged into inky darkness. As the rhythmic exhaust beat the loco rand out louder, screams and catcalls of passengers from behind filled the air. We emerged from the dark tunnel quite abruptly and the next moment I found myself poised precariously on a slender viaduct spanning a deep gorge.

Nilgiri Mountain Railway Little wonder UESCO granted World Heritage status to this Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR). Little wonder too that this toy train covering the 46km journey from Mettupalayam at the of the Nilgiri hills to Ooty has been termed "an engineering marvel" considering the precarious gradients, the numerous lengthy tunnels through rocky hills, the twin tracks clinging perilously to steep hillsides and venturing gracefully across numerous viaducts positioned hundreds of feet above mountain stream and gushing rivers.

Completed in 1908, the first train was hauled by a Swiss - made steam engine that took more than five hours to make the journey. Leaving Mettupalayam at seven in the morning, the train passes through quaint stations with names like kallar, Adderley Hilligrove, Runnymede, Kateri Coonoor, Wellington and Lovedale before finally hauling up at Ooty. On the way up from Mettupalayam the lift side offers the vantage in terms of the view, while if you're on your way down from Ooty, opt for the right side window seat. Aldo, the engine will be up front this time, pulling the train and the first class bogie will be the one, again offering an unhindered view. There are second -class and unreserved compartments too, but you will have noisy , boisterous and commuting locals for company. Remember the Chhaiyan Chhaiyan song from the film Dil se? That was shot right on top of this train.

How to reach :
By air : Jet Airways operates flights to Coimbatore Chennai, the two closest cities to Mettupalayam from one catches the Nilgiri Passenger.

Nilgiri passenger train
The Nilgiri Passenger is a year - round service that leaves Mettupalayam station every morning and reaches Ooty around noon. On the return leg, it leaves Ooty early evening and reaches Mettupalayam before nightfall. The service is linked to the Nilgiri Express, which leaves Chennai Central at night and reaches Coimbatore early the following morning. Here the last six carriages detach and the train carries on to Mettupalayam, reaching the station in time to catch the Nilgiri Passenger. Similarly, on the return journey the Nilgiri Passenger and Express link up nicely to reach Chennai Central early the following morning. An additional train runs between Mettupalayam and Ooty, between mid - March and mid - July and then again during September and October to cope with the rush during the summer and Diwali vacation. In addition there are morning and evening shuttle services between Coonoor and Ooty, 19 km apart.