By Ravi Valluri

“I like trains. I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of; for this moment I know where I am going,” pens the iconic author, Anna Funder.

A tourist can discover the thrill of riding a wondrous toy train, which provides an aperture to panoramic vistas during the three and half hour journey from Mettupalayam to Ooty. The voyage offers an exotic and unparalleled train travel experience. Ooty is a paradise for travel enthusiasts desirous of basking in a tranquil place packed with myriad landmarks.

Ooty, a fabled travel gateway can be reached by road or rail. However boarding the toy train provides a singular experience as there is an abrupt romance in the air and a spring in the step. It is veritable love at first sight as a tripper travels from Ooty to Ketti, crisscrossing the celebrated Nilgiri Mountains.

The train navigates tunnels, curves and bridges. Traversing a distance of 46 km from Mettupalayam at the foothills to Ooty on the lofty peak, a tripper carouses breathtaking views of terraced, green, tea plantations, steep valleys and towering, swaying trees. For its sheer majesty, this enthralling expedition has been appropriately designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the only heritage train which motors at the highest elevated place in Southern India.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is a railway in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India was initially operated by the Madras Railway. It is a tribute to the robust mechanical and civil engineering departments of the British rulers that the railway still relies on its fleet of steam locomotives. This promptly connects the globetrotter to the past and the rich heritage bequeathed to us.

The toy train service first commenced operations between Coonoor and Mettupalayam during 1899 (certainly seems aeons ago). This was to link the army establishment of the sovereigns based at Wellington. The railway system provided transportation and crucial supplies to the British army.

The bulwarks of the conquerors over natives were the civil administrative system, railways, police and the postal system. The foreign rulers were shaken to their core on account of the challenges posed by the First War of Independence in 1857 (also called the Mutiny of 1857).

However, commercial reasons weighed on the minds of the railway mandarins and this alluring and spellbinding line was extended up to Ooty in the year 1908 to cross subsidise railway operations and also to extend the empire beyond Coonoor to Ooty. The maiden passenger service was initiated on 15 October, 1908 between Ooty and Coonoor.

Ooty, also known as Udhagamandalam in Tamil, is a hill station in the state of Tamil Nadu, south of the Vindhyas. It is encircled by dense forest cover and a gargantuan population of swaying eucalyptus trees. The liquid extracted from the trees acts like a magic potion for a person suffering from the pestilence of cold and fever.

Ooty was a largely British town in pre-independence India, far from the heat and humidity of the Madras Presidency. Alfred Tennyson referred this place as the “sweet half-English air of Neilgherry”. For Lord Lytton, Viceroy of India, Ooty had “Hertfordshire lanes, Devonshire downs, Westmoreland lakes, Scotch trout streams and Lusitanian views” which reminded him of being home in the cool climes of England.

There are several attractions to witness- a spectacular mountain range, a hop at Coonoor and eventually visit Ooty while travelling by the amazing rack and pinion rail system. A few years back there was a change in traction from steam to diesel as the train traversed between Coonoor and Ooty, which led to protests by the local denizens. Tippers did not wish the snapping of the umbilical cord of the past heritage.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) is a major tourist attraction. Approximately 5 lakh people travel every year by this toy train. Tourists depart from Mettupalayam at 7.30 AM and the train moves across the serpentine bends and curves at a speed of not more than 12 km/hour.

This train covers a distance of 46 kms in a five hours snaking through Hillgrove, Coonoor, Wellington, Aruvankadu, Ketti, Lovedale stations and eventually the peregrination terminates at Udhagamandalam or Ooty. Whenever the train abruptly comes to a grinding halt, passengers pluck flowers from trees with glee.

During every start on the hill slopes the engine invariably gives a jerk while gaining momentum to push the train from the rear. After travelling three or four kilometres in the hills, occasionally the train comes to a sudden halt as a lofty eucalyptus tree would have fallen on the tracks and the process of cutting and salvaging work to restore traffic would be in progress. After a brief halt of 15 to 20 minutes the journey resumes. This is quite a regular feature and adds romance and spice to the rail journey.

Vintage steam engines ply on part of the route. Coaches are small in size with multiple coupes, each with doors on either side. The average speed barely touches 10-12 kms per hour and no one seems to be in a hurry, rather luxuriating in the slumber where time appears to have frozen. Much of the journey by the Nilgiri Mountain Railway feels like travelling in British India, before the advent of the frenzied, frenetic pace.

The first two stations, Lovedale and Ketti, are buried deep in the woods. Tall, thick eucalyptus trees surround the idyllic stations. The compact station houses virtually appear as log cabins. Snatches of birdsong fill the air.

It isn’t merely the town names which are evocative of the British Raj. Different old semaphore signals are fixed on the route, and not the modern electric signals. Drivers hand in a bamboo hoop with a metallic tablet at every station—this “token" is a testimony to ensure the arrival of the train.

Coonoor which also houses the Wellington Staff College reminds the tripper on the route that they are connected with modern day India. This is the bijou town where passengers alight, and witness the steam engine attach itself to the train. Inside the distinctive black chamber are gauges, pipes, knobs and analogue metres distinctively out of a 19th century science fiction book.

Post a relaxed chugging on the plain, the train crawls into the station premises of Ooty sometime in late afternoon. The sightseer looks back at the misty silhouette of the Nilgiris in the distance which by now have carved an indelible impression on the mind.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end,” writes Ursula K. Le Guin.

Also Read: Maharajas’ Express- The Southern Jewels