Nilgiri Mountain Railway

by Dr GVJA Harshavardhan

This article was originally published by the Indian Steam Railway Society (ISRS) in its newsletter, and is reproduced here by permission, which is gratefully acknowledged. Copyright for the material here rests with the ISRS and the author(s) of the article. The ISRS is the premier organization in India engaged in preservation and efforts to promote awareness of the country's railway heritage.

This article originally appeared in the FNRM Newsletter No. 1, Spring 1998.

In India, Nilgiri Mountain Railway is the only mountain rail line of metre gauge system that is fitted with the unique rack and pinion arrangement for the train to negotiate an average gradient of I in 12.28 of Coonoor ghat section. Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) of the Southern Railway connects Mettupalayam of Coimbatore plains with Ootacamund that crowns the mountains of the Nilgiris. Steam locomotives of 1920 and 1952 vintage chug along the spectacular landscape. Due to the ageing of the locos, it is becoming increasingly difficult to complete the journey on time.

The longing of the officials of British Raj to savour and enjoy the cool climes of Ootacamund and the necessity to quickly transport tea produce to the sea ports of the Western coast, made it possible for the construction of a 27.03 km rail line between Mettupalyam and Coonoor by 1897. It was operated and managed by Nilgiri Railway Company. Four Beyer-Peacock steam locomotives of 2-4-OT type were brought in 1897 and the line was opened in August 1898. The heavy downpour of rains caused extensive damage to the rail line and after repairs and restoration, the line was reopenend in June 1899. From Coonoor an extension of 18.85 km was made to connect the rail line to Ootacamund by 1908.

Niklaus Riggenbach of Switzerland and J L L Morant of Royal Engineers were the pioneers who conceived the original idea for this mountain railway. It was Michael's (1889) alternate biting teeth (ABT) system that gave the much needed adhesion to the steep rail gradient. The 45.88 km line must have challenged the guts, ingenuity and engineering skills of the expatriate surveyors and engineers and the migrant labourers who hacked dense jungles, blasted rocks and laid the line at enormous physical strain and risk. We must recognise and remember those successful adventurers who gave us the magnificient Nilgiri Mountain Railway that weaves its way through 16 tunnels and 218 curves and breathtaking vistas of verdant mountains.

The centenary of Coonoor railway station (1897-1997) has been celebrated on 18th December, 1997 in recognition of its creditable service to the 100 year-old Nilgiri Mountain Railway. It is hoped that the Railways would soon introduce new steam locomotives, improve the services and organise package tours so that the many-splendoured Nilgiri Mountain Railway enters into the 21st century in full steam.