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The Nilgiri Mountain Railway – A Heritage Train Ride Back in Time

The iconic Nilgiri Mountain Railway or Toy Train is one of the key attractions of the famous hill station Ooty in Tamil Nadu. There’s no denying the romance a train journey entails, but this particular one is for keeps – a throwback to sepia-toned times when life was slower, but we didn’t mind. It is an unforgettable journey through the winding mountains and scenic beauty of the Nilgiri ranges. 

This quaint and charming toy train was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005. The train’s journey began in 1899, and it has continued to capture the imagination of its visitors ever since. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway covers a total distance of 46 km in 5 hours. And what a stunning journey it is en route! 

A Snapshot of the Journey

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

The train ride begins at Mettupalayam, which is a small place along the river Bhavani. It chugs along flat planes for the first 5 km, only to ascend rapidly in the next 12 km to a height of 4,363 ft.

This one-of-a-kind train ride winds its way through dark and winding tunnels, verdant forests, and captivating hilly slopes. You will pass by charming places such as Kellar, Coonoor, Wellington, Lovedale, and Ootacamund. Wisps of mist and fog might also follow the train as you slowly make your way up. Watch the sunlight peeking through the clouds as you lose track of time and space altogether. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway not only offers the most breath-taking vistas, it also holds the distinction of being the steepest rail system in Asia. 

All Aboard the Train Ride of a Lifetime

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Start your journey at the Mettupalayam station. Mettupalayam is a small town located in the foothills of the Nilgiri mountains in Tamil Nadu. Soak in the sight of the magnificent train waiting at the station, emitting steam and letting out an occasional whistle now and then. It could almost be a scene straight out of a yesteryear movie.

Speaking of history, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway was built by the British. It uses a meter gauge railway line, with a rack and pinion mechanism to help the train climb steep hills. This is probably the only railway track in India that uses such a device. 

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway still uses an old steam engine to climb the hills. The signature whistling sound of the steam engine is etched into our memory through movies. A ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway allows you to experience this first-hand. The steam engine is used between Mettupalayam and Coonoor. A diesel engine takes over from Coonoor to Ooty

The railway line was constructed only up to Coonoor in the first stage. The complete track to Ooty was added much later. Those who have visited Darjeeling will find similarities with the Darjeeling Himalayan railway – the toy train in the East, which is the darling of West Bengal. 

The Route from Mettupalayam to Ooty

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway has seven main stopovers – Kallar, Adderly, Hillgrove, Runnymede, Kateri Road, Coonoor, and Lovedale – on the route between Mettupalayam and Ooty. The stretch begins with pretty paddy fields all in a row from Mettupalayam to Kallar. The next part of the course comprises a rocky trail spanning a distance of 21 km from Kallar to Coonoor. The route is filled with twists and turns that wind their way through several tunnels.  

The train soon climbs up a steep rise from Coonoor to Fern Hill, which is the highest point on the route. Coonoor is the second largest hill station in the Nilgiri Mountains. This beautiful hill station is famous for its tea estates. Tea plantations on both sides surround the Nilgiri Mountain Railway track running through Coonoor. Many consider this the most picturesque part of the journey and even stop for a one-day stay. Some of the tourist attractions in Coonoor include Sim’s Park, Law’s Falls, Dolphin’s Nose, Lamb’s Rock, and Droog Fort.

Finally, the track makes a slight route downward turn to Ooty – the largest hill station in the Nilgiri Mountains and the state of Tamil Nadu. Ooty is one of the most popular summer retreats in South India. The hill station is a famous film shooting location as well. Once in Ooty, visit some of its scenic attractions such as Ooty Lake, Rose Garden, Botanical Garden, Stone House, Tribal Museum, St. Stephen’s Church, and Wax World. 

The train passes through several other stations on the way. These stations are ancient, and you won’t find any passengers waiting to board the train. The only other souls at these stations are the workers who conduct regular maintenance checks for the engine. The steam engine of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway is filled with water at regular intervals to keep it going. The train stops for an average of 10-15 minutes at these stations.

The construction of the railway track was no easy feat given the challenges of mountainous terrains. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway track is a marvel of engineering. And it’s very pleasing to the eyes too! The train is painted in blue and cream, with rustic wooden coaches that have large windows that offer the most stunning views!

The train has both first-class and general class compartments. The first-class compartment offers a more comfortable journey. You can book tickets two months before the date of your trip on the IRCTC website.

Some Interesting Trivia About the Nilgiri Mountain Railway

  • It is the only meter gauge rack railway in India.
  • Its youngest X class locomotive is over 50 years old, and the oldest is 80 years old.
  • The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is the steepest track in Asia, ranging from 1,069 feet to 7,228 feet above sea level at its highest points.
  • The railway uses a fleet of X Class steam locomotives. In recent years, its vintage coal-fired steam locomotives have been replaced with new oil-fired steam engines.
  • The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is 46 kilometers long, passing through many tunnels and hundreds of bridges.
  • Coonoor is famous all over for its signature teas. The most spectacular scenery and views are situated along the stretch from Mettupalayam to Coonoor. Many people prefer to travel only on this stretch of the journey.

Friendly Guidelines and Reminders for the Journey

  • The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is a quintessential experience of heritage and pristine landscape of Tamil Nadu.
  • This isn’t your average train and was never intended to be one. Don’t allow challenges such as limited space and no services to mar your experience of the journey. Let go, sit back, and enjoy the ride
  • Please arrive at your starting station well before the train arrival time to avoid last minute stress.
  • Littering the train and the landscape on the way is strictly forbidden.
  • It is always better to be extra cautious during monsoons and in the winter fog. Bring appropriate clothing and stay protected from rains and the chilly breeze.
  • Always show respect for the culture of the state, destination, and its local community.
  • Book your tickets well in advance if you’re traveling in peak season. It’s impossible to get tickets at the last minute, even in the general class, which has unreserved seats. The ticket price for the first-class compartment is INR 205, and the second class is INR 40.

Best Time to Visit

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

The summer is the best time to visit and make the most of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway journey. Escape the stifling heat everywhere else in the country and embark on your train journey during this time. 

Besides the train ride, adventure enthusiasts could also indulge in some trekking and hand gliding in areas nearby. Summers are pleasant enough to comfortably enjoy the train journey or visit any places in and around Ooty.

But the region is also exquisitely beautiful during the monsoons. If rain hasn’t stopped you from having epic adventures before, there’s no reason why it should hinder your epic train journey as well. The rains mean tourist downtime, and that’s always a good thing. Imagine the splendor of the rain-washed Nilgiri Mountains and not having to share it with a hundred other tourists. Ooty is particularly beautiful in the monsoons! The mountains brim with new life, once-dry waterfalls cascade wild and free, and mountain rivers gush beautifully around the gorges.

Best Ways to Reach Mettupalayam

By Air: The closest city to Mettupalayam is Coimbatore. It is located about an hour away and has an airport with regular flights from all over India. 

By Train: The daily 12671 Nilagiri (Blue Mountain) Express train from Chennai arrives in Mettupalayam at 6.15 am, just in time to connect with the toy train’s morning departure. The train also coincides with the toy train’s evening arrival in Mettupalayam on the journey back. If you’re in Coimbatore, The Nilagiri Express stops in Coimbatore at 5 am on the way. It is, therefore, possible to take this train from Coimbatore to Mettupalayam. 

By Road: Mettupalayam is well-connected to Coimbatore by road. There are regular buses run from Coimbatore starting at 5 am. There are also regular passenger trains between the two places during the day. 

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