Like a scene from an Enid Blyton book, the Nilgiri toy train chugs into the Coonoor railway station with a loud toot, emitting plumes of smoke that merge with the mist descending from the hills. Tourists and locals alike line up on the platform and watch as the staff switch the steam engine for a diesel one, for the onward journey to Ooty. It takes around 15 minutes, leaving passengers with ample time to pose for photos near the blue-and-cream-coloured coaches and buy vadas and chai from the canteen.
The train is delayed by over an hour today. Impatient, a group of college students head for the exit, while children use the opportunity to jump onto the platform and are chased by anxious parents. Finally, at 12.30 pm, the brakesman waves a green flag and the train leaves the picturesque blue station nestled snugly in the middle of a valley.
The fading clatter of the wheels carry an echo from 2,000 km away, where the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR)’s fellow companion on the Unesco heritage list, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), is at a crossroads. In July, Unesco pulled up the DHR for renovating two toilets and disposing of a printing press.
For the NMR, the heritage tag — which it received in 2005 — has put a lid on making any drastic changes to the line. A railway official at the Coonoor station said, “We can’t change the structure, we can’t even change the 100-year-old semaphore signaling system… ” But divisional railway manager of the Salem railway division, U Subbarao, said it has helped them get more funds. “The railway board has given us funds for conservation and upkeep. The Unesco tag means we are no longer custodians of the line… All we can do is ensure it is in working condition.”
Built in 1899, the 46-km line initially connected the plains of Mettupalayam to Coonoor, and was extended to Ooty in 1908. There are four stations — Wellington, Aruvankadu, Ketti and Lovedale — on the 80-minute ride to Ooty, which is about 20 km away. A railway official said most locals now prefer to drive to the hill station as it is faster. Yet, a ride on the century-old line is still an experience, with many leaning out of the windows to breathe in the heady smell of eucalyptus and fresh mountain air.
The coaches amble past streams, a graveyard with colourful headstones, rows of tea plantations and a school with a wide field with three lone children sitting woefully in the middle. All of a sudden, a yellow light comes on in the coaches. While first-timers look puzzled, others wait expectantly. Right then, the train passes through a tunnel. On cue, the youngsters let out a chorus of shrieks and yells, making the elderly cover their ears and smile indulgently.
Age, meanwhile, has caught up with the NMR: Many stations on the route, such as Fernhill and Adderley, are closed, and the steam loco was replaced with a diesel one on the Coonoor-Ooty route. The lone steam engine that runs from Mettupalayam to Ooty was also redesigned to use furnace oil instead of the traditional coal. Sheila, a passenger, recounted how it was delightful to travel first class when she was younger. “The coaches used to have glass ceilings and wooden shutters. But these have been removed,” she said.
In 1968, the Centre even considered decommissioning the NMR, as it was proving to be uneconomical. In his book, Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR), From Lifeline to Oblivion, VM Govind Krishnan writes that services on the line were halted for months on end, either due to coal shortage, landslides, or derailment. This led to protests by many citizens, writes Krishnan, who called for the heritage line to be reopened. Currently, work is underway to build a coal-and-oil-fired loco and 28 coaches, said an official spokesperson of the Southern Railways. “We are also renovating a century-old coal-fired steam engine,” he said.
As the train nears Ooty, a light drizzle begins to fall and the air grows colder. Scarves and sweaters are pulled on. Unmindful of the cold, passengers pour out of the station and head to Ooty’s touristy spots. The train, meanwhile, does what it has been doing for over a 100 years: it emits a loud toot and falls silent, waiting patiently to ferry the next set of passengers.