Arriving on the overnight Nilgiri Express from Chennai at the station of Mettupalayam, at the foot of the Nilgiris, you can – if you’re in a hurry – take a taxi up to Coonoor and then on to Ooty. It’ll take about an hour and a half – longer if you can persuade your taxi driver not to overtake on hairpin bends. The problem, of course, is that hairpin bends are much the easiest place to get past lorries: on a left-hand hairpin the lorry always goes onto the right-hand side to get round in one go and cars can slip through on the inside. Downwards traffic takes avoiding action. Everyone knows this is the system, and of course it works – most of the time!
But if you are not in a hurry you can take the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, recently inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The rack-and-pinion train leaves Mettupalayam just after 7am and reaches Coonoor a little more than three hours later. An ordinary diesel traction locomotive then takes the train on from Coonoor to Ooty in another hour and a half.
The railway opened in 1899 with special coal-powered steam locomotives made in Switzerland. These have very recently been replaced by oil-powered steam locos made at the Golden Rock workshop in Trichy. The track from Mettupalayam to Coonoor climbs 1400 metres in 28km with a maximum gradient of 1 in 12 (the steepest in Asia) and a number of tunnels and bridges. In places the train is going so slowly that it is quite possible to get down and walk alongside for a while, and there are a number of stops to allow things to cool down. We recently went back to the Nilgiris and took a few photos of the train close to Hillgrove station, where it passes alongside the ghat road.
From Coonoor to Ooty the track climbs another 500 metres, with stations at Wellington, for the Officer’s Academy; Aravankadu, for the Cordite Factory, then winding through the lovely Ketty valley (the other photos were taken at Ketty station) before reaching Lovedale, for the Lawrence School then passing through a final tunnel to run for a short while by the side of the lake then into Ooty station.
You may have seen the train in the film A Passage to India, where Coonoor station had a starring role.