January 02, 2022:
This journey wasn't actually part of the actual plan. I had actually planned to travel uphill by the train, and return by bus. However, destiny had different plans for me - the uphill ticket didn't confirm, and I was determined to make the Nilgiri Mountain Railway ride happen. I booked this ticket to travel from Udagamandalam (Ooty, or Ootacamund) only at 0334hrs on the day of the journey - that is after I got to know that my uphill ticket didn't get confirmed. The ticket was waitlisted when I booked - interestingly, there were over 100 seats still available the previous night - but all of them got sold and the availability went into waiting list over just a few hours!
|Welcome to Udagamandalam!
My ticket got confirmed while my bus, on which I traveled uphill, was passing Coonoor. The SMS got me elated. I had a confirmed ticket to travel from Coonoor back to Mettupalayam - which was booked as a backup, just in case the uphill ticket (uphill = Mettupalayam to Ooty) didn't go through. The seat number mentioned in the confirmation message disappointed me for a while - The message mentioned I would be seated in D2, seat #53. Based on my very limited knowledge about the seating layout, this couldn't be a window seat - the cabins in second class seat 10 passengers - 5 in a row. I had seen the train while departing from Mettupalayam, and it had this cabin type seating. Some trains on NMR have a different 2x2 seating layout arranged like a bus.
But, hey! Why did I pick the 06142 express for this ride?
I could've picked the same train that I would be traveling in from Coonoor to Mettupalayam. I had now selected an earlier train. I had two main reasons for that - one, I need to kill lesser time at Ooty and I'd get some time to explore Coonoor station; two, this was the only train to have a "crossing" - I would also get to experience a crossing on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway.
|Udagamandalam Railway station
I walked down from the bus station to the railway station by around 1100hrs. The bus station is just a few metres away from the railway station. The railway station was a beehive of activity as I walked in. Plenty of tourist vehicles were parked outside, and more of them were turning up. It appears like the train ride is now included in packages offered by tourist operators - maybe that explains why tickets got sold out overnight. Tourists are dropped at the railway station in vehicles, and the vehicles go down to Coonoor and wait for them to arrive there by train.
The railway station isn't actually the original structure and hence most of the heritage is lost. The passenger shelter, and the benches placed there retained some heritage, though. The railways have arranged a selfie point at the station - with a plinthed X-Class steam loco along with an original wooden passenger carriage mounted on a model of arch bridge (probably designed similar to the Adderly or Burliar viaducts). Along with these artefacts, the omnipresent "I Love Ooty" lighted signage is also present. The station only 1 proper platform - although the yard has three railway lines. There is a watering point at the Mettupalayam end of the platform as well. Like all stations on the NMR, Ooty also has manual points along with semaphore signalling.
|The watering pipe at the end of Ooty's Platform #1
|The selfie point at Ooty!
I spent a while exploring the station. There was a small heritage museum - it was really small compared to the one I had seen at Mettupalayam (more on that in this video) - I didn't have much to explore there. I headed to the Mettupalayam end of the station and just waited there for the train to come in. The incoming train came in at around 1150hrs. This was the same train I had seen off at Mettupalayam. The X-Class steam locomotive was now replaced by YDM4 #6724 of Golden Rock diesel shed. The locomotive, although officially included in the holding of Golden Rock shed, is maintained at Coonoor. I believe the staff at Coonoor loco shed are on the rolls of Golden Rock shed - or may be the Coonoor facility is a satellite centre of Golden Rock shed.
|The train coming in from Mettupalayam. Notice the small signal hut on the right
|My train to Coonoor on the platform!
The incoming crowd mobbed the locomotive, and people were all over the place clicking photographs and selfies. The crowd around the coaches reduced the pace of boarding by new passengers. The same rake would return back as the 06142 Express at 1215hrs. I had a tough time getting into my coach - people were busy clicking selfies that they weren't ready to give way for others to board the train. I was quite exicted that my seat was actually a window seat - it so turned out that the cabins at either ends of the coach seated only 8 passengers each, while the other cabins seated 10 each. My seat was in the opposite direction of travel - but a window seat nevertheless! My coach was D2 - the number stencilled on the sides read "S 80". The coach appeared from among the original lot - the coach was made of wood on a steel frame. The bogies in these coaches are slightly different compared to meter gauge coaches used elsewhere on Indian Railways.
|That was my coach, and that open door leads to my seat!
|A complex route board - all the trains worked by the rake is mentioned on the board!
The guard and the brakesmen went around checking the carriages before departure. The brakesman of our coach came around and locked all doors from outside as the train prepared for departure. Carriages are locked from outside on the NMR - due to safety risk if the doors went open during the run. The train started off exactly at 1215hrs. My cabin had only 8 passengers - hence it didn't feel too congested. Leg room is certainly a premium, and there is very limited space for baggage. The lighting inside the coach was replaced with LED lamps. The seats had basic cushioning - the comfort level is basic.
Meanwhile, the train slowly cleared points at Ooty station and picked pace. The rake had 5 coaches - 2 First Class sitting coaches, 2 Second class sitting and 1 second class-cum-luggage and guard van. YDM4s make a characteristic Phur Phur sound, and not the chugging sound that broad guage ALCOs make. ALCO refers to American Locomotive Company, the original manufacturer of the WDM2 series of locomotives. The train rolled past Ooty lake and progressed on its journey down hill to Coonoor.
The first of the three tunnels in the 18 kilometre journey from Ooty to Coonoor appears a little out of Coonoor. The tunnel is located at Fern Hill, and there used to be a railway station right after the tunnel. This railway station was later converted into an Officers' Guest House. A viewer on my vlog also commented that this was actually the terminus of this railway line, before being extended to the present terminus at Ooty. The train whistled through the tunnel, while the passengers howled to their best!
The train journey from Ooty to Coonoor is largely a tourist service. The railways had hiked prices of tickets in March 2020, just before the onset of the pandemic. Ever since the trains resumed after pandemic, they've been operating as fully reserved services as well. The 18 kilometre ride from Ooty to Coonoor now costs Rs. 150 (Up from Rs. 10 in the past!). The high ticket fare, and the fact that traveling requires a reservation, made it a purely tourist service. Regular commuters moved over to buses - which continues to be a very cheap mode of commute, in this part of the country.
We rolled in to our first stop, at Lovedale by 1227hrs. The stops are namesake since nobody boards or alights at these places - so the train just stops and starts - the brakesmen do come around calling for anybody alighting, though. We left Lovedale 1228. The most beautiful sights in this journey is between Lovedale and Ketti. The train passes through a beautiful valley, with deep gorges to the right, and a marvellous grassland to the left. The remaining 2 tunnels in this section are also located in this part - they come in quick succession as well. The best seat on this train would be on the right side, since they give out amazing vistas - sitting on the left side is not a bad idea by any stretch of imagination though.
|A slice of the vista between Lovedale and Ketti
We rolled in to Ketti by 1241hrs, and departed a minute later. I was on the look out for the crossing! As mentioned earlier, this is the only train between Ooty and Coonoor that has a crossing - we would cross the 06143 Coonoor Udagamandalam "passenger special" on the way. The same train would become the 06137 Udagamandalam Mettupalayam Special after reaching Ooty - I would be traveling on that train from Coonoor to Mettupalayam later in the day. The section becomes a little mundane after Ketti. The permanent way (or, track as we commoners would call it) passes through dense Eucalyptus plantations, with a few bridges across streams here and there.
We stopped at the home signal of Aravankadu - I knew we'd be crossing the up-bound train here. And, that was right. We started moving after waiting for a while - the train descends down to Aravankadu station. We were sent to the loop line, and the up-hill train was already waiting on the main line. The crossing was a moment of fun for most passengers in the train - cameras were berserk clicking the moment. The up-hill train was pushed up by YDM4 #6706. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway has a fleet of 5 diesel locomotives, all based at Coonoor. They operate about 4 pairs of services using two rakes - the rakes are maintained at the coaching depot at Mettupalayam, so every rake ends up working the service to Mettupalayam alternatively, where they get attended by the mechanical staff.
The crossing was fairly quick - however, it took a while before we were given the proceed signal. We got moving from Aravankadu by 1307hrs - we spend 8 minutes at the station, the longest halt for this train. The next halt for us was at Wellington. Both Wellington and Aravankadu are famous for defence establishments - the ordnance factory (Cordite Factory, Aravankadu) and the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington. We departed from Wellington by 1316hrs. Coonoor is just over a kilometre from Wellington.
|This is the standard view on the route..
The train descends a fairly steep grade at Coonoor, and runs past the station first into a shunting neck. The train would then reverse into the station. The layout is such that the locomotive of every, repeat, every train on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway would be placed at the Mettupalayam end of the train. Every train is "pulled" out of Coonoor station - trains to Ooty would be first sent to the shunting neck, from where they would be pushed up the ghats to Ooty, while trains to Mettupalayam would continue with the locomotive at the front, acting as a braker down the ghats. The Nilgiri Mountain Railways was originally between Mettupalayam and Coonoor (commissioned in 1899) - the line from Coonoor to Ooty was opened later, in 1908. Perhaps that explains the location and layout of Coonoor station.
Meanwhile, the train descended the ghats, and went into the shunting neck, and then reversed into the railway station (1324hrs - 09 minutes behind schedule). We were received on Platform 2 - I understand that almost all the Coonoor ending services are now received on this platform, while the Mettupalayam trains head to Platform 1. The crowd took its time to vacate the train. Police officers on the platform were checking and enforcing the mask rule - people without a mask were being warned. They did a brilliant job with crowd control as well. There ended up my first every downhill journey on the Nilgiri Mountain Railways!
I headed out of the station for a sumptuous vegetarian meal from a restaurant outside, and returned to the station with enough time to charge up my phone and camera before the most awaited journey commences! For people planning this journey - NMR trains do not have an onboard toilet and do not have charging points either. So, please make it a point to use the restrooms before boarding the train, and perhaps also keep your phones fully charged. There could be very poor network connectivity - so that increases the battery drain, as well!
Meanwhile, do check-out my video from this journey on YouTube!
Journey in a Nutshell:
Train Number: 06142 Udagamandalam - Coonoor Passenger Special
Loco link: YDM4 #6724 of Golden Rock Diesel Shed
Coach: D2, S 80 based at Mettupalayam
Coach Maintenance: 10/10
Bedroll: Not Applicable
Catering: Not Applicable
This is purely a tourist service - and does that perfectly! Its an exciting journey for people flocking the queen of hill stations, the Nilgiris! The train is often referred to as a "toy train" - it isn't one. Its a proper Mountain Railway - one of the very few specimens from across the globe! UNESCO certifies its heritage nature. Although the Udagamandalam-Coonoor section is more of a normal railway line considering the fact that it doesn't use rack-and-pinon system - nevertheless, the train tranverses upto a 1-in-23 grade, which is certainly not something seen on a regular railway line. This is perhaps a must-see for a rail buff visiting this part of the country!