The trip plan was botched from the beginning. I planned the entire thing at the last moment, and out of an impulsive decision. But then, most good things in my life stemmed out of impulsive decisions only. After booking my waitlisted ticket from Mettupalayam to Udagamandalam (which didn't get confirmed), I was casually browsing for tickets in the opposite direction. There were no tickets from Udagamandalam to Mettupalayam. I changed the starting point to Coonoor, just out of curiosity, and found the availability just mentioned "Availble" in Second Class - that meant the ticket was originally waitlisted, but the list cleared and seats were available again. I booked without a second thought. The idea was to drop it if my original booking from Mettupalayam to Ooty went through. What happened later is history! On the day of my journey, this ticket turned out to be a saviour, and was the only encouragement I had to travel despite the original booking being "dropped" after charting.
January 02, 2022:
After a fairly heavy lunch at Sri Ramachandra Lunch Home (located outside Coonoor railway station, between the station and the bus station - a surely recommended place), I returned to the railway station. The station was quite deserted now - all the crowd was gone, and I could peacefully walk around the station and explore a little bit of the railway station. The railway station was commissioned in 1897, and still retains the original building. The building uses a Gothic architectural style - the colour combination is a little off, though. The station building is basic - has ticketing counters and a small waiting area, before one enters the platform. The Platform retains the original roofing design, and even the original benches in fairly good shape. Perhaps the only additions could be the large digital clock, and the charging points.
|Coonoor station as seen from the track
After walking around the station for a while, and clicking photographs, I headed to a bench on the platform to relax for a while. More importantly, I had to also leave my phone to charge. I had drained out whatever little charge my powerbank had, and I needed to recharge that as well. Left all of them to charge, and sat on the bench just watching the almost deserted station. Crowd slowly built up as the clock ticked past 1430hrs. My train to Mettupalayam is at 1505hrs, and there is one train to Ooty at 1600hrs as well.
I vacated my bench and walked up to the "selfie spot" by around 1440hrs - the selfie spot has an X-Class loco plinthed on a pedestal and a few benches to just sit and watch 'trains go by'. There is also a viewers gallery to have a look at the locomotive shed. There were quite a lot of people roaming around clicking photos as well. My train to Mettupalayam (06137) came in at around 1455hrs or so with YDM4 #6706 of Golden Rock doing the honours. The loco pilots had begun honking well in advance - it was scene watching the train come down around a curve. I walked down to the railway station (from the selfie spot) as the train entered the shunting neck.
|06137 arriving in to Coonoor
Since there would be no access to rest rooms until the train gets to Mettupalayam, I headed straight to the restroom first, and then headed out to watch the loco change. Meanwhile, pointsmen had already begun working on disconnecting the loco+the first coach from the rest of the rake. The trains operating between Mettupalayam and Coonoor have only 4 coaches, while trains from Coonoor to Ooty have 5. Hence, Mettupalayam-Ooty train gets an additional coach (a First Class sitting coach) from Coonoor. On the way back (that is, while the train works Ooty-Mettupalayam), this additional coach is detatched at Coonoor.
The YDM4 (#6706) along with one First Class sitting coach (F2) vacated the platform and headed straight to the shunting neck. While they waited there, the new locomotive for our train also followed them into the shunting neck. The new locomotive was allowed to shunt in to the platform, while the YDM4 and the coach went straight to the coaching yard. The new locomotive for our train was X-37399. This locomotive was named "Nilgiri Flycatcher", and is among the newer locomotives in the section. 37399 was built by Ponmalai Workshop (Railway Workshop, Golden Rock, Tamil Nadu) in 2014, and rebuilt by them in 2020 (with modern driver cabin). The locomotive uses furnace oil to power the boilers, and not coal. Coupling of the new locomotive took some time - I remained there for a while, but moved to my coach as the departure time came close.
|X-37399 coming in..
|A Closer look at X-37399
|The X-Class and YDM4 locomotives together
I was allotted a seat in coach D1, seat 21. This was also a window seat - but on the left side of the train. Interestingly, I got a "newer" coach this time - strictly speaking, not a new coach, but a rebuilt coach. These coaches have a 2x2 seating layout in a single cabin, with a seating capacity of 56 passengers. The coach was numbered as "SCZ 41" (SCZ is the code used to denote Second Class Chair Car coaches). Soon after boarding, a person requested if I could exchange seats - his co-passenger was on #1, and he was on #22. What more - I agreed, more so because seat #1 was on the right side of the train, and I wanted to be on that side!
I settled down quickly. The seats aren't very comfortable. Leg room is a premium and the seats are quite cramped as well. The only positive in these coaches is perhaps the large windows that lets have an uninterrupted view. Our departure out of Coonoor was delayed by a few minutes - for unknown reasons. We got moving at 1520hrs, against the scheduled departure time of 1515hrs. The train was fully packed - absolutely no vacant seats anywhere. This was my first downhill journey from Coonoor to Mettupalayam - had travelled uphill the last time.
The train crawled out of the station - there was plenty of smoke and the loco made a lot of noise well. A little into the journey, the train came to a complete halt - I assume that was a brake testing halt. A little after this halt, the train entered into the rack-and-pinon section. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is the only Rack railway in India, and perhaps the only regularly used section anywhere in the world. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway was born out of necessity - to replace the ardous journey from the foothills to the holiday destination of Ooty. The railways was built basis the rack railway technology that was available then in Switzerland.
To give an idea of how steep the section is - the train descends 1330m over 19 kilometres (Coonoor is at an elevation of 1712m, while Kallar is at 405m above mean sea level). The section has an average gradient of 1-in-15, and a ruling gradient of 1-in-12 (Ruling gradient refers to the steepest gradient in the section). A 1-in-12 gradient means the trains ascends/descends 1 metre height by running 12 metres. To get an idea of who steep it is, assume a right angled triangle where the hypotenuse is 12m and the height is 1m. The section has about 13 tunnels and about 27 viaducts! Two of them - Adderly and Burliar viaducts and visually spectactular as well. The train transverses through largely uninhabited land. There are 4 stations between Coonoor and Mettupalayam - Runneymede, Hillgrove, Adderly and Kallar. Although the train stops at all of them, they aren't open for passengers. They are purely operational halts - uphill trains refill water at all these stops, while downhill trains would take water only at Hillgrove.
|Somewhere on the way...
Meanwhile, the train had entered in to the rack section - the sound changes completely, and the train maintains a speed of about 15kmph. The first few kilometres out of Coonoor offers great views - I was on the wrong side of the coach at this point, not that the view on my side was any bad. We pass through a few tea plantations, and even have the road running along for a while. We got to the first operational halt, Runneymede, by 1548hrs. The train just stopped for a minute and started off again. These halts are used by railway staff posted at these places to reach their posting place and also to return back to base. Brakesmen present in each coach also use these halts to check if the wheels and axles of their coach are all fine.
|That is the Rack between the rails
Brakesmen are staff present in each coach to manually adjust brakes as and when needed. In addition the continuous air-brake, the coaches also have two types of manually operated brakes - the adhesion brakes (working on the wheels) and the rack brakes (working on the cogwheel of the rack-and-pinon system). They apply brakes based on signals they receive from the locomotive (while going downhill) or the brakesman in the leading car (while going uphill). The brakesmen are also responsible for opening and closing of doors for passengers. Each coach would have 1 brakesman. Thus, a train operating with 4 coaches would have 4 brakesmen. The train, as a whole, would have about 8 staff members - 1 loco pilot and 1 fireman in the locomotive, 1 guard (now called a train manager), 1 traveling ticket examiner and 4 brakesmen.
We had departed from Runneymede by 1549hrs, continuing our journey deeper into the jungle. The train keeps descending rapidly - at certain points, one can see the steep gradient very clearly. The gradient boards kept along the track side can be scary at times. The journey is interesting - but I felt one major stumble. The locomotive produces a lot of smoke - its a terrible experience while traveling downhill since all the passengers are exposed to all the smoke, and the nauseating smell of burning furnace oil. At times, I had teary eyes as well. I was in the third coach from the locomotive - things would've been worse for people sitting closer to the locomotive.
|One of the many gradient markers on the way
The temperature slowly began rising as the train came downhill. The journey gets a little boring with time, especially after Runneymede - more so because the train goes through forest land with absolutely no other humans in sight. The place has fairly good wildlife presence - but I didn't spot any on the way. We descended in to Hillgrove station by 1614hrs. The brakesmen came around announcing a 5 minute break, and opened the doors of the carriage. He also warned all passengers to close their windows, since the station had a fairly strong simian population. Their battalion had descended into the platform as soon as they spotted the train coming in. The station had a defunct tea shop - this shop was open during my last ride, and I remember having some snacks and tea from there as well (Read the travelogue here). There were toilets as well - not sure if they were functional, though.
|Re-watering at Hillgrove
|Another look at our X-Class steam locomotive
The water tank in the X-Class steam locomotive was being refilled, and the fireman was performing a quick inspection of the locomotive - he applied grease to the moving parts. I quickly checked with him to confirm if the loco was indeed oil-fired - he replied in affirmative. People were flocking the locomotive to click selfies - I managed to get a couple of photos without hindrance though. I also had a look at the rack - the rake is also called an "alternative biting teeth" rack system (ABT Rack). This is basically two parallel running steel rack bars kept 44mm apart, at the centre of the track. The tooth are arranged in such a way that the tooth of one rack bar is exactly the opposite of the other rack bar - thus the pinon is always biting one teeth at a time. The tooth have a pitch of 120mm. The UNESCO calls the Nilgiri Mountain Railway the largest working example of a rack railway in the world! And still, we love calling it a "Toy train".
The break at Hillgrove lasted about 9 minutes - we got moving by 1623hrs. The gradient out of Hillgrove is quite steep. We continued 'stepping' down the ghats slowly. Somewhere on the route, the train stopped abruptly - in the middle of nowhere. I heard the brakesman of our coach talking the the other staff in the coaches ahead of ours, and finding out that there was rock fallen on the track! I was a little concerned if that would be cancellation of the trip - but it it seems they were just "stones" and not rocks as such. The brakesmen and loco crew together cleared the track and we got moving soon later.
|I just loved those hanging roots..
The ride was getting a little monotonous - plus the nauseating smell from the locomotive and the smoke made the journey a little too uncomfortable. It was getting hot as well - time to remove the jacket. We stopped at Adderly - just a stop, check and start halt. I didn't note down the timing. Interestingly, staff board the train at all these stops - mostly people returning after duty. The run after Adderly gets interesting - the beautiful Adderly Viaduct is somewhere after this. This viaduct is a "composite" structure. The use metal girders at areas where the gorge is deep, and then stone arch bridges otherwise. The train exits the bridge directly into a tunnel. This place is the usual poster image used by the railways.
|A picturesque viaduct..
The valley becomes visible after Adderly - the train exits dense forest section and offers better views now. The last descent is right before Kallar, where the train covers ones of the steepest grades (I think that was a 1-in-12 grade) and directly enters into Kallar station. We got to Kallar by 1712hrs - this halt was about 2 minutes long. This one is also an operational halt - up hill trains refill water here as well. We got moving by 1714hrs. One can enjoy the real feel of traveling behind a steam loco hauled train after Kallar. The train picks pace, and hits its maximum permissible speed of 30kmph in this section. The Kallar-Mettupalayam section doesn't have major grades, although the train does descend from around 405m to 326m above mean sea level.
The last viaduct in the section is a little after the station, across the river Bhavani. There were about 3 or 4 level crossings in the way, and most interestingly, there were people recording this train on their mobile cameras. Steam locomotives are an object of fantasy for a lot of people - you don't get see them every day or every where! The train slowed down as we neared Mettupalayam railway station. The meter gauge section of this railway station has only one platform - and the train entered into the sole platform at 1731hrs - a minute behind schedule. Interestingly, there are no connecting trains from Mettupalayam at this time! It would've been thoughtful of the railways to run atleast a passenger train from Mettupalayam to Coimbatore connecting to the train from Ooty!Meanwhile, do check-out my video from this journey on YouTube!
Journey in a Nutshell:
Train Number: 06137 Udagamandalam - Mettupalayam Passenger Special
Loco link: X-37399 of Coonoor/Mettupalayam loco shed
Coach: D1, SCZ 41 based at Mettupalayam
Coach Maintenance: 10/10
Bedroll: Not Applicable
Catering: Not Applicable
This is purely a tourist service as well. This journey is an interesting one, and perhaps one rail buffs must do. I would recommend travelling from Mettupalayam to Coonoor instead - I felt the nauseating smell and smoke could be a real damper to the experience! Go do it!