Nilgiri Mountain Railway :
Technically Ooty has a railway station. But the railway line to Ooty belongs to the mountain rail league. Means, the regular trains do not operate in this route. Now we are left with two choices as far as the train connections to Ooty. That is Mettupalayam (MTP) and Coimbatore( CBE). Again between the two, Coimbatore is well connected by long distance express trains . In fact there is only one express train that extends to Mettupalayam , which is the Chennai to Mettupalayam Nilgiri Express ( also called the Blue Mountain Express ). Once in Coimbatore you can hire a taxi to Ooty. The distance from Coimbatore to Ooty is about 90 km ( 56 miles ) Also there are plenty of private buses operate in the Coimbatore – Mettupalayam – Ooty route.
Mettupalayam is located mid way between Ooty and Coimbatore, that is about 45 km ( 28 miles ) from Coimbatore.From Mettupalayam you can catch that famous Mettupalayam – Ooty mountain train (the Nilgiri Mountain Railway ) portrayed in the Bollywood movie Dil Se ( Shahrukh & Co dance on this train in the song ‘chhaiyya chhaiyya….’ ). This is a painstakingly slow train ( that’s the whole idea of a mountain train ! ) winds through the scenic Blue Mountain terrain. The train leaves Mettupalayam by 7.10 in the morning. In fact this is a connection train for Ooty for the Blue Mountain Express from Chennai . So it waits for the Ooty bound passengers coming by that train.
Be aware that the Mettupalayam – Ooty train is generally crowded, especially during the holiday seasons. Also there is only one train in this route, though they may operate one more during the peak season. And to top it all , it is a tiny train with limited accommodations. Now if catching the longer Mettupalayam – Ooty train is not a possibility , explore if you can catch one of the many trains from Coonoor to Ooty. Coonoor is a town midway between Mettupalayam and Ooty , with many train services daily to Ooty. This is your best ( and also a more practical ) chance to enjoy the Nilgiri mountain train journey. If you are coming via Coimbatore, catch a bus to Coonoor. It takes about 90 minutes by bus to Coonoor from Coimbatore.
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There are three trains from Coonoor to Ooty ( 7.45 AM; 1.30 PM ; 4.30 PM ). Similarly from Ooty also there are three trains to Coonoor ( 9.15 AM; 12.15 PM ; 6 PM). Also there is a from Ooty to Mettupalayam at 3PM , that is aimed at passenger for the Chennai bound Blue Mountain Express from Mettupalayam. The schedule & routes could change with time. Please check with the railways website for the current and accurate details.Along the railway route , there is an (almost) parallel road connection from Mettupalayam and Ooty. You can always hop on a bus to catch the train from any of the subsequent stations. That is if you’ve just missed a train! The mountain trains are incredibly slow anyway. Typically people travel by the mountain train in one way and for the return journey they catch a bus.
As mentioned earlier , the distance between Mettupalayam and Ooty is 45 km ( 28 miles ). But the mountain train takes an incredible 5 hours to cover this distance. That is the uphill Mettupalayam – Ooty journey. That is because the train has to negotiate more than 200 curves, 250 bridges ( including about 30 viaducts ) and 16 tunnels before it arrives Ooty. The return journey is relatively fast as it takes only about 3 hours 30 minutes, thanks to the downhill path. The local bus cover the same distance in just under 2 hours. So you got the point why people prefer this train only for one way of their journey. Similarly Ooty to Coonoor the distance is about 17km (11 miles). It is a more practical ( in terms of travel time and train schedule ) way to experience the mountain train.
The steepest climb is in the stretch between Kallar and Coonoor, that is about 20 km (12 miles) of the journey. The viaduct crossing between Kallar and is breathtaking and photogenic. Though not very steep , the route till Fern Hill from Coonoor is uphill. And from there it is a gentle downhill slope to the final station, that is Ooty. The railway station is right in the heart of the town. you have the luxury of selecting a seat, try to get a seat by the left side as the train heads to Ooty. This side offers gorgeous view of the valley as the train climbs. The right side is against the wall of the hill, liming your view outside. Be aware that the engine is attached at the rear & front of the train based on the up or down journey. So don’t get fooled in deciding the direction of journey when the train is at waiting at the platform. Though a bit expensive, the first class is less crowded that the much cheaper second class.
The most exotic thing is the steam engine and the track itself. This is one the few rack & pinion type rail track left in the word. The engine as it is the 19th century vintage. The engine uses a cogwheel ( teethed wheel) on a rail with mating teeth in the center of the track to climb the steep uphill. The track in the Mettupalayam – Coonoor section is in fact a three track rail, the center one being the teethed track. The engine driver lowers the rack mechanism as the train approaches the three track and disengages it as it leaves.The engine is always connected at the Mettupalayam end of the train. And the coaches are pushed up all the way to Ooty in its 5 hour journey. The driver can not see the track ahead as the engine is in the rear. On the edge of each carriages stand the signal guards. Practically only the guard in the front can see the track ahead, as the route is riddled with 200 plus curves in its 45km length. The first guard passes the signal to the second , and then to the third and so on. Finally the engine driver gets the cue who drives the engine without really seeing the track ahead. Well, it has been going on like this for more than a hundred years.
The 5 hour journey to cover a distance of 45 km ( 28 miles ) may look silly in the modern times. But it was a thrilling innovation at that point in time. It took nearly 10 days to cover this distance through the thickest of the Nilgiri forests with all its wildness. And with the invent of Nilgiri Mountain Railways, that adventure turned out into a half a day pleasure journey. Nilgiri Mountain Railways ( NMR) has only 8 steam run rack locomotive engines. That may look like a small number in railway operations. But this fleet is the world’s largest surviving railway fleet that uses coal powered steam rack engines.
It almost gives you a feel that you’ve arrived at 19th century, when you arrive at Coonoor. A sprawling railway dock full of vintage steam locos hissing with steam and smoke from all over. The sooth and coal strewn yard adds to the character. Engines chug past back and forth. Another engine at the corner if getting a water refill. It appears as a busy colonial era railway station. This is Coonoor, the headquarters of Nilgiri Mountain Railways. The only odd man out here it seems the mobile phone in your hand when it chides for that unwanted attention.