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Nilgiri Mountain Railway, India
pictures and text courtesy of Prabir Mundalir
This page is part of the Living Pictures online photo magazine
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Madras was a major port and southern foothold of the British from the days of the East India Company. Its generally oppressive climate, however, can become unbearable during the hot summer months, and the tender-skinned British officers posted there desperately sought cooler places to escape from the sweltering height of summer.

One of the more adventurous of them, a John Sullivan, located a site in the Nilgiris (literally,' Blue Mountains') on the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats, where the climate closely resembled that of his home country. He built his summer house there in 1820. More of his compatriots followed his example, and the place was soon established as a summer retreat. The original name of the place was Udagamandalam, which the British with characteristic officiousness pronounced and spelt as "Ootacamund". This was later commonly shortened to "Ooty".

The only modes of transport available at the time were horses and ponies and bullock carts. A road was built, which was difficult to negotiate at the best of times, on account of deep gorges and ravines and steep mountainsides, and practically impassable when it rained. The idea of a railway was first proposed in 1854. The Swiss engineer Riggenbach (who invented the Rigi system of mountain railway) arrived in 1882 to undertake the project, but for some reason the deal fell through.

The work was ultimately begun in 1891 by the Nilgiri Railway Company. Manpower was provided by the men of the Madras Army.

A track gauge of one metre - just under three feet - was chosen (the gauge commonly used in India is 5 feet 6 inches - the Broad Gauge, although the Metre Gauge is still found in places).

The route became operational in stages between 1899 (terminating at Coonoor) and 1908 (extended to Ooty).


The starting point of the Mountain Railway is Mettupalayam in the foothills, elevation 330 metres (1070 feet) above sea level. For the first five miles the going is easy, on more or less level terrain until Kallar, where the climb begins. The ascent hereon is so steep (steepest in Asia - average gradient 1 in 24.5, with a maximum of 1 in 12.5) and winding (curves up to 17.5 degrees) that a special Swiss type "rack and pinion" arrangement down the middle of the track was employed to keep the trains from rolling back downhill. This special track was laid for a stretch of around 20 kms up to Coonoor at 6000 feet, comprising the most difficult part of the route, which was completed and opened in 1899. The remaining portion to Ooty is comparatively less severe, so it was decided that conventional track would suffice. After nine years with Coonoor as its terminus, the extension was finally completed and commissioned in 1908, and Ootacamund at 2200 metres (7228 feet) became the final terminus of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway.

Apart from the prospect of the enjoyment of an ideal climate at the destination, a major attraction for tourists is the great scenery enroute - verdant hillsides, deep ravines, river gorges, waterfalls (some so close you have to pull the shutters down to keep from getting wet), trestle bridges so narrow you have the scary feeling your train is suddenly hovering in the air over the earth far far below you, and the occasional wild elephant (Some say they have spotted tigers and mountain lions, though I wouldn't bet on that).


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  This page was last updated on December 23, 2004.

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