Part 3 – The Nilgiri Toy Train to Mettupalayam

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The Tirunelveli-Hapa Express passes through the Vazhani Hills

The Tirunelveli-Hapa Express passes through the Vazhani Hills

The Tirunelveli-Hapa Express is an odd creature, running just two (consecutive) days of the week on a 3-day journey between two relatively obscure towns at opposite ends of the country. It doesn’t seem hugely successful – AC class at least was pretty empty when I boarded and even unreserved General class seemed to have some room. While identical in it’s two-tone blue exterior, the inside of each coach demonstrated that this was a Western Railway train, the utilitarian light blue upholstery of the Southern Railway replaced with a much more refined brown, offset with deep red berth curtains. Conversely, Southern’s nice hessian rope chai cup holders gave way to metal contraptions that resembled medieval instruments of torture

Moments after getting my bag shoved out of the way, the TTE came around and, glancing at my reservation, informed me in a matter-of-fact way, that the train would not be running via Madgaon, where I was due to alight in the horrifically early hours of the morning for a connection to Hospet, due to a diversion. If I wanted to get to Madgaon, it seemed, I was at the mercy of what the TTE described as ‘some other trains’ from Shoranur Junction. Without a data connection on my phone, faced with a TTE who didn’t seem all that inclined to provide information, I was really wishing I’d invested 10 rupees in Trains At A Glance from Ernakulam Junction’s bookstall. A problem on the line, I asked? No information was forthcoming. It was, by implication, a last-minute commercial decision.

Stopped in the forest outside Shoranur Junction.

Stopped in the forest outside Shoranur Junction.

The Express sped north – more palm trees, more paddy fields – into the rain that had threatened all day. Soon, huge red puddles stood on every platform and village street. North of Thrissur, we were in attractive low, wooded hills, the line curving to and fro, the locomotive up front – a diesel, inexplicably, on this electrified main line – struggling with the weight of the lengthy train on the grades. We came to a lengthy halt just outside Shoranur, a major junction in the Keralan midlands. Now a counter-rumour was spreading, that the diversion was due to a derailment, not for planned reasons. “What a mess this train has become,” exclaimed a man beside me, with hurt pride, though his main complaint was that the computer reservation system had split his family up around the coach. “And no pantry car!”, he wailed, as a final injustice came to mind.

Tiring of the rumour mill, I went and stood by the open door and listened to the sounds of the forest that train was stood silently in. On the other side was a tiny hamlet, with a little fruit and groceries stall beside a road. Normally serving perhaps a hundred local inhabitants, they had just hit payday. A 17-coach, pantry-car-less train with probably near a thousand people on board had stopped outside their shop. The family’s boy was wandering below the windows, selling packs of snacks, bananas and water. So good was the trade that every few moments he had to scramble back down the embankment to replenish his supplies.

Over the Bharatapuzha River by Shoranur

Over the Bharatapuzha River by Shoranur

By the time we reached Shoranur Junction, a revised plan had been formed. It was clear by now that there had, indeed, been a freight train derailment further up the coast line, suggesting that it wouldn’t just be our train that would have difficulty getting to Madgaon. I would live the ruined city of Hampi until next time and instead strike off into the nearby Nilgiri mountains, famed for alleged blue-ness and tea, working my way over to pick up my planned train up to Mumbai, which conveniently started in Coimbatore, near the foot of the range. Shoranur Junction was in controlled chaos, its platforms full of badly-delayed expresses, hundreds of confused passengers milling about, staff unclear as to where or when the trains were going. And if the passengers weren’t all harried enough, they were further admonished by the quotation written on each of the station’s departure boards, for which any railway company would surely kill –

I tell you, not a single passenger travel without a proper ticket, passenger should consider the Railways as their own property and look after them well. They should keep the compartments clean. They should not smoke and spit as they like, then only I will be able to say that we have attained true independence in India Mahatma Gandhi.

It was unclear why there would be any tourists in Shoranur, frankly – the town’s main attraction, so far as I could see, was a tree with an inordinate number of blackbirds in it immediately outside the station. Nevertheless, I installed myself in a Tourist Home for the night. Its attached restaurant had two reception desks, while the hotel had just one. Inevitably, I first visited the two former ones, asking for a room, to the mild exasperation of the restaurant staff.

One immediate positive demonstrated itself from this turn of events – the discovery that Shoranur Junction’s Vegetarian Refreshment Room (being a major station, it wasn’t a Light Refreshment Room) serves up possibly the best massala dosa in the known world (or more likely in Palakkad District), beneath the twinking LEDs adorning pictures of Khrishna and Jesus. Bets were being firmly hedged, but I think the chef could probably wheedle his way into the paradise of whichever religion turns out to be right, after a short culinary demonstration.


I was back on Shoranur’s platforms, a few moments walk from the convenient Tourist Home, at 6am, the short night’s sleep made somewhat shorter by near non-stop firecrackers for a local temple ceremony. My train awaited, an overnight express from Thiruvananthapuram, about to start its last leg up the short branch line to Nilambur Road. Pleasantly surprised to find a 3-tier AC coach, I scanned the reservation list and grabbed a lower side berth that was not in use north of Shoranur. The TTE was fast asleep in the linen cupboard, obviously more comfortable there than in his pull-down berth. I decided not to disturb him. We set off on the dot of six, immediately into the countryside, scrubby arable fields divided up by low causeways of earth which also served as paths. We were clearly travelling through a heavily Islamic area, minarets appearing both on mosques and – in miniature – on private homes. The express skipped the very smallest halts, but screeched to a stop at other remote platforms, shaded from the gentle morning sun by creepers, to allow surprisingly large numbers of people to alight. One thing I was learning quickly – a rural area in India rarely equals a lightly populated area.

Nilambur Road, a terminus among the teak trees.

Nilambur Road, a terminus among the teak trees.

Beyond Angodhpuram, the forests – composed mainly of the teak trees for which the area is renowned – became denser and the houses somewhat fewer. At pretty Vaniyambalam we crossed the southbound local, which began moving before we halted, leading to some impressive flying jumps from the chai wallahs, large metal flasks of hot water and all, who wanted to head back down the line rather than spend profitless hours hanging around at the terminus. The train glided on through the woods and came to a final rest at Nilambur Road, the end of the line – a couple of platforms, an ochre station house and many trees, nothing more. The addition of the suffix ‘Road’ to any station miles from where it is meant to serve was clearly a colonial export from the erstwhile Great Western Railway. ‘Parkway’, it seemed, never reached India.

With the rails at an end, I needed road transport eastwards through the mountains towards Udhagamandalam (known to all but the sternest of bureaucrats as Ooty, and henceforward by me as well). An enterprising auto-rickshaw driver offered to take me to Vazhikadavu, a few miles away on the Kerala/Tamil Nadu state border, the internal frontier apparently forming some kind of cut-off point for both the state and private bus operators plying the road. The little engine puttering gamely, we began to climb slightly into the Nilgri foothills shortly after we had passed through the small town of Nilambur itself, introducing a new terror in auto-rickshaw travel – the blind bend. Obviously, you take the shortest route through it.

Vazhikadavu bus station

Vazhikadavu bus station

Dumped, remarkably in one piece, at Vazhikadavu’s roadside bus station, I enquired about buses to Ooty. Two elderly men, for whom the bus station appeared to be the centre of their social world, assured me that a bus would come at around nine. A succesion of brightly-painted private buses and rusty state coaches appeared along the road, pausing briefly under the palm trees that surrounded the bus station, but each enquiry to the conductor as to whether his Malayalam-script destination board said Ooty was met with blank faces or amusement.

I need not have worried. It turned out that intelligence regarding my destination had been shared with all the men sitting around, whiling away the idle hours by watching buses come and go. There was, therefore, a collective shout of “Ooty!” when a scruffy private bus pulled into the village at some alarming pace and slammed on its brakes a little up the road. I ended up with a seat overlooking the driver, with a fine view over the large Leyland gearbox and out of the windscreen, the view partially obscured, as was the driver’s with swinging garlands.

The main road through the Nilgiris, from the Ooty Bus

The main road through the Nilgiris, from the Ooty Bus

The bus managed to travel at least 200m before the driver pulled over for breakfast, but eventually we were on our way, passing the checkpoints for the state border ahead – excise and commercial taxes – who took no great interest in a bus, dealing instead with a steady queue of brightly painted lorries. Almost immediately, the road began climbing into the wooded slopes of the Nilgiris. For about the next 50 miles, the road was never straight as it rose and fell against the mountains – it was just about wide enough for a bus and lorry to pass if they edged past each other carefully, taking care of the hundreds of metres of precipitous drop on one side. This meant, of course, that buses and lorries actually passed each other at full speed, the drivers using every inch of the road and some of the verge as well. Things got particularly interesting if a motorbike was in the mix as well, though at least the gradients stopped auto-rickshaws from joining in the fun. A possible addition to the mêlée was advertised, with a Notice stating that the highway was crossing an Elephant Corridor and that they should be given right of way. Alas, none appeared, so I was unable to verify if there really was one bit of road traffic that Indian bus drivers would give way to.

For a short while, the road passed through dense thickets of what I thought at first was bamboo, but which a large, educational Notice later informed me – see, Notices can be useful – was germplasm of rattan.  Just before the first watershed, we crossed into Tamil Nadu state, shortly after which the first tea plantations appeared, coating the summits of the hills above the steep, wooded slopes.

Into the tea plantations, on the Nilgiri bus

Into the tea plantations, on the Ooty bus

For what is in fact a highly intensive form of agriculture, tea plantations make for a very aesthetically pleasing landscape, the shiny surface of the leaves producing waves of light over the hillsides as the sunlight catches them, the plantations dotted with neat huts, tall trees and the occasional, distant, slowly moving tea picker. To say, not completely inaccurately, that it looks like the hills have been coated with neatly trimmed privet hedges makes the whole set-up sound far less attractive than the reality.

We reached the half-way point of the journey in the rather ugly – though beautifully situated in the bowl of the mountains – town of Gudalur, where I prayed earnestly to the divine gods of bus travel that no parent on board would buy their child one of the plastic horns being touted around the bus stand. It worked. That said, the only child on the bus to come to my attention was the small girl sitting next to me who shyly offered me a coffee-flavoured sweet. I think it was because I looked so petrified at the oncoming traffic and the huge drop to our left. I’d now mastered auto-rickshaw travel with my eyes open (most of the time), now for mountain buses…

Beyond Gudalur we climbed again, this time to a summit clad in the immensely tall, straight, pale trunks of a eucalyptus plantation, providing a remarkable avenue to drive through. At Finger Point there was a family of monkeys in the road; at Naduvattam, a goat fight. Eventually, the road flattened out a little, passing sparkling green lakes in a hidden valley. By the roadside, countless little stalls sold mooli, along with carrots of a near fluorescent orange, suggesting the soil was good for something other than tea.

Squeezing through the mountain roads

Squeezing through the mountain roads

After a period of being comfortably half-empty, the bus was now picking up passengers at every little hamlet, becoming heavily loaded and really struggling up the last few hills, the gearbox next to me becoming increasingly warm as we ground up even slight gradients at walking pace. Monkeys sitting on bridge parapets looked on in benign amusement as the driver and conductor, communicating with each other at opposite ends of the bus via bell signals, tried to squeeze just a few more passengers on.

Approaching Ooty, we entered a national park. This meant, of course, lots of Notices. One set out Five Rules For Helping To Protect Ecosystems, three of which were different was of phrasing ‘Don’t litter’. Because the point was emphasised so strongly, visitors had decided to ignore it especially hard. One of the mists for which Ooty is famous descended a little as we came closer, giving Nilgiri mountains their trademark blue hue.

Ooty may well have its charms apart from its location (guidebook says “no, it doesn’t”), but they aren’t at its sprawling bus terminus or the smelly river beside it.

Passengers and pine saplings are loaded onto the mountain train at Ooty.

Passengers and pine saplings are loaded onto the mountain train at Ooty.

The railway station, conveniently close to the buses, at the terminus of the narrow gauge mountain railway, is very pleasant however, with something called a Railway Garden out front and a slight colonial aura to its green platform awnings. Very pleasant, that is, if you can see it through the crowds gathered for this popular but rather limited train service. I immediately discovered that the once-daily train down the hill to Mettupalayam, which I had been assured was at 3pm, was now at 2pm. It was already 1.15, so plans to dig out the charms of Ooty – erstwhile Snooty Ooty, the select hill station – fell by the wayside. That just left a few minutes to kill wondering why numerous parcels of delightful-smelling pine branches (with needles still attached) were piled up on the platform waiting to be loaded on to the train’s luggage van. Far too small, trunk-wise, to be useful firewood. Maybe someone just liked the smell.

The little train was literally at capacity – and somewhat beyond. Without a reservation, I inveigled my way into the General class queue (the stationmaster, while impressed by the Indrail pass, told me there was no chance of getting on, but invited me to join the queue anyway, I think to get me out of his office) and was one of the last to squeeze into the twelve-seater compartments, into which we had fitted thirteen. The train set off slowly, behind the diminutive diesel locomotive, the track squeezing between tea plantations and people’s homes. Towards the back of the train, we got several moments warning of each tunnel, as those in the front carriages wailed or shrieked loudly at the sudden dark. The line meandered high along contours and ridges, the descent barely perceptible at this stage. Below us, brightly coloured villages tumbled down hillsides covered in tea and eucalyptus. Ooty’s sizeable influence as a hill station was evidenced by the train calling at stations with Anglicised names like Lovedale (‘Retiring Rooms For Repose And Relaxation. Contact the Station Master’) and Wellington (‘Cleanliness is a Habit Clean Habit Make Clean Station’ [their lack of punctuation]).

Steam locomotive depot, Coonor

Steam locomotive depot, Coonor

Before long we were at Coonor, another bloated hill station, its houses spilling over many hills. Passing the depot, Southern Railways rack locomotive number 2 had steam up, ready to take over from the diesel for the rest of the journey to Mettupalayam. The train backed into the station, past the very English signal box, and the diesel departed with two of the coaches – only three could be handled down the steep ghat section. With the remaining carriages now even more crowded – we were up to fifteen passengers by now – locomotive number 2 coupled up and we headed off downhill, one of just two scheduled steam services left on Indian Railways (the other is the train uphill in the morning!).

The lack of artifice with which Indian Railways run this line – despite calling it a Toy Train – is fun. In their hearts, they know this operation is 95% tourist attraction now – it takes almost twice as long as the bus from Coonor to Mettupalayam and no-one really wants to go to Mettupalayam anyway – but they continue to run it as a full part of the national network. The same ticketing system, the same classes, the same incredibly cheap fares (the subsidy doesn’t bear thinking about), the same union election posters on depot and station walls, the same rubbish connections with other services. They run it as steam out of pure practicality – it is India’s only rack-and-pinion railway, they have functioning steam locomotives fitted with pinions and the line is hardly worth commissioning a bespoke diesel fleet for, so the steam trains soldier on – some a century old – obviously well cared for. One day a Minister for Railways, quite possibly the next one (Narendra Modi is keen to privatise some of India Railway’s functions) will look at the line and ask hard questions. Sic gloria transit mundi, as they don’t say in Tamil.

Mountain village, near Coonor

Mountain village, near Coonor

Just outside Coonor, the loco engaged the rack and we crawled down increasingly severe gradients. The rack system works against gravity being much help downhill, so Number 2 as worked hard, steam vapour droplets often filling the carriage and the distinct aroma of burning oil being very evident in the rock-hewn tunnels. When topography required a brief stretch uphill, it seemed almost as though the locomotive was taking a breather. The scenery was, frankly, incredible. At this altitude in April (early summer in India), the wild flowers were stunning – bright blue vines, stunning orange things and also some purple stuff. To actually look them up would be to infer I have some botanical knowledge, a little of which is clearly a dangerous thing as a disagreement as to some flowers’ identity caused a distinct sulk between a couple in my compartment.

The train had left the eucalyptus groves behind above Coonor and we were now back at tea level, the bushes covering the lower slopes of the highland valleys, with an occasional whitewashed planter’s hut among them. From this close, the pattern of twisting paths between the bushes made the landscape look a little as though it was covered in bright green cracked earth.

How hard the locomotive had been worked was demonstrated by its thirst when we stopped at Hillgrove station, halfway down, to refill the water tanks.

Passengers, monkeys and locomotive are refreshed at Hillgrove

Passengers, monkeys and locomotive are refreshed at Hillgrove

This gorgeous little station, alone on its hillside apparently miles from any habitation, was the perfect little Indian Railways halt – the ochre-painted building, neatly tended gardens and a tea stall. Hillgrove had the added attraction of many, many monkeys, mainly inhabiting the tiled roof, who hopped down as soon as the train arrived. They did very well out of the passengers, especially those with small children (that applies to both monkeys and passengers). Around half of one of the two bhajis I bought from the tea counter ended up with the monkeys – and very lucky monkeys they were too, as they were good bahjis.

With both locomotive and passengers replenished, we continued downhill steadily – at Hilgrove the line was still over 1000m above sea level. From here, the line ran along a precipitous ledge, high above a valley, the plains visible in the distance a long, long way down. On the guard-rail-less bridges over side ravines, we could have been a slowly descending (wooden) plane. It was in this area that the railway shots in David Lean’s A Passage to India were filmed – and nothing much has changed since then. After a long, slow, spectacular descent we reached Kallar, now with passengers riding on the carriage footboards, Dr Aziz-style – schoolchildren who had hopped aboard the pedestrian-paced train as we passed the closed Adderley station. Kallar was a little more workaday than Hillgrove – it actually had a village attached, though I doubt anyone of its inhabitants actually used the train, many were clearly employed by the railway as track gangmen. Nevertheless, the stationmaster’s house had a fantastically tended garden. Helps to have only two trains a day to hand the token to and flag away, I suppose.

Tea plantations, from the Nilgiri Mountain train

Tea plantations, from the Nilgiri Mountain train

The rack section ended here and the train picked up a somewhat smarter place across the plains to Mettupalayam. In its sprawling suburbs, families with young children turned out on their balconies to wave at the passing steam train, despite the regularity of its passage. Whistling to a halt at Mettupalayam, passengers and sacks of pine saplings were unloaded and the train shunted off to do it all over again tomorrow. With more than an hour before the broad gauge connection to Coimbatore, I brought chai (hopefully local) and decided to catalogue the rooms I would pass if I walked up the platform of this little station. They were:

Combined Fruit and Tea Stall

Duty Train Lighting Staff

Senior Section Engineer (C&W)

Supervisor’s Rest Room

VIP Lounge

Station Manager

Station Master on Duty

First Class Waiting Hall

Railway Protection Force

Duties finished for the day, the Nilgiri Mountain train heads to Mettuplalayam depot

Duties finished for the day, the Nilgiri Mountain train heads to Mettuplalayam depot

Retiring Rooms

Pay And Use Toilet

Waiting Room (Ladies)

Parcel Office

Vegetarian Restaurant

After the Toy Train’s slow trundle, the Nilgiri Express’ uneventful short race through the dark to Coimbatore was dull. This was a prosperous train – linking the booming cities of Coimbatore and Chennai overnight, it had six air-conditioned carriages in various, compared to the maximum of two on any train I had travelled on so far. Without a reservation for my short trip down the branch, I found a berth not booked until Coimbatore – my old favourite, coach A1, berth 23, and threw myself at the mercy of the TTE. I won’t mention that his white trousers urgently needed a fresh pressing, as he was jollity itself and nothing was a problem, no, not at all, sir. And I’d finally mastered the meaning of the Indian head wobble – looking decidedly like a shake of the head, it actually signified ‘yes, you’re welcome, not at all, thank you’, in one succinct movement.

Coimbatore, or rather the one block I saw of it, seemed young, lively and bright. And that block provided me with what I needed – a clean room, in a hotel with a tank of piranhas in the lobby (I didn’t, strictly speaking, need the piranhas), a pleasant dinner, and a train out in the morning.

< The Backwaters Ferry to Allapuzha ¦ The Lokmanya Tilak Express to Kalyan Junction >

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