The joy of journey in a toy train
Train journeys have always remained close to my heart. On a personal level, I like traveling by train because it gives me the option to read, sleep, eat, relax – all while enjoying the scenery go whoosh from the comfort of a train’s seat. It is also a wonderful time to introspect as every second you literally leave your world behind. A big part of enjoying traveling lies in going slow and making our way across unseen lands. Late last year, we got a chance to experience this in a train. An extremely slow train - The famous Nilgiri Mountain Rail also famously known as Toy Train. The Toy train runs between Ooty (also known as Udagamandalam or Ootacamund), a renowned hill station in Tamil Nadu, India and Mettupalayam. This 100 year old railway line was named as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 ensuring this rare and unique rail is protected. (This along with 2 other railway lines - Darjeeling and Kalka to Shimla were identified by UNESCO).
The Nilgiri railway line was first proposed in 1854 but the work only started in 1891. It was ultimately completed and opened by the British in 1908; which makes it more than a century old now. The railway track is the steepest in Asia scaling from 326 meters to 2206 meters in a span of 46 kms. It represented the latest technology of its time using the ABT (Alternate Biting System) or the rack and pinion system to climb the steep gradient. The railway track has 2 additional racks in the middle. The toy train has pinions which climb up the racks just like a person climbs the ladder. While going uphill, the engine is actually at the back pushing rest of the train and while coming downhill, the engine is in front preventing the train from running off. Nilgiri Mountain Railway is one among the very few railways in the world which uses steam locomotives. The train covers 16 tunnels, 250 bridges and 208 curves. The toy train runs once each day from Mettupalayam to Ooty at 7 AM in the morning and starts its return journey from Ooty at 2 PM. Mettupalayam is around 30 kms from Coimbatore and one can take a government bus, cab or train from Coimbatore. Coimbatore is a major city and is well connected through roads, rail and Air to rest of India.
To catch the toy train on time, we ensured reaching Mettupalayam a day before and staying overnight there. We got up very early in the morning, got our breakfast packed and though we had reserved seats; we decided to reach the railway station an hour before the train starts. On reaching the station, the first glimpse of the train gave us an adrenaline rush. The train looks marvelous with a tint of blue, green and cream with wooden coaches which blend well with the nature through which it was destined to pass. It is nothing short of an engineering marvel and its builders would have had to work strenuously to overcome the challenges of nature – especially the sloppy terrains and unfavorable weather conditions. We had our reservations in the first class coach which to our surprise was the very first coach of the train and the only thing separating us from the nature was a big glass window (as the engine doesn't pull the bogies but pushes them from behind). The old bogie we sat in had entrance doors on both the sides. Only 6 people can accommodate a single small compartment of the toy train. We slid the window down and made ourselves comfortable.
The clock was yet to strike 7, so we decided to step down and check out the station and the steam engine. Mettupalayam is a small town and the railway station has an old retro look. From the station one can see a Railway Museum nearby. On the platform, few people had lined up in a queue to occupy seats in the general compartment. The engine was being prepared for the long journey by a few people. Everyone watched with curiosity and bated breath as the engine shunted in with the toy train. Few breakfast vendors were roaming about, selling south Indian delicacies to the passengers. Soon the driver blew the loud horn that indicated the onset of the journey. The excitement of the passengers, at that point of time, is beyond description. We settled in our seats as the train set off slowly.
The sweet whistle of the toy train as if a bird hidden in the woods singing aloud, the cool wind blowing as the old machine works hard sweating and panting to ensure we have a comfortable ride. Behind us, brightly colored villages tumbled down hillsides covered in tea and eucalyptus. From the suburbs nearby, children came out of their houses to wave us goodbye. The train started picking up some pace now and soon we left the plains and saw the hills approaching. The steep land started to show up and the train slowed down a little. From here, the train runs at an average speed of 10 km per hour, making it the slowest train of India. However, the slow pace was advantageous for us to behold the mesmerizing beauty of the hills that never ceased. We used to lean out of the windows, wave hands to passengers in the other bogies and hoot on seeing a tunnel ahead. The zig-zag curvy track took us in between the hills, bridges, tunnels, forests and what not!
We started to feel the chill in the weather slowly as we passed through the mist and fog. The birds and trees were dancing along as the train passed through the stunning gorges and arch bridges. Our hearts were singing to the tunes of A. R. Rahman's Bollywood song “Chaiya Chaiya” which was shot with superstar Shahrukh Khan dancing right on top of this train. Occasionally, we would see and exclaim on a cloud of fumes emanating from the steam engine. We got warnings of each tunnel, as people wailed or shrieked loudly at the sudden darkness. The train halted at the small stations in between; first at Kallar and then at Hillgrove. The halt at Hillgrove was long. We thought that the purpose of the long halt was for the passengers to stretch out and freshen up as the toy train had no lavatories; but the real reason of the halt was to cool down steam engine, refill the water tanks and oil its aging bolts. The gorgeous little station of Hillgrove is situated miles apart from any habitation. A tunnel was just beside the station where the passengers flung to click photographs. With both the steam engine and passengers replenished, we continued uphill steadily. The railway line ran along the precipitous ledge, high above the valley. The waterfalls grew in strength and the views became absolutely heart clenching. The scenery was, frankly, incredible. We also found a foreigner clicking pictures of the moving toy train from sidelines. We were surprised to see him more than once and then we started clicking him too.
Dense forests led to raw views of the green gigantic cultivated steps of terrace farming, slopes covered with houses and streams of water gushing down the hills. While the nature showered its charm on us, the journey continued with its excitement and eye soothing views. Soon we could see the gradual rise of tree plantations and we realized that we were reaching Conoor, where we had a 20 minute halt. Smooth roads accompanied us in Coonoor. We had to bid adieu to the steam engine as it made its way to shed for some rest. A diesel engine was ready to take over for the rest of the journey to Ooty. Finally, the train embarked on this second leg of journey, this time significantly faster because of changed engine and gentle gradual path. The journey continued to charm its visitors with equal zest winding its way through the best of nature though people were no longer peeking out of their windows at curves to take selfies with steam engine. But this did not seem to have discouraged the foreigner who had accompanied us throughout our journey from sidelines. We would continue to find him standing at odd points trying to get some perfect shots of the train. After halt at a few small stations like Wellington and Lovedale, we finally reached Udagamandalam aka Ooty. With heavy heart we bid farewell to the beautiful train ride and the friends we made there.
Though it was an amazing journey, something each one of us would remember for a long time to come, I could not help notice the amount of smoke created by the steam engine. Despite many positives, it seemed like a ruckus created by humans in a quiet silent beautiful forest. All in the name of history and heritage. While clinging to past is human nature and respecting, preserving the legacy is common sense, I cannot help but question our common sense in respecting, preserving the nature. And what should we chose when these 2 conflict?
By the way, couple of days later when we were in Coimbatore airport catching a flight back home, we saw a familiar face in far distance. On a closer look, we realized it was our foreigner friend who had accompanied us all the way from Mettupalayam to Ooty on the sidelines. We had a brief chat with him and realized he was Peter Patt. Director of Destination Management at Tanago, a german based Photography and Rail travel company. He was there to identify best locations along the railway track so that he could organize a tour for professional photographers.
Tips to travel on Ooty Toy train
Reach Coimbatore through flight, rail or road. Catch a train, bus, cab to Mettupalayam. We would suggest reaching one day before to ensure you catch the train on time. There are few limited and basic options in Mettupalayam. There are couple of luxury resorts.
Book your toy train tickets in advance through www.irctc.co.in. The seats are always in demand and get filled pretty fast especially on weekends and holidays. Choose First class. Though the weather is good round the year, going right after the monsoon after September would be ideal.
Hope you liked our experience of journey in a toy train. If you happen to go via toy train to Ooty, do visit Red Hills Resort - a completed isolated hill with amazing views of nilgiri hills and lakes with a standalone resort. You can also club your trip to Ooty with Kodaikanal, also called the princess of hills which is around 4 hours from Coimbatore.