Coonoor is situated 6,000 feet above
sea level at the southeast corner of the Nilgiri plateau and at the head of
the principal pass from the plains. Up this Ghat runs a road 21 miles long
and a rack railway 16 ¾ miles from Mettupalaiyam in Coimbatore
district. The place was constituted a municipality in 1866. Coonoor remained
a terminus for the Nilgiri line for eight years. The extension from Coonoor
to Ootacamund was constructed by the Government of India and the line was
opened up to Fernhill on September 15, 1908, and up to Ootacamund, a month
later. Rack system was discarded for this extension though the ruling
gradient is as severe as 1 in 23. The Ooty terminus was named Udagamandalam,
the Tamil word for Ootacamund.
The main feature of this line is the unique rack system and the equally
unique and complicated locomotives. To quote from Sir Guilford L. Molesworth's
report of 1886: "The locomotive used for working on the Abt System has
two distinct functions: first, that of traction by adhesion as in an
ordinary loco and second, that of traction by pinions acting upon the rack
The brakes are four in number-two hand brakes action by friction and two
acting by preventing the free escape of air from cylinder and thus using
compressed air in retarding the progress of the engine. The former are used
for shunting whilst the latter for descending steep gradients. One of the
hand brakes acts on the tyres of the wheels in the ordinary manner and the
second acts on grooved surfaces of the pinion axle but can be used in those
places where the rack is laid. Even after hundred years, the brake system on
Nilgiri locomotives is as intricate and cumbersome as it was in 1886.
The train journey from Chennai to Metupalaiyam then took just over 17 hours
and cost Rs 20 first class and another 20 rupees to cover the remaining 33
miles up the steep mountain road to Coonoor and Ootacamund by the 'Nilgiri
carrying Company's Mail and Express Tonga Service' while heavy
baggage had to be sent bullock cart. The only alternative was to hire a pony
and arrange for luggage to be taken up by individual baggage carriers using
the shorter but even steeper old road to Coonoor.
The Present Scenario
Nowadays, the traveller from Ootacamund leaves Chennai central station on
the evening Nilgiri Express at 9.00 p.m. and arrives at Mettupalaiyam at
7.10 am. After a 10 hour journey. There he merely crosses the platform to
join the metre gauge train which leaves at 7.25 am. And reaches
Udagamandalam at 11.40 a.m. in less than 15 hours. The Nilgiri Railway (NMR)
is a feat of engineering unique in the east.
line is a metre gauge, practically level for the first four and a half
miles, to Kallar at the immediate foot of the hills. As soon as the train
leaves Kallar, the rack rails appears and the long climb begins. In the next
12 miles to Coonoor, the line rises 4,363 feet curving almost continuously
as it clings to the mountainside, crossing lofty viaducts or tunnels, the
longest being 317 feet in length. The gradient posts read one in twelve and
a half with monotonous consistency.
Construction expenses were heavy because in addition to the tunnels, a big
bridge over the river bhawani at the foothills was necessary. Besides this
large bridge, 26 other bridges smaller in size, were constructed and heavy
expenditure incurred in rock-cutting and blasting.
To quote a south Indian railway spokesman in 1935: "those engineers
must have been lovers of nature when they decided on the alignment."