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Chugging up the hills
Anand Sankar
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January 21, 2008

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is still the best way to experience the exhilarating rawness of steam locomotion.

I suppose my excitement was all too perceptible as I approached the reservation clerk. "One ticket for the Ooty train," I went. Collecting the ticket, I had to ask him: "So, where is the train?"

His directions pointed me toward the far end of the Mettupalayam Railway Station. A hop over the broad-gauge tracks took me around the modern terminus. Expecting shining brass and the razzmatazz befitting a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I found myself instead at the locomotive marshalling yard, which through all the soot managed to boldly display the year of its completion -- 1886. Hissing away at the entrance was the loco for my journey.

The busy workmen beckoned me into the cavernous darkness of the tooling shed with smiles. Carefully avoiding heaps of slag and junk iron, I watched them ready the loco for the climb to Coonoor. The engineer for the journey soon arrived, forehead freshly smeared with sacred ash and sporting a bandana that featured the stars and stripes.

Boiler full, the loco jerked forward for the shunt to the waiting carriages. It was quite a show for the throng on the platform. There was the unmistakable shrill "Cooohcoooh", followed by the single vertical and twin horizontal columns of white-hot steam. Calling it a moment of pure nostalgia would be an understatement.

The loco was coupled well past the scheduled departure time. A scare over some unclaimed baggage in the guard cabin and processing passengers flashing "e-tickets" added to the delay. Time and technology has caught up with the train and the printed reservation charts pasted onto the carriages were yet another affirmation. Moments before departing, the passengers were brusquely herded into the carriages and protests were met with a firm pointer to the bright print on each carriage: "Footboard travel is strictly prohibited and is a punishable offence."

The train whizzed through Mettupalayam at its maximum speed of 25 kmh. The morning rush hour didn't mind waiting for it at crossings and even managed a cheerful wave. The first stop was Kallar, where in addition to topping up the boiler, final checks were performed on the loco -- all the moving parts were given a judicious dollop of lubricating oil and the gentle tap of a hammer tested them for brittleness. The freshness of the engineer was replaced by glistening sweat as he brute-forced the many valves and levers.

Kallar is also the point where the rack-and-pinion system kicks in to provide the additional traction for the incline ahead, rated among the steepest in the world. The rhythmic chugging was replaced by the labour to generate torque for the waiting 208 curves, 16 tunnels and 250 bridges. Feeling the grade makes one appreciate the wisdom of using the loco to push rather than pull the train, thus ensuring an emergency braking system.

Seated next to me was a young British tourist on his gap year tour of India. He was quite oblivious to the Crown's contribution to the railway as we passed stops named Adderly and Hillgrove. At Runnymede a much older Englishman seated behind me pointed out: "You know that's the little place near the River Thames where the Magna Carta was signed." All the stations en route today serve just as water stops, with Hillgrove the only one offering a hot cup of tea and snacks to passengers.

The views of the lush tropical jungle and steep gorges are breathtaking but the rhythm of the steam loco takes its toll. First it's the babies who snooze, followed by those who are done with the morning newspaper, and finally even the wide-eyed honeymooners. We chugged into Coonoor and were promptly asked: "Why is the train late? Were elephants blocking the track?"

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