The Far South
The Nilagiri Railway
I doubt that the world has many places left where a steam railway climbs to 7300' above mean sea level with a thirteen mile rack section at 1/12½ and the rest adhesion at 1/23; specially places where such a line exists mainly to carry ordinary people rather than tourists. Yet the Nilagiri Railway is all this, and remains so despite the competition of much faster busses – though in 1967 there was a proposal to close the line, which brought forth numerous letters of protest from Britain and India. The letters were heeded.
I have been at Mettupalaiyam, the lower terminus of the Nilagiri line, at various hours of the day. Though I could remember the place on a typical morning with porters running about in the confusion of changing trains after the arrival of the express from Madras, I prefer to recall a midnight arrival one hot season, when, after an hour on the luggage rack coming from Coimbatore, I was decanted onto a vacant tongue of platform. At that hour the metre gauge mountain railway was sleeping, so when I crossed the platform and looked at it, it seemed pretty ordinary, though there was promise in the bulky, squared shapes protruding from the engine shed. I therefore found a concrete bench and lay down to sleep.
At night the presence of the hills could be felt above and ahead, for though indistinct in the overcast sky they were sending down cool and playful breezes. At about 5 a.m. a goods train left to climb them, drawing in to the platform road, waiting with its engine at the back of the train, then pushing out just as the light of day was coming to the dry, stony surroundings of Mettupalaiyam. One could now distinguish the massive blue hills from the altostratus of the sky, yet they were not visually enticing. Far from being romantically Alpine, these hills were one single great rounded lump of old granite. Neither was there anything to look at on broad gauge account – standard WG’s and a 2-8-0 shunter left over from the American wartime supplies – but on metre gauge ….
Well, the goods vans were not particularly remarkable, being of the usual Indian rust-red pressed steel, though they were narrower than usual, and each had a front platform with one lever for rack braking and another for the adhesion brake. The coaching stock, including the rake waiting to work the 0645 departure, were more noteworthy, being at the latest Edwardian, complete with running boards and plenty of iron grips, handles and safety catches. Dressed in the hill livery of blue and cream, it consisted of bogie carriages of six or seven compartments each. Again the uphill end of each carriage had a brakeman’s platform, with specially elaborate platform for the first class-car at the front of each rake. This platform had a wrought iron balustrade and vacuum brake cocks as well as hand levers.
At 6 a.m. there were two engines in steam at Mettupalaiyam, the smaller (this was 1966) being a brown 0-4-4WT with the nameplate ‘SHUNTMASTER’. Such was the style of the Nilagiri Railway, the odd frivolity which differentiated it completely from the Big Brother across the platform, yet never went gay or fairground. The other engine, ‘HERCULES’, was getting ready to propel No. 528 Nilagiri passenger to Ootacamund. It was a member of the X class, all built at Winterthur and providing all the mainline power on the railway. Above side tank level, it looked like an ordinary, if chunky, tank engine, but below! The small, silver-rimmed wheels spelt out 0-8-2, with the drivers in two groups of four connected by slender side-rods. The rack mechanism was suspended in the gap, its external evidence being a pair of wheels about the same size as the drivers, each enclosed in a brake shoe that could be tightened like a leather strap. The large, compounding rack cylinders were above the adhesion ones, driving these supplementary wheels and through them, eventually, the rack pinions. All this gave rise to a nightmare of valve gear; when the engine was working rack its contradictory oscillations were wondrous.
In due time Hercules closed on to the rear of its train and a WG brought the connecting local from Coimbatore. Soon there was standing room only in the six metre gauge carriages, giving a load of over a hundred tonnes. There were people going on holiday and people who lived in the hills and soldiers going there on posting. Soon, too, the brakemen (who have status and qualifications of guards) were at their posts – the driver verified this by whistling sharply, so that a green flag waved from the brake platform of each carriage. The headman on the front platform screwed a squeeze-the-rubber-bulb truck horn on to his brakestand and hung his mackintosh from a corner post, and stood ready in front of the forward-looking windows of first class.
Leaving Mettupalaiyam the main line curved between the engine-shed where ‘Mountain Jewel’ was being prepared to push the following Nilagiri Express, and the nest of dead-end sidings where the 0-4-4 was shunting masterfully. A whistle brought the seven green flags (six carriages and guard) out for a wave, and another cancelled them; Hercules was beginning to lower the train down a 1/35 grade through a dusty town with open drains. The line’s strategy was clear. A valley, taking a diagonal line of weakness, ran steeply up the scarp ahead, breaking the line of cliffs that elsewhere defended the hilltops. We were going downhill to cross the river that issued from that valley; then we would climb its further side. As we neared the hills the forest increased in luxuriance with every furlong, from xerophytic thorny scrub to tall palms with plantains flapping their leaves underneath, and that to green jungle.
Kallar, an easy five miles from Mettupalaiyam, lay exactly on the break of slope at the foot of the hills. Like other stations on the lower part of the Nilagiri railway it had only one signal mast. Though this was on the platform in front of the station office, with an arm facing each way in the American train order tradition, notices fixed well outside the points of the loop told drivers to obey the home signals from there. Just beyond the loop the rack began. It caught under the lead bogie of each carriage and then, with the fireman squatting alongside to supervise, under Hercules also. With its train now tilted onto a 1/12½ climb, the loco surged into rack action, compounding the roar of its rack exhaust over an already rapid beat. It had no difficulty accelerating the train on the grade ……
‘Now, railfan sir, this rack lasts for nearly 13 miles and takes an hour and a half to climb. That’s plenty of time to listen to all the noise that engine is making, and perhaps even to spare a glance or two for the view.’
The rack section had four intermediate stations, several tunnels of which No. 5 was no more than a dripping overhang and one fairly large bridge over a stream whose side-valley it had followed for some time to gain height. The three stations most commonly used for crossings – Adderley, Hillgrove and Runneymede – had brief gaps in the rack with a dead end siding or two striking off beside the double home signal, but at Kateri Road the siding points did not break the continuing rack. At Runneymede it was possible for a train to run into and out of the siding on the flat, but at Adderley and Hillgrove the gap in the rack was too short. Generally uphill (i.e., down) trains were side tracked at these places, so that after cleaning the fire and taking water, the engine would back out of the siding, engage the rack going downhill and with its aid halt and start pushing, getting up enough speed to tide past the gap before engaging again. All this was a skilled operation, what with the weight of the train being on the 1/12½ and the rack cylinders having to be turned off and then on again, gently so as not to break anything.
Above Hillgrove the line left the steep jungly hillside with its views out over the piedmont towards Coimbatore and entered neatly trimmed tea gardens. The head of the valley above Runneymede was wide enough to permit a U turn, from which the track doubled back to select a second narrow valley which suddenly broadened out. The grade eased to1/40 as the rack ended and the train passed above the Coonoor Municipal bus stand to stop at an ordinary platform with ordinary low buildings. This was the ordinary part of an out-of-the ordinary station layout, bisected longitudinally by the main line continuing to Ootacamund, which was up on an embankment reached from the platform by a shunting neck which also gave access to the loco depot and goods shed on the far side of the continuing line. Thus the train leaving Coonoor backed onto the shunting neck, if backed be the right word for the only time that its engine was pulling rather than pushing.
The eleven mile extension to Ooty climbed another couple of thousand feet, but without rack, for the heaviest grade was 1/23.81. However the engine remained at the back of the train and its speed was not much faster than on the rack. It stopped at the military township of Wellington, whose barracks stood among perennially green grass kept short by cows no better-looking than those on the plains, then interrupted some rifle practice by crossing the line of fire. Entering Aravankadu, Hercules obeyed a pictorial notice prohibiting her from blowing sparks into the munitions factory alongside. Pushing up through the planted eucalyptus forest beyond she was again permitted to make sparks, just as she was allowed to waft them over the compact bushes of the tea gardens further on.
Upon reaching 7300' the line started to go downhill, emerging from a tunnel on to some 1/40 past the green headwaters of the lake that is said to beautify Ootacamund. After dividing the lake from the racecourse, the railway terminated in a station that occupied the whole floor of a small upland valley. It was not a grand terminus; a lot of straggly dead ends and a barn of a building, but how neatly the tracks were kept, and how fine the strips of brown ballast and short green grass looked to eyes accustomed to the gravelly plains.