India is known for its vast and diverse railway network, but one of its most unique and charming trains is the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR), a Unesco World Heritage site that runs through the Western Ghats Mountain range in South India. The NMR is the slowest train in India, taking nearly five hours to cover a distance of 46km from the town of Mettupalayam at the foothills of the Nilgiris up to the hill station of Ooty. But speed is not the point of this journey; rather, it is the sheer joy of riding in a train that passes through 16 tunnels, 250 bridges and 208 serpentine curves, offering stunning views of tea plantations, valleys and forests along the way.
The NMR is also a marvel of engineering, dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was built by the British colonial rulers to connect the lowlands with the summer resort of Ooty. The train uses a rack and pinion system to climb gradients of up to 1 in 12ft, making it the steepest climb in Asia. The train is powered by a steam engine for the first part of the journey, and then switches to a diesel engine for the rest. The steam engine is a nostalgic reminder of the past, with its distinctive whistle and billowing smoke.
The train has a mix of passengers, from locals who use it for commuting or trading, to tourists who come to experience the scenic beauty and heritage of the Nilgiris. The train has two classes: first and second, with the former offering slightly more comfort and space. The tickets are cheap, costing less than £10 for a round trip. The train also has a refreshment car, where passengers can buy snacks and drinks.
The journey is full of excitement and wonder, as the train chugs along the mountain side, crossing bridges and tunnels, and stopping at quaint stations along the way. The passengers cheer and clap when the train enters a dark tunnel or emerges into a bright valley. The windows are wide open, allowing passengers to enjoy the fresh air and take pictures of the scenery. Some passengers even climb onto the roof of the train, like Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan did in his famous song sequence Chaiyya Chaiyya, which was shot entirely on top of this train.
The NMR is not just a mode of transport, but a destination in itself. As one passenger said, “When you get into the train, it is like you enter another dimension.” The NMR is a testament to the history, culture and nature of the Nilgiris, and a must-do for anyone visiting South India.