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Journey down the Blue Mountain

Chugging down the slopes of the Blue Mountain in a train aptly named the Nilgiri Mountain Train or the Blue Mountain Railway, I had a journey that would stay in my memory for a life time. A downhill journey of about 3.6 hours, took over a distance of 46 km (28 miles) through 208 curves, 16 tunnels, and 250 bridges.

The Nilgiri Mountain Rail (NMR) line is the steepest one in Asia and is perhaps the slowest rail routes in India. Notwithstanding the steep curves and drops of the slopes, the trains average a speed of 10.4km per hour with the track rising at a gradient of one in 12. The main feature of this line is the unique alternate biting system (ABT) rack system, wherein the sleepers between the running rails are fitted with special toothed-rack rails. The train is fitted with cog wheels that mesh with the rack rail and climb up or down with ease.

The actual trip was thrilling to say the least! Every bend gave a panoramic view of the valley below as it revealed itself when the mists slowly parted. The calm and uniformity of jade green terrace tea gardens studded with the colourfully attired locals plucking tea leaves made for wonderful wallpaper pictures. This image was complimented by the brilliance of the forest flame flower as its branches bent under the weight of the Hoopoe. This peaceful feeling was occasionally shaken when the train passed over bridges and we saw the sheer drop below as waterfalls thundered down in full force.

A reminiscent of the colonial past are the names of the stations; Runnymede, Hill Grove, Coonoor, Wellington, Ketti and Lovedale which have thankfully not come under the renaming wave overtaking the country. The cleanliness of the quaint stations with their thatched roofed platforms and wooden benches complemented their colonial names. For that matter even the compartments of the train were well maintained and clean and the only difference between a general compartment and the first class were the seats! Being a small train, it did not have built in washrooms and one had to depend on the washrooms on the platforms for relief, which thankfully were also very clean.

As the railway line wound up its way down incomparably scenic landscapes and meanders through extensive rice fields, and impressive 21km long rock sections, its easy to understand why Mount Stuart called the whole road leading to Ooty from Mettupalayam, “One long botanical debauch.”

On enquiry CIJ is told that unlike other stations across the state, cleaning on the NMR is done in house and does not involve any outsourcing or contractors. Ooty station is looked after by the Udagamandalam Station Master. He has a team of two sweepers cum porters who follow a schedule of cleaning the station and the railway tracks after each of the four trains leaves the station. Twice a week the platforms are washed with water. Similarly all the stations along the route have one or two sweeper cum porters responsible for the cleaning of that particular station. Cleaners at Mettupalayam use high power jet cleaners and flipper cleaners. Cleaning along the tracks or the ‘permanent way’ is done by the engineering branch at mid sections and the medical staff at the station jurisdiction. This cleaning is carried out by the 95 member strong departmental engineering Gang staff as and when the vegetation along the tracks increases. All 31 metre gauge coaches are cleaned manually by the mechanical department of Salem Division. The department employs six persons in each of the three shifts per day for this purpose.

For people used to seeing dirty stations all across the country, the cleanliness of NMR is a welcome change. Ooty’s plastic free environment, combined with the NMR’s cleanliness and sense of hygiene completes and complements the beauty of the Nilgiris as a whole.

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