This is one of three small railways that form the Mountain Railways of India world heritage site, the other two being in the north of the country. I chose to make a detour to this one because unlike the other two it uses a rack and pinion system for the steepest part of the route, which made it sound more interesting, technically.
Built between 1891 and 1908, this single track railway is narrower gauge than regular Indian railways (1m rather than 1.6m) and covers a route of approximately 45km, running from Mettupalayam to Ooty which is around 1700m higher up.
The train is short and only runs over the most interesting part of the route twice a day, so tickets are not in plentiful supply, but they are at least bookable via the regular online booking system for Indian railways. I was unable to score a place on the morning uphill service but did get one on the afternoon train coming back down.
I stayed in the nearest large town, Coimbatore, where I arrived at 2am on a train from Thanjavur. After a short sleep I took a bus up to Ooty (proper name Udagamandalam), which was once a British hill station, a retreat from the summer heat. The area is also full of tea plantations.
I arrived an hour and a half before the train was due to leave, which wasn’t quite enough time to do much other than look around town and have a very nice masala dosa. And then I squashed myself into the carriage with a group of lively French tourists and we set off down hill.
The upper 20km of the line are not steep enough to need the rack system and the train was pulled by a diesel locomotive but at Coonoor station the train change engines. The locomotive we were changed to was certainly a steam one but has been identified by one of my more train-aware friends as one of the newer oil-fired (as opposed to coal) engines.
An hour or so later, we stopped again at a tiny station for the loco to take on more water, so we all got out to watch the operation, drink chai from the station refreshment stall and look at the monkeys.
The downhill journey takes about three and a half hours and the scenery is pretty if not jaw-droppinlgy spectacular. The station at the bottom is also on the mainline system, but I took the bus back to Coimbatore for the night before flying to Goa next morning.
Coimbatore is a thriving industrial city rather than a tourist destination. That evening I went out to look for an internet cafe (unsuccessfully) and found a busy shopping district nearby (Indian shops stay open late). I wandered into a three storey sari emporium and amused myself for over an hour admiring the vast range of colours, patterns and fabrics, not to mention the very cheap prices on all but the most luxurious. I managed somehow to stop myself from buying anything, sorely tempted though I was.
There wasn’t much choice on what to build for the Lego model: this is it in all its minimal glory.