On July 15, 2005, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR), a marvel of engineering skill, was declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO at Durban as an extension to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
However, even as locals and railway officials gather for celebrations for the eighth year, some have suggested more active measures to keep the NMR engines chugging.
They have pointed out to the statement of southern Railway General Manager, Rakesh Misra who had stated that while it costs about Rs. 5 lakh per day to keep the NMR going, it generated only Rs. 30,000 a day by way of returns.
K. Natarajan, founder of Heritage Steam Chariot Trust, which is organising some of the celebrations, said that there were a number of existing initiatives that could be adopted to increase the revenues of NMR and turn it into a profit making venture in just two years.
The number of coaches in the NMR, in some of its sections, was halved two years ago when the hauling capacity of the coal-fired locomotive went down affecting the services. Of these, nearly half the capacity was taken up by luggage. He suggested that more powerful locomotives that could haul more coaches even in steep gradients could be pressed into service. Use of diesel locomotives was ruled out by officials because the NMR system is run on rack-and-pinion system.
The NMR services on the Coonoor — Udhagamandalam section is hauled by diesel locomotives and the Mettupalayam — Coonoor section by oil-fired steam locomotives. The train is operated using the X Class Swiss locomotives. The number of coaches differs for various sections of the total trip.
A total of 56 could be seated per coach. Around 2,000 passengers travel in NMR daily as travelling while standing was also permitted.
Further, he said that the NMR could generate Rs. 50 lakh per year from providing permission to film shooting. Further, the southern Railways had provided permission to operate the NMR on chartered basis and there were enthusiasts ready to pay Rs. 1 lakh per the trip. However, he claimed that local authorities were yet to give either adequate publicity or permission for such a trip.
The concept of ‘foot plate’ journey — in which passengers could pay additional fees to travel in the engines itself — was once approved but now dropped.
For every tourist visiting The Nilgiris, travelling by NMR at least in one direction is a dream. The train from Mettupalayam to Kallar runs on a normal track and from there it switches to the rack-and-pinion system for easy uphill haul on one of Asia’s steepest tracks. The train chugs along through scenic areas during the 41.8-km journey and negotiates 208 curves, 16 tunnels and 250 bridges. The uphill journey takes 290 minutes and the downhill 215 minutes.