The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - India, Round 2
Part 13 - Coonoor, a Southern hill station

Terry Case writes about his travels for steam. Further tales will follow from time to time covering more of Australia, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Click here for the Case Notes Index, which includes many earlier Indian tales.

On 31st December 1988,  at first light, X 37391 “Bhagratha” comes off shed at Mettupalaiyam.

I had arrived at Mettupalaiyam after a trek from Bombay behind growling diesels, the sight of a steam engine at the shed meant the line was open. It had been a long journey and the Ooty line (like Darjeeling) was a bit of a gamble as to whether it would be open. My 1st class ticket cost 50rp which was expensive by Indian standards. I sat in the front compartment of the lead coach which, like an observation saloon, had windows at the front. Amongst the passengers were a newlywed couple, the groom was a Bombay businessman. Thanks to Bollywood both Ooty and the Niligiri train had become trendy and were favoured by honeymooners. Like Darjeeling Ooty had good schools and Indian rail workers still tried to send their children to board here and learn English as well as the regional and the national languages.

X 37391 “Bhagratha” was he engine for the rack journey and it was a fabulous trip, with wonderful views and the engine being thrashed on the rack section that starts at Kallar. The flagmen had to relay signals to the driver as the track is heavily curved and clings to the mountainside, once the rack was engaged the train ascends gradients of 1 in 12 and the noise from the hard working engine was wonderful to hear.

3rd January 1989 was my final morning and saw me back at Kallar. I had taken a taxi that freewheeled downhill Runneymede where I found a spot to wait for the train Niligiri Express from Mettupalaiyam. A few hours later and the train had still to appear, I had been watching monkeys swinging between trees when a track gang appeared. I was told there was a dead elephant on the line blocking the train and they needed a Forestry official to give permission to remove it; surely a story like that would have to be true!

The taxi rolled downhill towards where the train was supposed to be stuck, I found it would be a long trekk up the mountainside to reach the line, instead I sipped a freshly cut coconut and decided to call in at Kallar and ask the station master for news. The station master was asleep but his assistant told me there was no dead elephant and there had only been a minor derailment, the train which was now at Coonoor; however they were expecting a coal train from Mettupalaiyam. This was a real bonus as freight traffic was limited to the occasional coal train to Coonoor loco shed. The freight appeared five minutes later with 37395 pushing three bogie trucks with brake and flagmen riding the wagons.

Here it is prepared for the rack section.

The couple about to cross the track are station staff who have brought their pet dog with them.

The freight departs Kallar and is about to enter the rack section.

After watching the train engage the rack and depart I found a couple of distant views of the train and the mountain before getting ahead and giving me time to walk down from Kateri Road to the tunnel. I was able to get some excellent video of the train exiting the tunnel with the rack motion working at speed. Two more shots from the roadside followed, but we were prevented from going to the station at Coonoor as the police had blocked the road, due to a political rally.

Runneymede was a favourite location, an easy walk down from the road through tea plantations gave the opportunity to see the train working hard on the approach. The station was officially closed, but the buildings remained in good repair. I headed there on New Year’s Day, leaving Coonoor the taxi passed crowds of people yelling “Happy New Year”. Some were heading to local pilgrimage sites, as elsewhere in India there seemed a mixing of beliefs and images of Christian saints being paraded were venerated by both Christians and other religions. Waiting groups of monkeys sitting on the roadside walls, were also hopeful of offerings.

Long before the train came in view it could be heard labouring upgrade on the rack. There was time to watch the engine take water and the fire being cleaned before the train re-started and engaged the rack again before it crossed a bridge that spanned a river far below. A mad scramble followed back uphill in the hope of reaching the tunnel exit, but the best plan was to make one or the other your shot as asthmatic taxis had trouble on the steep hill road. There were other opportunities, I was using video to take close-ups of the rack motion on the engine at work.

Departure from Runneymede. 1/1/89.

Trains leaving Coonoor on the non-rack section first backed out of the station onto a spur, as the platform is curved relay flag waving was needed to get the train on the running line. Then after the carriage flagmen had relayed the guard’s flag the engine charged upgrade past the signalbox and really got stuck after passing the shed and kept up a furious racket to Wellington the first station stop.  One morning I had a cabride from Wellington to Ooty. The footplate was incredibly noisy and this was without the engine working with its rack gear. Unlike other mg engines I had ridden the footplate was cramped and the firebox doors were low requiring the fireman to use a short handled shovel and bend low as he fired, the second fireman operated the doors to keep the fire white hot; both wore sandals. Whilst it took a lot of firing to keep the pressure up, the engine steamed freely. When the fire-hole door was open the noise in the cab increased, and as we passed through the two tunnels the sparks flew around inside the cab. The driver used the reverser to control the speed; he drew my attention to the large brass plate with reverser positions notched on. I was assigned a perch was on an open shelf behind the driver. I sat in a hunched position to stop my head striking the roof when I got the odd bounce as a result of the engine’s lively antics. It was hard work for the fireman, I guess it would have been harder still on the rack section, but the crew did not complain.

37389 having backed down from the shed approaches the station, 2nd January 1989

37389 then waited for departure time.

The Niligiri Express leaves Coonoor for Ooty on 31st December 1989

Wellington viaduct, the staccato exhaust sounded urgent as the train accelerated out of the station which was around the corner to the right. 

Morning trains crossing at Ketti on 3rd January 1989. 37390 (right) was on the train from Ooty and 37389 (left) was pushing the train from Coonoor. 

My afternoon sessions at Coonor started with a shed visit around 16.00 when 3 engines were being serviced, one from the 16.00 arrival of the Niligiri Express from Ooty. The other 2 were for the 16.30 departure of the Niligiri Express to Mettupalaiyam and the 17.30 evening local to Ooty.  The shedmaster had a smart office in the miniature signal box near the shed entrance, he told me his staff were trying to get more engines fit for rack work. At the time only two were available (those with worn out rack motion were assigned duties on the Ooty section).  In the repair shops; “Niligiri Queen” was under heavy repair with its wheels removed; together with one of its pistons. Before a rack engine went off shed the staff tested the rack valve gear, which made for interesting video along with all the usual shed activities.

Staff were not camera shy! 

1. Arrival at Ooty, engine crew and guards.

Left to right, two labourers, fireman, electrical fitter and driver take time out to pose. 

X 37391 “Bhagratha” positions out of steam 37387 for attention on 1st January 1989.

Light faded at 17.00 so I switched to video to record the noisy departure of the train for Ooty as it got to grips with the climb near the loco shed.

Rather shabby 37395 shunts a parcels coach to be added to the Niligiri Express on 3rd January 1989

Churches survived in Coonoor, as would be expected in an old British hill town. 

The Niligiri Express arrives from Ooty, note the signal cabin at the shed entrance, 3rd January 1989.

Some evenings I chose to ride the train to Ooty as far as Ketti. The ride was quite jerky as the thrust from the engine pistons transferred to the carriages, the stack talk was excellent! At Ketti I would wait for the cross from Ooty, briefly both locos stood together resplendent in blue livery with headlamps glowing. The run downhill to Coonoor was mundane bump and grind, enlivened by the guards using lanterns instead of the flags to pass signals back to the guard in the rear carriage, the engine now being in the lead. A great way to see in the New Year! 

Other Round 2 Indian Tales:

Rob Dickinson