A historical account of Nilgiri Mountain Railway, the pride of Blue Mountains

To perceive the real value of any tourist attraction, it is important to learn a bit of its background. It will not only enhance the experience but at times makes it invaluable.

So I looked up the history of something as ordinary as a train that transfers passengers from one stop to another in the Nilgiri Mountains. ‘A tourist train that offers scenic views’, Is that all to it? Maybe not.


It was the time of British rule in India. Much of South India was part of Madras presidency which had its winter capital at Madras and summer capital at Ooty.

To connect Madras with other parts of Madras Presidency, British began work on the Madras-Coimbatore railway line in 1853. Problem was how to replace the tedious ascent by bullock-cart from Coimbatore to Coonoor in Nilgiris.

Madras_Prov_1859 new

Map of Madras Presidency with the planned railway route (drawn approximately)


A proposal was submitted to build railway lines direct to the hills. Maj. Morant Lushington, The Districts roads engineer established the feasibility of the rail link. Subsequently, estimates were called.

  • Guess who was the first to give a proposal? It was genius Riggenbach, the swiss inventor of Rigi mountain railway system. His conditions were free land, guarantee of a 6% return on an estimated cost of $400,000 and exemption of taxes for 10 years. The government rejected saying this was an outrageous proposal and shelved it.
  • In 1882, Riggienbauch re-entered with a fresh proposal. This time the estimated cost had come down to $132,000. This was accepted, and the Nilgiri Rigi Railway Company Ltd was formed in 1885.


Construction was cumbersome and dangerous, since the terrain was a difficult one. It involved cutting tunnels through rocky hills, building bridges, laying lines in the inhospitable forest area.


Construction of railway line inside a tunnel. Photo Source: Wing Commander Bellie Jayprakash


Construction over bridge-33. Photo Source: Wing Commander Bellie Jayprakash

But H.J. Bellie Gowder of Hubbathalai near Coonoor, appointed as the principal contractor took up challenging task.

His courageous and efficient team (migrant Telugu stock of people) successfully completed the line in 1899 and he was made ‘Rao Sahib’ by the British government for his remarkable achievement. He was conferred the title ‘Rao Bahadur’ later for the efficient service rendered in the maintenance of the line.


Blue Mountain Railway – 1927. Photo Source: Wing Commander Bellier Jayprakash


The view of today


The Uniqueness of NMR is its oldest and steepest ‘rack and pinion technology’ operated with special steam locomotives (except the Coonoor-Ooty stretch which uses diesel engine now because of the gradient).

According to the UNESCO website, ‘These railways are outstanding examples of innovative transportation systems built through difficult terrain, which had great influence on the social and economic development of their respective regions. Over a century of operation, they have always managed to restore the integrity of the line’.


The huffing-puffing steam engine

Having built the rail line is one, but having maintained it for over a century (in the midst the many unauthorized constructions, heavy rains, frequent landslides, etc.,) is definitely a commendable job! How else will travelers like me experience a slice of history and spectacular views at the same time on the Nilgiri Mountain Railways?



10 thoughts on “A historical account of Nilgiri Mountain Railway, the pride of Blue Mountains

  1. As a town planning officer I appreciate the wonderful article you published .I felt as if I have participated in the construction of this railway. GOOD

  2. my great grandfather was an engineer in the construction of this line ,are there any records of the people who built the railway?

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