Nilgiris Mountain Rail row: Southern Railways accused of privatising heritage line

NMR is yet to resume services for the public after it was suspended before the COVID-19 lockdown on March 23.
Nilgiris Mountain Railways
Nilgiris Mountain Railways
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The operation of the mountain train service in The Nilgiris over the weekend has caused outrage among some political parties and workers unions in Tamil Nadu. The controversy surrounds an alleged attempt to privatise the heritage train service by allowing chartered tourist operators to run the services during the weekends.

Nilgiris Mountain Railway (NMR) is a UNESCO Heritage site that runs from Mettupalayam to Ooty, a distance of around 45 kilometres. A private company by name of Homemade Group TN 43 had paid almost Rs 5 lakh to operate the NMR as a charter service during the weekends in December and January for its tourists. The NMR ran a charter service on December 5 and 6 and will continue similar services by TN 43 on all weekends in December and January 2021. The cost per ticket is Rs 3,000 and the service begins at 7.30 am from Mettupalayam and the return service from Ooty begins at 2 pm the same day. In comparison, the regular toy train costs Rs 600 for a first-class ticket, and Rs 295 for second-class.

The controversy

The news of charter service of NMR sparked outrage as it was construed as an attempt to eventually privatise the railway services on the heritage line. What perhaps angered worker unions and political parties is that the NMR has not resumed its toy train services between Mettupalayam and Ooty, which large sections of the general public use to commute between the two towns. The services were suspended owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of resuming the services for the common man, the Southern Railways’ decision to open up charter bookings by private parties for an exorbitant amount has angered these parties.

While Coimbatore MP PR Natarajan from CPI-M, issued a statement condemning the private party for operating NMR during weekends, the Social Justice Party conducted a demonstration against the move in front of the Mettupalayam station on Wednesday.

DMK MP from The Nilgiris A Raja, meanwhile, wrote to the General Manager of Southern Railway to resume NMR services for the public. Pointing out that NMR is one of the most photographed railway lines in the country, Raja urged the General Manager to take steps to resume its services for the public since the train contributes to the economy of the hill town.

Railway clarification

Meanwhile, Southern Railways issued a clarification that the train is being hired by a private charter for tourists. “It is clarified that there is not any change in the name of NMR services between Mettupalayam-Udagamandalam,” the statement said. Adding that hiring out the trains for private charters was done before the pandemic too, Southern Railways said that such services do not have any bearing on regular NMR services.

Charter services is also a way by which NMR tries to make good the losses it suffers on a daily basis due to regular services, as per a report.

Reports also stated that Southern Railways is awaiting the approval of the Railway Board to resume NMR services for the public.

The construction of NMR began in the late 19th century and was finally completed in 1908 from Mettupalayam to Ooty. Set up by the British, the NMR is the only rack railway system in the country due to the steep hill gradient of The Nilgiris. The train operates on a metre gauge track.

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