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Geolocation Investigation WW2 Mystery Image


1. Investigation Details


The purpose of this investigation is to solve the case of a mysterious WW2 image found on the International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive which is working in collaboration with the University of Lincoln to solve the mysteries of thousands of images taken in the Second World War. The picture chosen for this investigation is that of a train with at least 3 passenger carriages that travels on a single rack track in an area of lush vegetation in India (see Figure 2). This image was submitted to the Archive with an additional 4 pictures from the same country (see Figure 1). For this report, the investigation is conducted only on this image.

Image Information

The original image seems to be taken from above an elevated plain from which there is a valley on the left side of the moving train (determined by the position of the top parts of the trees), while on the right side, there should be an elevated plain. The train travels a rack mountain rail (the third line in the center of the railway) somewhere in India while transporting passengers

Figure 1. Various scenes in India, Submission to the IBCC Digital Archive (The IBCC Digital Archive, n.d.)

Investigation Question:

“Can the location of the WW2 Image be determined using OSINT tools available online?”

Figure 2. Picture of a Passenger train on a single track in lush vegetation (The IBCC Digital Archive, n.d.)

2. Tools Used:

Google Lens and TinEye

Both tools provide reverse image search services for .png and .jpg files. Google Lens, created by Google, focuses on real-time visual recognition and information retrieval through object identification. It benefits millions of users, including individuals, companies, and investigators in geolocation. TinEye, developed by a team in Toronto, Canada, specializes in finding similar images online to the ones the users search by comparing digital signatures. Its purpose is to make images searchable, benefiting anonymous users and companies like Adobe, and BetterWorldBooks. While both tools have a user-friendly interface, they differ in their search methods and databases of visual information.

Google Maps

Developed by Google, this tool provides users with information about places they are interested in, offering features like user-contributed photographs and videos. Android and Chrome users benefit the most from its various functionalities, while businesses use it for location advertising. The tool combines satellite and street-level imagery with geographical data, which results in an interactive map that offers accurate navigation and a visual representation of global locations.

The IRFCA (Indian Railway Fan Club Association) Website

IRFCA is an electronic discussion group connecting fans interested in Indian railways. The web-based forum covers a broad range of topics, including current passenger services, technical details, historical aspects, and railfanning trips. Created by Mani Vijay and others first as an emailing list, it expanded into the current form of the website. Now it serves as a platform for sharing rail-related information with other enthusiasts, while occasional in-person meetings and annual conventions provide opportunities for members to connect in person.


OpenRailwayMap, associated with OpenStreetMap's founder, Steve Coast, is a detailed online map of global railway infrastructure. Launched in 2013, it aims to create an open, up-to-date map of the railway network, including rail-mounted and automotive vehicles. The project supports railroad-related data in OpenStreetMap, fostering data collection and usability, and its open geographic database is maintained by a volunteer community. It is meant to be used by other mappers and railway enthusiasts.

3. Investigation Walkthrough

The first step in the investigation was to use TinEye to track if any other online images matched the investigated one. After uploading the image no result came out of the search, leading no further (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. TinEye trial of finding similar images online (TinEye, 2023)

Next, the image was run through Google Lens to identify any similar landscapes or carriages in other images available online (see Figure 4). The only result related to India was the second image result from Flickr of two trains on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), which had a similar lush vegetation.

Figure 4. Google Lens search of the investigated image (Google Lens, 2023)

After clicking on the image, the site opened showing that this was a postcard with two DHR passenger trains. The trains in this picture and the rails are different than the ones in the investigated image, so there were no further leads (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. India Railways - Darjeeling Himalayan Railway - DHR passenger trains in a reversing station (Historical Railway Images, 2018)

Subsequently, the image from Figure 5 was introduced in Google Lens (see Figure 6) to try and find any other old images of the DHR trains from the same period (WW2). This search leads no further. A trial run to verify the type of racks used on the DHR Train rail was conducted by following the following steps: search “Darjeeling Himalayan Railway” in Google Maps, place Streetview Pegman along the available areas near the rail, move along the available Streetview imagery until the end of the line. This search made it clear that currently there are no rack railways used on the DHR rail line.

Figure 6. Figure 5 Image being searched in Google Lens (Google Lens, 2023)

Next, the IRFCA Photo Gallery was used to try and find any relevant information on the rack railways of India. By entering the search key “rack railway” into the search bar two results came up (see Figure 7).

Figure 7. Screen Shot of search results (The IRFCA Photo Gallery, 2023)

In these two results, the Nilgiri Mountain Rack Railway (NMR) is mentioned as the only rack railway ever used in India. Given that the investigated picture was taken during WW2, when India was still part of the British Empire, means that the Steam Engine was still used. By going to the Article Section of the IRFCA website and opening the search function the search prompt “Steam” was introduced where the article “Steam in History” was found (see Figure 8).

Figure 8. Key Word Search Result (The IRFCA, n.d.)

After opening this article, the search panel was opened again where “rack” was introduced as the key search item. Through this search, more information was revealed regarding the area of the NMR, more specifically that only 20 km of the track use the rack railway (between Coonoor and Kallar) (see Figure 9). By further reading the article, it becomes apparent that only the NMR used the rack railway, and it confirms that the trains used on this rack used to be steam-powered.

Figure 9. Mentioning of rail section where rack railways are used (Bhandari, R. R. & IRFCA, n.d.)

Next, Google Maps was used to identify the most likely locations of the picture. By searching the “Nilgiri Mountain” it appears as part of the Tamil Nadu region of Southern India (see Figure 10).

Figure 10. Map view of Nilgiri Mountains (Google Maps, 2023)

Further, when searching for “Coonoor, Tamil Nadu”, the first picture attached shows a train traveling in a similar type of lush vegetation (see Figure 11). Afterward, the train station names were introduced, “Coonoor Train Station” and “Kallar Station”, to check the available directions between them. Even so, only the road options were available, even when selecting the transit options for the trains traveling between those two stations at different times and dates (see Figure 12).

Figure 11. Map view of Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, India (Google Maps, 2023)

Figure 12. Identification of the Coonoor-Kallar (circled) transit by using Google Maps (Google Maps, 2023)

Following this lead, OpenRailwayMap was used to track the current state of the line. After introducing Coonoor in the search bar and selecting the “Track Gauge” map style, the exact railway was highlighted, and its direction towards Kallar Station. Figure 13 shows the railway has a 1-meter gauge and that it is still used.

Figure 13. Map of the Coonoor-Kallar route including the track gauge (OpenRailwayMap, 2023)

This tool provides other map styles where more information on the line could be found, such as that it is not electrified (Electrification), and that there is no available information on the maximum speeds, signaling, and train protection. Regarding the line’s infrastructure, the map shows it as a branch line with 12 tunnels (see Figure 14). All the information received from this tool suggests that the train present in the investigated image is one circulating a 1-meter gauge railway as well, and it rules out the locations of the tunnels identified.

Figure 14. Map of the Coonoor-Kallar route including the infrastructure of the track such as the tunnels (OpenRailwayMap, 2023)

By returning to Google Maps and using Streetview, this railway section is almost fully accessible (see Figure 15).

Figure 15. Google Maps Screenshot of the track being highlighted through Streetview (Google, 2023)

The next step was identifying the beginning of the rack line by placing the Streetview Pegman (the human icon at the bottom right) at the Kallar Railway Station and following the track until its start (see Figure 16). Because the Streetview camera was placed at the end of the train, it is easier to follow along the track by starting at the Kallar station and moving along until Coonoor.

Figure 16. Start of the rack railway as seen through the available Streetview from Kallar Railway Station (Google Maps, 2018)

By traveling this route, the mountain will always stay on the right side of the view (see Figure 17), while from the perspective of someone staying in the back of the train in the original image, the mountain should be on the left side.

Figure 17. Example image that shows the Nilgiri Mountain on the opposite side than that of the original image (Google Maps, 2018)

After Runnymede, it is possible to take a picture from an elevated plane, which would have the electrical grid on the correct side (see Figure 18). Figures 19 and 20 present the two most likely spots for the original picture.

Figure 18. Image showing a hill where the image could have been taken (Google Maps, 2018)

Figure 19. The image shows the first possible location because of having the electrical grid on the left side of the moving train like in the original image as well as the same vegetation type around it (Google Maps, 2018)

Figure 20. The second possible spot where the image could have been taken (the electrical grid on the correct side of the train, and rocks by the track in a similar formation as those from the original picture) (Google Maps, 2018)

Figure 21. Another perspective of the second area showing the vegetation that could have been captured in the original picture (Google Maps, 2018)

Figure 22. The perspective of the left side of the train in the second location shows vegetation close to the electrical grid like the one that was captured from the original picture (Google, 2023)

Following those two locations, the end of the rack line comes in shortly (see Figure 23), without any other possible locations.

Figure 23. End of the Coonoor - Kallar rack railway (Google Maps, 2018)

In conclusion, the intelligence question can be answered partially because a general region of where the image was taken is determinable, but when trying to find an exact location, there are many challenges encountered. For instance, because the original picture was taken over 80 years ago, the terrain and infrastructure changed due to different natural causes, the withdrawal of the British occupation, and the maintenance of the old existing lines. Another challenge was finding information regarding the carriages of the train due to the limited data available online, which only allowed the identification of the locomotive type. Thus, the purpose of the train transit in the picture is hard if not impossible to determine.

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