Southern Railway hopes to showcase the 150 years of its existence with a museum in Tiruchi.

Maps, bells and lamps made of “China Glass”. Staff badges, clocks and yellowing piles of paperwork. Huddled together under the soaring ceiling of the ‘Heritage Room’ of Southern Railway’s General Office building in Tiruchi, they seem to be passengers waiting for their journey to start.

And, in a way, perhaps they are. For these artefacts of a bygone era are to form a part of the upcoming railway museum. The collection, curated by an in-house team of officials, includes items such as old manuals, maps, gazettes, and files containing Indo-Ceylon Steamer service records and photographs in addition to out-of-use equipment such as stamping sticks, belt buckles of foremen and signal devices.

The museum is meant to be part of the erstwhile South Indian Railway’s sesquicentennial (150 years) celebrations, though as Mrs Manjula Rangarajan, Divisional Railway Manager, concedes, it’s a little behind schedule.

“The building is now complete, we are working on the electrification. Due to fund constraints, it is not possible for us to throw open the entire museum in one go. So we thought we’d do it in phases. The central hall is ready, and as part of our sesquicentennial celebrations, we thought we would inaugurate this part of the museum. We have a broad idea of where we want to place the exhibits, though it is subject to change in the future,” said Mrs Manjula in an interview with The Hindu.

The site shortlisted for the Railway Heritage Centre, as the museum will be known, is adjacent to the Community Hall near the Tiruchi railway junction, with a total area of about 15 acres. The original station building of the city that was then known as Trichinopoly, built in 1886, will be spruced up to serve as the office and ticket sales counter of the museum.

When we visited, the flooring tiles were being laid in the central exhibition hall, built in a quasi-Raj style. The proposed centre (with an approximate budget of Rs20mn) will be allocating 500 square metres for indoor exhibits. Besides the transport artefacts mentioned above, there is provision for a study room for researching railway history, philately on railway themes, and a digital archive of rare documents related to the South Indian Railway.

“We are planning a family-friendly destination,” said Mrs Manjula of the project. The indoor exhibits will be complemented by an external visitor area containing shady alcoves and eateries, and even a toy train and one or two vintage locomotive engines.

As to what she feels is the most significant part of the heritage collection, Mrs Manjula pointed out to the vintage paperwork that “tell us how we used to run the railways 150 years ago, and how much of it is still in place. It seems we have very good systems in place which are time-tested. Whatever mishaps occur would be mainly due to human error. The signalling systems were rudimentary, technological advancements may have occurred, but the system remains the same.”

The fragile paper documents need a climate-controlled storage system, which, for now, says Mrs Manjula, is still to be finalised.

Reflecting on the future of train travel in India, she said, “I think we are here to stay definitely for a couple of centuries. Our avatars may change, but we will always be there because it will take some time for our people to move away from the railways to the roadways as they have done in the West. More people are indeed taking flights to their destinations (in the domestic sector), but it’s a very large pie, and we have a very large share of that pie.”

Mr S Sayinathan, Traffic Inspector and one of the collection’s curators, says that only after he got formally involved in the project did he realise the indelible link between the railways and India’s history. “After coming to this department to preserve heritage material, I found out that the South Indian Railway is a great organisation,” he said, adding that the development of rail routes throughout the country reflected the India’s growth as well.

“Among our records we have details of how a 542-km stretch on the Tiruchi to Erode route was converted into broad gauge in a mere five hours, on the Pamban cantilever bridge that connects the Palk Strait to mainland India, and which opened to traffic in 1914, and the Unesco heritage status-Nilgiri Mountain railway (inaugurated in 1899 and still in service),” said Mr Sayinathan.

The museum project has also sparked interest among the families of the British staff who worked in South Indian Railway, says Mr Sayinathan, many of who have got in touch and shared their own memorabilia related to the years spent by their forefathers in India.

In 2010, Southern Railway published a glossy volume of rare photographs and historical information titled Marvels of The South Indian Railway, compiled by S Subramhanyan, then-Divisional Railway Manager, as part of the sesquicentennial celebrations.

Considering the potential value of the antiques inside, the Heritage Room is kept locked and out of bounds to the public. The room has the railway security force personnel’s protection throughout the day, and fire alarm systems are in place to avert potential disasters.

An expert from the Saraswathi Mahal in Thanjavur has helped to guide the team in preserving the artefacts for posterity against termites. But dealing with the mice and other rodents has required the services of the rather more simple mousetrap.

Mr Sayinathan checks the authenticity of each piece individually, a process made easier, he says, due to the British habit of stamping every item with the name of the company. “We cannot display all the old materials, because some may still be in use,” he said. “[But] we want to showcase our history to the public, so that they can understand our achievement.”