Another metre gauge line moves into oblivion as the Punalur-Shencottah rail line closes for gauge conversion at the end of March

Octogenarian Karuppuswamy has been travelling by metre-gauge from Kollam to Shencottah since childhood. Karuppuswamy will now have to stop this practice because by the end of March, the Punalur-Shencottah metre gauge line will be converted to broad-gauge. The 45-km stretch of the Kollam-Punalur metre gauge has been closed for conversion works since 2007.

Best portion

The Kollam-Shencottah railway line – the first one in erstwhile Travancore – is more than a century old. Travellers on this scenic route, most of whom are villagers from Tamil Nadu, or estate workers from Thenmala and Kazhuturutty or petty traders such as Karuppuswamy who deal in forest products, will have to wait for five years for the re-opening once the Punalur-Shencottah stretch is closed for conversion.

The 50-km journey from Punalur to Shencottah is perhaps the best portion on this route in terms of nature's lushness and architectural marvels.

The first train from Punalur (No: 744) starts at 8.45 a.m. and takes two hours to reach Shencottah with an average speed of 30 kmph.

The train chugs through the Shendurni wild life sanctuary and picturesque stations such as Kazhuthurutty, Thenmala, Ottakkallu and Bhagavathipuram, passing by verdant mountains and many a cascade. The Palaruvi and Kazhuthurutti waterfalls and the Thenmala eco-tourism centre are on the fringes of this line, and the majestic Courtallam waterfalls at the destination make this route perfect for nature lovers.

The railway line was constructed by the British on the foothills of the Western Ghats to transport forest products, spices and cashew from Kollam to Chennai, their southern headquarters.

Their tea estates and coffee plantations thrived on the labour of tribals living in the Thenmala forests and workers from Tamil Nadu. The British developed the Bodylone Teak plantation – considered to be the first one in the world – to practise stump-planting of teak.

As such the railway line has contributed much to the development of plantation economy in this area. Ambanadu tea estate and Rosemala plantations stand testimony to this.

Kadamanpara sandalwood plantation and freshwater mangroves at Kadamankode also add charm to this heritage railway line.

Forest products such as honey from these areas reach towns like Tenkasi and Tirunelveli through this route. I spotted many Rajapalayams, the local breed of dogs wandering around Bhagavathipuram, the first station in Tamil Nadu on this line. Aryankavu, where Kerala meets Tamil Nadu, is a landmark station on this route.

The longest tunnel on this route (built in 1901) is here. The picturesque Aryankavu viaduct, where the road, river and rail run parallel, is also part of this route.

Architectural marvel

This railway line is an architecture marvel. “It was built jointly by South Indian Railway Company, Travancore State and Madras Presidency. After the survey in 1888, the work started in 1900 and completed by 1903 and the total expenditure was Rs. 1,12,65,637,” says the Punalur station master Jayakumar B.

He recounts that according to records, the Punalur to Shencottah stretch was the most difficult one to construct as it lies around 2,800 metres above sea level and it took almost two years to complete the Aryankavu tunnel. One can notice the conch symbol of the erstwhile Travancore regime at both ends of the tunnel and the year of construction on the nearby pillars.

The 102.72-m bridge at Kazhuthurutti with 13 arches is so strong that not even a crack has developed so far. The railway engineering department has decided not to demolish this 5.18m height bridge. Instead they will strengthen and widen it.

“We will be using jacketing method, in which a mixture of concrete will be sprayed to strengthen the existing structure. This method was used in strengthening the railway bridge at Rameswaram,” says a railway engineer. The mixture that was used in bonding the square cut stones is still unknown. Locally, though, the process is known as ‘anikettu.'

In 1904, the first train was flagged off from Kollam by Moolam Tirunal Ramavarma, the then King of erstwhile Travancore with a 21-gun salute. At present there are eight services on this route, the first one starting at 6.15 a.m. from Shencottah.