Residents of north Chennai waiting with baited breath for Budget announcement

The Royapuram Railway Station, which was once “Madras Central” station, today remains a shadow of its glorious past.

The 156-year-old station building, originally marked by arches, ionic pillars and high rise ceilings, is now covered in graffiti and in a state of disrepair. Access to the station is extremely restricted and many younger Royapuram residents even seem to be unaware of the existence of the station.

After the inauguration of India's first railway line in 1853, the Royapuram station was declared open by Governor Lord Harris in June 1856. On the inaugural day, two services – Royapuram to Ambur and Royapuram to Tiruvallur – were operated.

The station, the oldest in south India, resembled a Regency mansion in a quasi-classical style of the Renaissance Era. However, it lost its premier status in 1907 when the present Central Station became the city's main terminal point. With this, its decline began, even though the station, even now, is spread over around 70 acres of prime land.

Still, all is not lost. Of late, a renewed attempt is being made by sections of Royapuram residents for giving the station a fresh lease of life. These people feel that Royapuram can at least become the railway hub of north Chennai.

Thanks to their persistent efforts and representations to the Railway authorities, the Railway Board has formed a special committee to examine their demand. On January 20, the committee inspected the Royapuram station and it would present its report to the Board soon.

A.T.B. Bose, Co-convenor, Tamil Nadu Rail Passengers' Right Tribune (TNRPRT), points to the availability of open space that the railway station has. Strongly arguing that the station can be converted into the hub of north Chennai, he says that his organisation has done a comparative study of the availability of space in several railway stations in the country.

Royapuram ranks second in space availability with 2,46,000 square metres, next to the Howrah station in Kolkata. There are other factors supporting the revival of Royapuram such as the location of the station at the heart of the expanded Chennai Corporation. As the erstwhile northern municipalities of Manali and Kathivakkam are now part of the Corporation, Royapuram, if made the hub, would be closer to people in these areas than Tambaram on the southern outskirts.

About 10 years ago, a bid was made to revive the Royapuram station. It led to the renovation of the station at a cost of Rs.35 lakh. Addressing a function to mark the inauguration of the renovated station in October 2005, Union Minister of State for Railways R. Velu said that railway engineers, during their restoration work, had taken care not to alter the heritage features of the building. “After that nothing was done. Several other buildings on the station premises are in a neglected condition,” says a resident V. Gopalakrishnan.

Historian K.R.A. Narasaiah says that any restored heritage building should be put to proper use and should not remain a museum piece. “When they [Railway authorities] can maintain old railway engines, why not a building?” he wonders, adding that the Justice Padmanabhan committee, constituted by the State Government, has identified Royapuram station one among the 800 heritage structures.

An official of the Southern Railway says that all details have been furnished to the committee. If Royapuram is to be made a passenger hub, major changes are required. More buildings need to be constructed. Additional tracks and platforms too are necessary. All these involve a huge investment.

Would Railway Minister announce in this year's Budget the revival of the Royapuram station? This question is of great importance to the residents of north Chennai.