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Chugging through memory rail

It was 100 years ago that the first train made its way to Kochi on July 16, 1902. The railway station, then, was a beehive of activity. Today, this historic landmark is in a state of ruins. T.K.SADASIVAN travels back in time to bring back some of those `rail memories'.

ONCE ROYAL, NOW NEGLECTED: The exclusive waiting room for the royals.

JULY 16, 1902. Exactly 100 years ago, on this very day, the first train whistled its way to Kochi. Hundreds of people crowded on the narrow platform to welcome the first ever passenger train. Also waiting with them were the members of the Cochin royal family. They lingered around the exclusive waiting room, aptly called the `Kottaram', built for them beside the platform at the Ernakulam Terminus Station. The State band kept playing the popular hits of the day. As the enthusiastic crowd watched with bated breath, the steam engine, belonging to the Cochin State Railway Service, chugged in majestically, pulling in a few passenger bogies on a pair of parallel rails that originated at Shoranur. It was the fulfilment of a long cherished dream for the people of Central Kerala. For this rail track ushered in development to Kochi.

It took almost 50 years for the first train to puff its way to this part of the State, after it had made its maiden run in India way back in 1853. In fact, the railway line extended up to Chaliyam on the banks of the Beypore River, near Kadalundi, as early as 1861. This was when the Great Southern India Railway Company, which set out the first railway line of the southern peninsula from Madras to Arcot in 1856, extended it to the Malabar. This was further extended up to Calicut in 1888.

The Ernakulam Terminus Station, later renamed Ernakulam Railway Goods Station, is located behind Rammohan Palace, near the Kerala High Court.

"This location was selected because it ran close to the market. A boat jetty was also situated close by from where people could travel to Mattancherry and Vypeen," remembers Mr. Joseph Kanakapilly, who was staying close to this old railway station for a long time. "There was a coffee shop run by Spencer's at this railway station. There was no electricity those days, so the shop and platform was lighted up by petromax lamps," recalls Mr Joseph.

Sadly, this historic landmark is now in ruins. The track that brought the first train to this city now lies rusted and buried under weeds. It appears that both the railway and civil authorities have left this place to run to seed.

There were a few other memorable moments that remain fresh in the mind of the octogenarian, Mr. Joseph. "The reception given to Archbishop Joseph Attipetty at the railway station was an unforgettable event. Again it was here that Lord Irwin, the then Viceroy of India, arrived when he came down for a visit to Cochin."

The railway track and platform now overgrown with weeds.

Sir Robert Bristow, who was `appointed to develop Cochin', alighted at this station on April 13, 1920. "A launch named `Vasco' met us at the terminal station (Ernakulam)," wrote Sir Bristow in his book `Cochin Saga' "There were only three or four trains that plied on this route regularly. They used to stop at Chalakkudy where the steam engines were refilled with water," recalls Capt. Kerala Varma. "There were exclusive waiting rooms for the royal family at Chowara and Trichur also," Mr Varma added. Incidentally, the Maharaja used to spend the summer in the palace on the banks of the Periyar, near Chowara.The Shoranur-Kochi metre gauge railway line, that was about 62 miles long, ended at the Ernakulam Terminal Station. Initially, there was only one track. A circular track was put up nearby to enable the engine to turn. Buses and rickshaws used to come up to the station to pick up the passengers. There was an exclusive saloon for the Maharaja that used to be attached to the train only when the Maharaja travelled. Admission to the royal, lavishly furnished waiting room was restricted to members of the royal family and VIPs.

"The train comprised of only six or seven coaches, mostly made out of wood with steel frames. There were three separate classes and had a total capacity of around two hundred passengers. The third class was always crowded since they were cheaper than the rest", says Mr. Muralidhara Marar, former member of the interim Legislative Assembly (1948-1951), who was a frequent traveller by this train.

When the Cochin Port developed, it became imperative to extend the railway track right up to the harbour. By 1929 the present station, south of Ernakulam, came up. The track was later extended to the Harbour in 1943. Thus the old one lost its significance.

"Till the early sixties, the old railway station catered to passenger traffic. Then it became the Ernakulam Railway Goods Station. Till the late eighties, it was used for storage of cement," says Mr. Aboo, who stays close this old railway station.

The exclusive `Kottaram', which should have been preserved as a heritage monument, lies dilapidated due to gross neglect.

KOCHI OWES a lot to His Excellency Rama Varma, the Maharaja of Kochi (1895-1914). He was instrumental in establishing the Shoranur-Kochi railway line. He was one of those kings who cared a great deal for the welfare and progress of his subjects and land.

Records at the archives reveal that the Maharaja had a prolonged, detailed correspondence with the Resident of the British Empire since 1862 on the ways and means to establish the railway line. Finally, the State was asked to bear the entire expenditure involved in laying the lines. The State then was not rich enough to bear the substantial investment.

But the Maharaja would not give up. He was bent on completing the dream project at any cost. He took the bold decision to sell a part of the valuables in his custody. Mr Raman Namboodiri, who retired from the Archaeological Department, says that the treasury records substantiate the fact that the Maharajah sold 14 gold elephant caparisons that belonged to the Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple and other ornaments to fund the project.

Once the fund was sanctioned the project ran into another hurdle. About 18 miles of the railway line, between Angamaly and Edappally, passed through the erstwhile Travancore state. In October 1899, the Travancore state was requested to hand over the land required for the laying of the railway line. Construction began in 1899 and was undertaken by the Madras railway authorities, on behalf of the Cochin state. There was a delay in the commissioning as bridges had to be built across a few rivers on the route. Thus train traffic began on this line. The metre gauge line was later converted to broad gauge in 1935.


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