The centenary of the opening of the Egmore Railway Station, the city’s second biggest and the terminus for south-of-Madras traffic — is being celebrated with a lot of fanfare.
And I’m delighted the Railways is, with such celebration, recognising its heritage. But in any such celebrations, the beginnings should not be forgotten — and the genesis of the Egmore station and its raison d’etre go back to nearly 50 years before they were thought of. Those beginnings were in three railway companies.
The first of those companies was the Great Southern of India Railway Company, dating to 1859, which got down to business the same year, with work beginning on May 5, on a Negapatam to Trichinopoly line. Negapatam to Tiruvarur, about 15 miles, was opened by July 1861 followed by the 35 miles between Tiruvarur and Tanjore being opened five months later and the 35 miles between Tanjore and Trichinopoly being completed on March 11, 1862.
This Broad Gauge line was then extended from Trichinopoly to Erode. The 45 miles from Trichinopoly to Karur was opened on December 3, 1866, the 17 miles from Erode to Kodumudi on July 1, 1867 and the last 23 miles on January 1, 1868. (Trichinopoly, for the uninitiated, is Tiruchchirappalli today and Negapatam is Nagapattinam.)
R.R. Bhandari, who wrote a fascinating history of the Southern Railway in 2003 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of its beginnings, in a private venture or two told me that there was one grandfather clock with GSIR markings still ticking away at the time in the residence of the General Manager, Southern Railways, and another in the house of the Divisional Manager in Tiruchi.
The second company was the Carnatic Railway Company, which had its roots in the Indian Tramways Company that was established in 1864. Its first line was an 18-mile track from Arkonam to Conjeevaram that was opened in May 1865. This was later connected to Madras and it was also proposed to connect Conjeevaram to Cuddalore via Chingleput.
The Pondicherry Railway Company Ltd. was the third company to develop a line in the South. This eight-mile line ran from the east bank of the Gingee River and into Pondicherry town.
It was opened for traffic on December 15, 1879 but, within a short time, merged with its managing agency, the South Indian Railway Company, which had been formed on July 1, 1874 by taking over the tracks and business of the Great Southern and the Carnatic companies. The first Agent (General Manager) of the new Company was W.S. Betts.
The new management took over the South Indian Railway Company in 1891 and then it was taken over by the Government in April 1944. The State-owned Southern Railway commenced business on April 14, 1951, when the South Indian Railway merged with it. The SIR (South Indian Railway) at this time had nearly 2,400 miles of track, both broad and metre gauge, in what is today Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry.
What is also little remembered today is that the SIR’s headquarters and main railway station was always Trichinopoly. Both those buildings were built by T. Samynada Pillai, a Bangalore contractor, who then was awarded the contract for the Madurai and Egmore stations, the latter being built at a cost of Rs.17 lakh.
Samynada Pillai next won an even bigger contract, for Rs. 20 lakh, to build the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway headquarters, today’s Southern Railways headquarters. Henry Irwin, who did much of latter day Indo-Saracenic in Madras, and E.C. Bird, an architect, worked on the design of the Egmore building, which was sympathetically added to in the 1930s and 1980s.
The 300-ft by 70-ft building, bigger than London’s Charing Cross Station, was raised on two-and-a-half acres of land that belonged to a ‘Paul Andy’, who many thought was a ‘Palaniaundy’.
Handsome Egmore station replaced an earlier SIR Madras station, a small one whose exact location I have not been able to trace.
Footnote: One thing that never changed at Egmore station when other changes were being made was the SIR emblazoned on its bas relief crest, though the ‘I’ was painted out a few years ago to read S R.