Cochin Harbour Terminus

2003-12-24

For a long time, I wanted to visit this important terminus of yesteryear. Now it's totally neglected and dying. I finally made it on 24 December 2003. Here is a report on the history of the station and reasons for its degradation. Photos of the sorry state of CHTS are available. Most of the information was shared by the young station master of CHTS, Mr. Prakash.

The birth of Willingdon Island

Cochin Harbour Terminus is situated on the man-made Willingdon Island in Cochin. This 22 km² island was conceived and built by the brilliant British engineer, Sir Robert Bristow. When Sir Bristow came to Cochin in 1920, it was a small harbour where ships were exposed to nature's violent forces. He surveyed the open sea on the boat called “Dorothea” (named after his sister) and made the master plan for the island, which was immediately approved by the British Government.

The herculean task began in 1926, with the dredger “Lord Willingdon” leading the way. Thousands of engineers, workers and machines worked hand-in-hand on the project. Many lost their lives in the process. The sea was dredged and deepened, sand bars removed and with this sand and mud he brilliantly designed and built Willingdon Island and the Cochin Port. At the time, no electricity was available and most of the work was carried out either with human muscle or steam cranes.

The first ship, “MT Padma” berthed here on 28 May 1926, under Capt. Bullen's command. Willingdon Island is named after Viceroy Lord Wellingdon. The dredger was also named after him. When he left Cochin in 1941, Sir Robert Bristow had transformed Cochin into one fo the safest harbours in the peninsula. When asked about the construction work, his reply was If it's only difficult, it's already done; if it's impossible, it shall be done. Willingdon Island has an airport, a railway station and a seaport within a radius of three kilometres, the only one of its kind in the whole world.

Laying the tracks

A port is never complete without a railway line. In those days, trains came only up till the Old Station, which is non-existent now. The station had a metre gauge line to Shoranur. This had to be converted to broad gauge to connect it to rest of India. The new broad gauge line would pass through Ernakulam into Willingdon Island. Many different routes were studied. New stations were planned, and built along the way. These were Ernakulam Town, Ernakulam Jn, Perumanur (non-existent), Mattanchery Halt and finally, Cochin Harbour Terminus.

More than the passenger traffic, freight traffic was anticipated and it did come, in lots. The huge Venduruthy Bridge had to be built to connect Willingdon Island with the mainland. The road bridge across Vembanad Lake was sanctioned and the engineers submitted their plan for a rail bridge alongside the road bridge and it was approved in 1936. Construction work started almost immediately and was completed in 1938.

A golden era begins

The first train rolled across the huge bridge to Cochin Harbour Terminus sometime in the 1940s. In fact, this is the first time a train passed through both Ernakulam Jn. and Ernakulam Town stations. Records at Cochin Harbour Terminus concerning the early days are sparse. Most of them were damaged. Some were left neglected in the underground cellar and were destroyed by termites and insects, so the exact dates are not available. These dates were obtained from old employees working at the station. The station was put under the Olavakkode (modern-day Palghat) Division of SIR and continued under the same till 1978, when it was taken over by Trivandrum.

From its inception, the station saw a lot of freight traffic. Tea, coffee, spices, cotton, coir etc. came in wagons to be loaded onto the numerous ships. A special station was built next to the wharf to cater for incoming coal and other fuel needs. It had the highest safety features of the time. No smoking was permitted and fire stations were nearby. This station was called the “Coal Berth”. Now the station has been dismantled, but the line is used by tankers to transport light diesel oil for ships.

Another extension was made to the wharf directly so that cranes could unload various commodities directly onto the wagons. This line still exists today and is a revenue earner for IR. With the onset of containers, several container yards were built in the vicinity of CHTS.

The growth of a nexus

The first passenger train to begin operations from CHTS was the Cochin<—>Shoranur passenger. There were two runs, one leaving in the morning and the other in the evening. This itinerary has not changed for 60 years and the train uses the same timings even today. It also served as a link to the Madras<—>Mangalore mail. Passengers used this train to go to all over British India.

Soon, SIR introduced the Madras<—>Cochin express, predecessor of the 41/42 Chennai<—>Alleppey express. This train was introduced as a weekly express in 1944. The train used to leave CHTS mid-afternoon and reach MAS in the morning. Coming back, it left MAS in the evening and arrived CHTS mid-morning. This train was a huge money earner for SIR. It transported people and all sorts of freight. Once, this train had separate coaches for British-bound cargo and the rest. It is not necessary to mention about the classes it had during the British Raj.

The 41/42 played an important role during the Second World War transporting the troops that arrived from various parts of the globe to parts of British Raj. The train had an A.C. coach from the very early days. This train had many through coaches which went to Bangalore, Bombay etc. Strangely, railway records at the archives in Chennai show that it was introduced only in 1965. The records at CHTS mention the train's existence in 1944, when it was used to transport personnel and supplies for the World War. There is ample proof that the train ran before 1965 since my father travelled by it in 1957.

Another important train, the Ooty<—>Cochin Tea Garden express was introduced around this time. Its main purpose, as the name suggests, was to transport tea and related products from the Nilgiris to Cochin for export. It was broad gauge from CHTS to Mettupalayam and metre gauge from Mettupalayam to Ooty. Later, a portion of this train started running to Tiruchchirappalli. In the early 1990s, the Mettupalayam portion was discontinued. The train now exists as the 6865/6866 Tiruchchirappalli<—>Ernakulam express.

The station played a vital role during the Second World War, transporting supplies, ammunition, personnel, vehicles etc. They arrived from the west and were sent across to the British Raj. The close proximity to the Naval Base and Air force Base enhanced the importance of the station.

During the 1960s, the through coaches to Bangalore were made into a separate train, the Island express, named after Willingdon Island. This train now runs as the 6525/6526 Bangalore<—>Kanniyakumari express.

Ushering in the diesel age

The first diesel loco was flagged off from the station with the Cochin<—>Madras express in 1961, thanks to the then-Railway Minister from Kerala, Mr. Panampilly Govinda Menon. Most of the rest of India remained in the Steam Age. A trip shed was also built to accommodate the WDM-1 locos.

During the same time, a second train was also introduced to Chennai. This was the forerunner of the present day 2623/2624 Chennai<—>Trivandrum mail. This train was a superfast from its conception. It left late evening from both ends and reached its destination early morning.

The crowning glory for the station came in 1972 when two new Jayanthi Janata expresses were introduced from the station. IR had introduced five of these new class-less trains. Out of the five, two were from Cochin. The first one, 81/82 CHTS<—>BBVT Jayanthi Janata now exists as the CSTM<—>CAPE express. The second one, 131/132 CHTS<—>NZM Jayanthi Janata was later renamed as Mangala Exp. with F.C. and A.C. coaches. This train ceased operations from the station in 1987. In 2000, it returned to the neighbouring Ernakulam station as the 2617/2618 Mangala express.

The 49/50 Day express was introduced around the same time between Cochin and Shoranur. The train was quickly converted to the 6349/6350 Trivandrum<—>Mangalore Parasuram express.

The cards are drawn

In 1978, railways shortlisted two stations, Cochin Harbour Terminus and Trivandrum Central to base the new division at. Ultimately, TVC won the race. Had the new division been set up in CHTS, the station would not have encountered its present fate. There was a huge uproar in the newspapers and the parliament due to the selection. Trivandrum was a much smaller station then.

The 1980s saw a boom in passenger and freight traffic from the station. A new container yard was built. Ammonia storage, sulphur heaping and coal storage facilities were started near the station. It is because of these the station still registers on the IR map.

Many new trains were introduced during this time. They included:

  • 935/936 CHTS<—>BBVT Netravati express (now 6345/6346 TVC<—>LTT Netravati exp)
  • 957/958 CHTS<—>Dadar express (later 6657/6658 exp., now discontinued)
  • 929/930 Hyderabad<—>Cochin express (now 7029/7030 TVC<—>HYB Sabari express)
  • 903/904 Cochin<—>Rajkot express (now 6337/6338 ERS<—>HAPA exp)
  • 909/910 CHTS<—>Patna express (Now ERS<—>Patna 6309/6310 exp)
  • 937/938 CHTS<—>ADLS express (now 6337/6338 ERS<—>HAPA exp)
  • 911/912 CHTS<—>GKP Raptisagar express (now 5011/5012 TVC<—>GKP Raptisagar exp)
  • CHTS<—>Indore, CHTS<—>Bilaspur (now TVC<—>Indore, TVC<—>Bilaspur)
  • 923/924 CHTS<—>HWH (now 6323/6324 TVC<—>HWH)
  • Cochin<—>Varanasi (now 6359/6360 ERS<—>Rajendra Nagar exp)

The end begins

In 1991, CHTS lost its most precious treasure, the Cochin<—>Madras Exp. This train was extended to Alleppey.

The station served as a base for the push-pull services of Kerala. Push-pull trains operated from Cochin to Guruvayur, Kottayam, Alleppey and Shoranur. These trains have been replaced by ordinary passengers and now terminate at Ernakulam.

In 1996, Railways drew the electrification map for Kerala. Cochin was set to be a focal point for the electric locos. Even a loco shed was planned in the vast empty spaces adjoining the station. Alas, the Navy objected to the plan. Hence, the 6-kilometre line from Ernakulam to Cochin was not to be electrified. This meant that the electric trains would terminate at ERS rather than CHTS. A new coach maintenance facility was built at Ernakulam Marshalling Yard for this purpose. New sidings were also built.

The first train to be relocated from CHTS to ERS was the LTT<—>CHTS Netravati express. Raptisagar, Sabari, CHTS<—>HWH and all the other trains followed suit. The Tea Garden express clung on till 2001, when it was finally moved to ERS. Many of these trains have been extended from ERS to TVC. So they have altogether stopped operating from CHTS. Many freight trains too stopped coming to CHTS. Still, container, coal and ammonia traffic continue, giving some revenue to the line, not the station. These are now controlled separately and not under CHTS.

The Navy's permission finally was granted in 2002. By then most of the trains had ditched the station. The only trains operating were the SRR<—>CHTS pass and Tea Garden express. This time, surveys showed that the Venduruthy Bridge was not strong enough to support electrification. It was just too old. There was no point in building a new bridge just for the smattering of traffic.

Fall from grace

The station is a shadow of its glorious past. The day I visited the station, the collection was just INR 8.00. The station master told me that even if the collection is nil, the collection box has to be sent to ERS. Nobody calls up the station to enquire about the collection. Many days, it is less than the phone charge of the call.

All the sidings, trip shed and coach repair shed have been engulfed by weeds. Poisonous snakes, rabbits, scorpions and even porcupines are the main inhabitants. It will take crores of rupees to clean up. The station building has not received a coat of paint for years. The clock is dead. None of the announcement systems function.

Yet the station is very clean, thanks to the station master, who simply thrashes out the urchins that come here. Beggars know better than to haunt the place. The station is cleaned every morning by the sweepers. Even perfumed lemon grass oil is used. This expense is met by the staff. A wheel chair is available for disabled persons travelling on the SRR passenger.

A ray of hope

The future is bright according to the station master. Container terminals have been coming up, earning revenue for the station. If the container traffic continues to rise, a stronger Venduruthy Bridge will be built. If that happens, passenger trains may also make a comeback. All this depends on the state of Cochin Port. He said that Cochin Port is plagued by surprise trade union strikes. So many entrepreneurs prefer Tuticorin and Mangalore. But the situation is changing and maybe — just maybe — we may see grand trains at CHTS once again.

Let us hope so.

Acknowledgements

Jimmy Jose wishes to thank the following for their invaluable assistance:

  • K. Jose Thomas, my father
  • Mr. Prakash, Station Master, CHTS
  • Mr. Francis Joseph, Cochin Port
  • Mr. Narayanan, Cochin Port
  • Numerous locals
Material provided by Jimmy Jose, Copyright © 2004.
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