Chapter XI

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The Far South

3. Tamil Nadu

The eastern portal was above the plains of Tamil Nadu – not very much above, but looking out over their dry expanse. After the constrictions of Kerala this was true railway country, and mostly metre-gauge country too, inheriting its system from the South Indian Railway. From the tunnel portal one could look ahead, see the railway stretching north-east towards Madras and imagine the rest of the system: its three loops leaving the main line on the seaward side and rejoining it and the various branches mostly diverging from these loops.

According to the South Indian Railway, the Main Line went from Madras to a pier opposite Ceylon; the south east line branched off this at Tiruchirappalli to reach the sea further south at Tuticorin and the south west line branched off this to go to Trivandrum. To make matters worse, the direct line from Tiruchirappalli to Madras was actually a chord, the older long way round still being called the Main Line. But such complications can wait: for the moment let the train descend into Shencottah, with its marshalling yard and running shed for banking engines. Now the universal YG, these were till recently 4-8-0’s built to the general dimensions of a S.I.R. ten-wheeler, but with more and smaller wheels. Here also one found YL 2-6-2’s come up from Tirunelveli and faced one’s first decision: on by main (chord) line or around by the loop? Since the direct way crossed dry country with the ranges distant in the west but occasional red hills closeby, it was more interesting to take the loop as it turned away to the south, running on a yellow rain-shadow plain close beside ranges that were as varied as a collection of pointed and rounded peaks as any in India.

Tirunelveli, midway round the loop, had a branch line and a YL-hauled branch train that wandered off over dry paddy fields till it came near the sea and the sand dunes. The main intermediate station was improbably named Nazareth – or not so improbably, for its church tower was twice the height of the palms. Onwards to Tiruchendur the track was laid on the coastal sand just inland from the bleached yellow beach and grey waves of Gulf of Mannar, with unfenced halts every mile or so serving villages with prominent churches. But Tiruchendur itself was a Hindu town with an important temple, and not a sign of the narrow gauge branch that once continued beyond it through the dunes. That line was sacrificed for scrap metal during World War II.

Tiruchendur was not a port; the port of these parts was Tuticorin, some miles north along the coast and the terminus of what SIR reckoned as its South East Line. In railway terms, Tuticorin station was 20 miles away from Maniyachi Junction, which lay north of Tirunelveli. Its station building was old and arched. Tired and lying back on a long-armed chair in the upper class waiting room one night I remember gazing at the lath and plaster ceiling and at the fan turning and shaking its long stalk and meditating that this room was 15' 6" high, 15' 6" by long by 9' 3" broad. Now why should the railways have built waiting rooms with height their greatest dimension, and why should they paint the dimensions by the doors to make such meditations possible? But they needn’t last all night; the late evening passenger to Maniyachi Junction had a through coach with both second and third class giving an overnight run to Madurai and a less than overnight ride to Virudunagar.

At this Virudunagar, a junction lying on an undulating tract of black soil, the loop from Shencottah returned to the direct line from Trivandrum to Madras, and another loop commenced. This latter was completed only in the late 1950’s, some say because a son of the district had risen to high political office. Be that as it may, the cut-off line from Virudunagar to Manamadurai, where it connected with the Main Line direct from Tiruchirappalli, was useful in that it joined the far south to Tiruchy via the coastal plain, allowing goods trains to dodge the hills about Madurai.

At Virudunagar my early morning choice was plain. As the new shift of shunters and coolies walked down the platform towards the marshalling yards swinging its tiffin carriers gently, the local passenger to Madurai docked and gathered its passengers. The alternative to joining it and so leaving behind a YL hissing white steam before it, was to go via Manamadurai.

The four carriages that worked this latter service twice a day waited at No. 3 platform, which, being a bay in the island that formed 2 and 4, was well away from the station building. Obviously they didn’t expect much custom. Their branch ran across country that was dry farmed and so not thickly populated; country which, worse, had plenty of busses. On top of this, the connecting train both ways was a passenger which was timetabled to stop at Virudunagar in the course of a 491 mile, 30 hour journey; sometimes it got lost and there were no connections. On my morning the connection was made one way only before a YL backed onto the four carriages and took them away, a small modern steam engine and carriages so old as to have outward swinging doors, travelling on a line newly and heavily built and pausing at loops to cross heavy, YG hauled freights. East of Aruppukkottai the black soil gave way to country which, though 20 miles inland, was a gravelly, gritty littoral covered in feather-leaved thorn bushes. Tank bunds wandered along its contours, forcing the railway to stay up on a half-eroded embankment. Yet this line was built to high standards, complete with road overpasses perhaps used by a bus or two a day.

Then a curve into Manamadurai, whence the so-called Main Line went south-east to Rameswaram and north to Trichy, while a branch went north-west to Madurai. The town was a mile from the junction, so as soon as the local docked (again at No. 3 platform) most of its peasant passengers set out walking. Few remained to watch the Mail for Rameswaram arrive from Madras behind a YP and exchange this for the YL which had just arrived from Madurai on the connecting local. Even fewer waited while the YL shunter rearranged the carriages that had been standing at the platform so that at 1050 No. 132 Rameswaram – Madurai passenger could arrive unannounced but on time, its YL snuffing into platform two. Then, again on time, came the Japanese-built railcar from Trichy, its engines idling with a deep liquid sound and its driver alone in his wide cab braking carefully. Before his passengers could alight they had been swamped by those boarding, ever anxious for seats. But continuing to Madurai in a train of six carriages there was no shortage of room, and no shortage of power in the YL, which hauled the train evenly over the flats to the city of the temple of the goddess Sri Meenakshi, which, being literally translated, means Fish-eyed.

Madurai was a city of half a million people, yet very compact and medieval, completely dominated by the four main towers of its temple. The station was alongside the outermost of the streets that, forming squares round the temple, comprised the old town. It had a No. 1 platform and a couple of islands, the outer being used of a morning by the 0800 Manamadurai and 0810 Bodinayakkanur, both consisting of old stock with curved wooden sides. The Bodi YL came after the Manamadurai train had left, stopped just long enough for the shunter to hammer the tightening screw of its combined buffer-drawhook and make it fast, and then took its train away, curving westwards on light track with lots of joints.

Though the line was running towards the western ranges more or less in the same direction as the river on which Madurai stood, it kept away from the paddy fields and stayed up on dry ground, the outwash slopes of a series of low, rocky ranges. So, with station stops where passengers loaded sacks of paddy (a traffic less acceptable to the competing, faster busses) the train passed beside various low but abrupt hills, mostly of a bleached but still red rock, till one such range barred the way ahead. The resulting ghat section was mild, but it proved that a smallish 2-6-2, even a modern one, was quite a bit affected by 1/80 grades when hauling five coaches up them, more by getting slowed down than by increasing its noise. Probably this was due to an effect to save coal for near the summit cutting. The driver, deciding that further steam saving was unnecessary, pulled out the throttle and the loco snorted into an acceleration. On the far side of the range dry earth, sandy with the debris of the hills, sloped away gently, infertile, its bushes goat-eaten. And now there were real hills. 7000 footers with a ridge line close enough to make out the individual pine trees on top. But the train didn’t tackle these; it terminated on a scraggly, gravelly rise on the outskirts of Bodinayakkanur, with hills to the north and hills to the west and the road to the cardamom, cinnamon and tea plantations zigzagging up their face.

The main line from Madurai towards Madras passed through hill country to Trichy but after that it was dead flat. It had five expresses daily and further passenger trains, all with YP’s, the only variety being that some engine crews had painted different insignia on their smoke deflectors. Yet some trains required assistance – say a YG at the back – on the bank towards Dindigul, which didn’t feel quite right since the grades in question were laid in a relatively level gap between two hill ranges. Dindigul was the junction for Coimbatore by a cross-country line, monotonously YP/YG worked, that just kept within sight of the hills all the way. By contrast the South East Line tackled another low range and so came down into Tiruchirappalli Junction, the former headquarters of the South Indian Railway.

With five lines converging on it, all of them to an extent main, Tiruchy Junction could not help but be important. It was in fact one of the busiest non-metropolitan junctions in India, and one of the best organised. The station buildings dated from after the decline of the Mughal Revival and before modern concrete, and were connected to the island platforms by subway, with picket fences between the running tracks to make crossing the lines difficult. The two platform faces nearest the building had broad gauge tracks used by the connection to the West Coast main line at Erode (a line with the dubious distinction of having been built to the broad gauge by the former Great Southern of India Railway, converted to metre by the South Indian and then back to broad when the SIR shared in the dismemberment of the Madras Railway.)

This section had two nightly expresses, composed mainly of through carriages for Kerala and Bangalore and hauled by HPS 4-6-0’s. There were also seven passenger trains and a few suburban trips run by a tank engine and two carriages. Nothing could hide the fact that this broad gauge line was the least important of the five lines. The expresses that came to Trichy every evening bound for Madras were on metre gauge, and so also those that arrived early every morning. There were metre gauge local trains aplenty too, some of them long brown rakes with 4-6-4T’s and some worked by railcars.

From Trichy to Madras there were two routes, the main line wandering through the paddy fields of the Cauvery Delta and then running along the coast, and the chord line, direct to Villupuram, where the two routes joined for the last 99 miles to Madras Egmore. The chord line was by far the shorter and less interesting route, for once it had grazed close to the foot of Trichy rock-fort and crossed two sandy branches of the Cauvery River, it struck out across a dry lateritic plain and simply kept going. Apart from one intermediate junction (Vriddhachalam, turn left for Salem and the hills, right for the coast and the main line) there was nothing to interrupt the sustained YP beat of the day express, except perhaps delay at a crossing loop or two.

Just before Villupuram the Main and Chord lines approached one another, their convergence being guarded by a fettlers’ shrine with a humble trident and old carriage tail lamp. Then the electric overhead started, for the line between Villupuram and Madras was electrified in 1965 as an extension to the Madras suburban electrification. While the express waited for its Japanese electric loco, one could spare a thought for the two branch lines running from Villupuram – one line a long route through low hills to strike the broad gauge at Katpadi, the other the short branch to Pondicherry. Trains on this latter were still often worked by an MT tank. It gave a certain pleasure to arrive at the capital of the former French India behind a locomotive built by Hohenzollern, especially since Pondy station was so provincial-French, complete to the little square with statue outside.

Half the journey onwards to Madras was over dead flat country, but the second half ran between low residual hills, some of them with temples on top. At Chingleput, too, it ran along the bund of a large perennial tank. This was best appreciated after one had sat straight up all night on a hard third class seat, with one’s neck nearly broken by the sideways lurching of the carriage, unable to sleep and unable to stay awake. Then, at 5 a.m., the view across Chingleput tank, with black silhouetted hills on the far side and the morning star reflected in the red beginnings of dawn; then the view was incredibly beautiful.

The suburban section began at Tambaram, 16 miles from Madras Egmore. The main line continued to Egmore as a single track with loops, the suburban double track being entirely independent, the undisputed domain of blue and cream multiple units running through to Madras Beach, where they were encountered in Chapter I. So through the suburbs of Madras – the mixture of flashy pastel-concrete houses and mud’n’thatch slums – to terminate under the train shed of Madras Egmore.