Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVII No. 2, May 1-15, 2017

Rambling in our museums (4) … with N.S. Parthasarathy

A rail journey into the past

The sight of a massive railway locomotive effortlessly hauling a long train of carriages and tooting away in self-adulation never fails to fire the imagination of the young and the old. It is a powerful symbol of sheer energy. Most boys once fantasised that they would one day become engine drivers. It was to relive this urge of my boyhood days that I went to the Chennai Rail Museum in Perambur. It is sited on 6.25 acres of land and offers a large collection of technical and heritage exhibits, models, artefacts and rare photographs tracing the history of the railways and of the Integral Coach Factory (ICF), which was famously described by Nehru as one of the ‘Temples of India’.


Working model complete with bridges, crossings, tunnels, stations and signals.


Model of a custom-built carriage exported to Sri Lanka.

The entrance to the museum housed the entrance booth in a colourfully painted rail carriage. You enter a complex comprising four sections – the Diamond Jubilee Gallery, the Locomotive and Power Unit Gallery, the Indoor Gallery I and the open-air exhibits, besides the toy train and the children’s park. A snack counter with comfortable seating is available for refreshment. The  footfall is above 300 a day with surges on holidays. The entrance fee is Rs. 40 which, with an imaginative touch of hospitality, includes a cup of tea or coffee.

The Diamond Jubilee Gallery contains a photographic history of ICF and its milestones – including visits by the who’s who of the world – a young Queen Elizabeth, Russia’s Brezhnev, the King of Greece, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and many more. ICF is an Indian showcase. On display are models of custom designed carriages – amazingly close in detail to the real ones – exported to Zambia, Uganda, Bangladesh, Mozambique, Angola, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Tanzania and Nigeria. The evolution of the railway carriage from primitive horse-drawn wagons, open to sky and weather, to the modern luxury compartments and palaces on wheels is vividly presented by models inherent in design, detail  and colour to the originals. Among the photographs, the enlarged aerial pictures of the Pamban bridge – one, showing the train crossing and the other, with the bridge open to allow the ship crossing – are impressive.


Actual rail carriage as entrance booth to the Museum.


Engine built in 1917 by North British Locomotive Company seen on location.

Standing close to the live rolling stock open-air exhibits of rare old locos and related repair and rescue equipment is a special experience. An engine built in 1909 by the North British Locomotive Company stands proudly, having steamed its last as late as 1994! The 1935 built Hercules steam crane with a lifting capacity of 35 tons used for rescue in accidents and breakdowns is a real monster. Although not belonging to the rail family, the steam plough, with flat wheels to be able to cope with soft ground, is a giant in dimensions.The museum also exhibits various vintage coaches such as the Ooty and Simla mountain “toy” scale trains. Many of the older models date back a hundred years or more.

Amidst large sized exhibits, relatively smaller items charm their way into our hearts. Commonly known parts of car or domestic engines that we see day-to-day seem, in the rail engine context, surprisingly gigantic in dimension viewed from point blank range – engine blocks, crankshafts, cam shafts – changing our scale of vision from that of Lilliput to Brobdingnag. It is difficult to resist the charisma of the familiar hand-held black coloured signal lamps with red and green plates that we as children loved to see the guard using at nights to convey the stop-start messages to the engine driver. And you cannot ignore the wall clock made in 1878 and still working.

The special feature of this museum is that, apart from models and artefacts, it provides interesting titbits of information about railways. Of the many rare old photographs, the one that stands out is that of the first passenger train in India of 1853, that operated on the Boribunder-Thane line over a distance of 20 miles (34 km now) carrying 400 passengers. Nearer home, super-senior citizens of Chennai would recall a similar train operating between Park station and Conjivaram, covering 35 miles (56 km), and the station scenes of tearful farewells and mutual promises of frequent letters through postcards. The busiest station in India, one of the displays says, is Lucknow with 64 trains passing that station every day. Royapuram station in Chennai, commissioned in 1853, is the oldest station to have survived the vicissitudes of time and to remain operative till recently. Royapuram also has the distinction of being India’s second oldest line; Royapuram to Arcot (Wallajahpet) opened in 1856.

A community’s unforgettable contribution

No story of the Indian railway is complete without reference to the legendary role of the Anglo-Indian community in the growth and reputation of the Indian Railway as a model of efficiency. The Museum could have had a special section on the role of this community.

Anglo-Indians had a commanding presence in train operations and particularly the locomotive foot plate. (Foot plate is the platform for the crew in the cab of a railway engine.) Their pride in workmanship and their devotion to duty was unparalleled.

Every shed had its ‘speed king’ – a driver who could “coax that little extra out of locomotive and run the trains punctually using every trick of the trade.” V. Anand, former General Manger, Southern Railway, speaks of Andrew Batty who “used to take the 137 Down Trivandrum Express from Villupuram towards Madurai covering the 180 km of the Villupuram-Tiruchchirappalli section in three hours flat.” Then, there was Besterwich who brought the train up to Tiruchchirappalli with only one yard khalasi who had been given a crash course in firemanship during the firemen’s strike.

Another legend was De Monte who “ended his last trip with the hand still on the brake lever, by sheer will power. The moment he stepped out of the foot plate, he collapsed and was declared dead on arrival at the hospital. He was a true railwayman till his last breath.” (This note draws liberally from Anglo-Indians’ Contributions to Indian Railways by V. Anand, 2003)

The 1935 built Hercules steam crane for rescue operations, seen on location. Inset: Details of Hercules crane.

The day of my visit was a special day for schoolchildren. They seemed to enjoy every moment of the visit, particularly admiring the models and the live rolling stock in the open yard. The running model is a miniature of the railway system, authentic in detail down to level-crossings, bridges, tunnels, stations and signals. A sign said that the running model was not working and was under maintenance. I could share the children’s intense disappointment.
The running model seemed to have been under repair for a while; this and the empty glass case meant for souvenirs were the two flaws in an otherwise immaculately managed show. It is hoped that these shortcomings would get corrected soon.

Even in these days of speed and real time communication, travel by rail has not lost its charm. A recent journey by Mangalore Mail First Class AC in a coupe travelling along the west coast was an unforgettable experience – getting down at stops for a stretch or for a cup of coffee, ordering meals in the compartment, watching the country-side, the fisherfolk in catamarans, the floating timber, the smoke stacks of tile factories, rivers joining the sea alternating with the backwaters – making the destination and the work waiting there for me irrelevant. The rail journey itself had become my destination.

Photograph of first coach built by the Integral Coach Factory after its inauguration in 1955.
Giant-sized steam plough seen on location.


  1. V.SWAMINATHAN says:

    IMy father and grand father was in Railways. I could remember the contributions of Angloindians to the Railways. Seeing the phtograph of the first coach built I could come to the conclusion the basic shell design still continues in the same design. Yes it is a perfect design for generations.

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