Oldest Rly station gets facelift

Last Updated 13 May 2017, 18:29 IST

Not many people in the country know that Royapuram railway station in Chennai is the oldest surviving railway station in India.

More than 160 years after it was built, the elegant Royapuram station is getting ready for another facelift and, perhaps, a new lease of life. Thanks to protests by several stakeholders, Royapuram station is slowly being beautified.

Royapuram station, which was inaugurated on July 1, 1856 by the then Governor of Madras Presidency, Lord Harris, was totally neglected. The first rail services to be operated were between Royapuram and Ambur and another from Royapuram to Tirveloore (now Thiruvallur district). One train carried Lord Harris and 300 Europeans to Ambur and the second one had Indian invitees travelling to Thiruvallur.

Royapuram was the main railway station of Chennai till 1907. Though the first railway line in India was started between Boree Bunder (later Victoria Terminus and now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) and Tannah (currently Thane station) in 1853,  the two stations have undergone a sea change over the years.

“Now, the station will have better facilities for passengers and technical experts will refurbish the place without spoiling the heritage structure,” said S Venkatesh from Chennai Rail Passengers' Association, which is one of the organisations that spearheaded the campaign for the station's beautification.

According to him, there were reports that Southern Railways officials had approached the Heritage Conservation Committee requesting for deletion of Royapuram station building from the list of heritage buildings to enable them to demolish it and undertake some projects.

He pointed out that the Madras High Court intervened on a public interest litigation and suggested that the Railways expand Royapuram station by preserving its heritage portion. “We also staged series of protests when there were plans to turn the station into a godown for cement and fertilisers,” he said.

At present the Royapuram station is in the 16th  place in the list of heritage structures prepared by the Tamil Nadu government. The station hall has some old pictures of the station before its restoration. Inside the office, a lone railway clerk was issuing tickets. The slanting huge roof of the office is supported by antique beams. The platform, which is clean, has an impressive look.

Southern Railways sources said a number of development projects have been planned on the 75-acre station premises, including four rail lines to connect stations in south Tamil Nadu with the north. In addition, creation of a passenger terminal is also on the cards.

Railways officials indicated that they may convert Royapuram station into a third major terminal in Chennai. “The station is historically very significant. Therefore, the heritage structure will be given a facelift without altering the original structure,” a senior railways official said.

The official said that a small permanent exhibition showcasing the history of the railway station will be set up in a bid to educate the future generation. “The work will start soon and expected to be completed in a year,” he added. The official did not disclose the money that would be spent on renovation and expansion  of the station. The brickwork station will be restored with the help of technical experts.

In 2005, the station received  the first new lease of life after it was restored at a cost of just Rs 30 lakh. “Before the first restoration, the station was virtually used as a dump yard. Dogs and rats could be seen everywhere in the station,” Raghu, a retired postman, who used to deliver letters to Royapuram railway station during 1970s said. “One could also hear the chirping of birds,” he added.
He said high ceilings, structural arches and huge pillars and the bright red-and-white structure of Royapuram station stands out as a testimony to the architectural heritage of the Indian Railways. He said that Burma teak furnishings in the station hall were stolen during the initial period of restoration.

Raghu said the Railways was not releasing funds regularly for restoration of the historic structure built by the erstwhile Madras Rail Company. He said over the years building walls, built of classic bricks, have started peeling off. Apart from the restoration, the north Chennai people want the station modernised and commencement of train services.

As the station could accommodate more than 25 railway tracks, they feel that Royapuram station could easily be made a major terminal like Chennai Central and Egmore.

Another railway staffer, deployed at Royapuram station, suggested that the place could be made into a tourist spot as most of the people do not know about its history. “Only a few foreign tourists come to see this place,” he said.

However, historians and archaeologists feel that even small alteration of the oldest surviving station in the entire sub-continent will ruin one of the finest heritage structures. “They (restoration and development) have to be done carefully without disturbing the structure. They need to consult archaeologists before carrying out any restoration or developmental work in and around the station premises,” Kathavarayan, a historian who lives near the station for several decades, said.

Tamil Nadu's heritage conservation authorities said that they are closely monitoring the work at the station and seeking periodic reports from the railways officials with regard to the development project.

(Published 13 May 2017, 18:29 IST)

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