Every day, at seven in the morning, Murugan walks in to the Chennai Central station and sits on the benches in the platform, waiting for the morning trains to arrive. Once a train pulls into a stop, he rushes near the coaches to see if any passengers require help with the luggage. He haggles with the passengers and arrives at a mutually agreeable rate and then begins his day as a coolie in one of the busiest stations in the country.
Murugan has seen the station transform over the past 45 years and was employed here at the age of 20. “In the beginning, the station used to be very majestic and clean. Food was served at the railway canteen and only in the last decade or so individual brands opened shop here, the latest of the lot being Ratna Café and Madras Coffee House,” he says.
Having started operations in 1873, Chennai Central is close to completing 140 years. From a station with four platforms and a 12 coach capacity, the station now has 15 platforms, with a 24 coach capacity. “The station handles over 4,00,000 passengers per day and there are around 20,000 visitors coming to see-off or receive passengers. The current traffic is being managed within the framework of the old structure, with a few additional changes, such as the Moore market complex, which came up later. In the 1990s, when the IRCTC was formed, modular stalls came up and food plazas were set up,” says a railway official. The clock tower at the station has remained unchanged, a testimony to the innumerable changes that have happened around it. It rings an alarm every 15 minutes and is a reminder to the fact that in a railway station, time is of prime importance.
Among the few things that have remained constant in the station is the outlet of Higginbothams. M Raju, the manager of the store at Central, began his career delivering newspapers to the store and has seen the place change over the last many years. “It has been a huge experience interacting with readers from different parts of the country, who stop by this shop to get a book before they embark on their journey. Since we are at a station, our sales have not been impacted by the trend of online shopping, as people prefer buying a book just a few minutes before their journey,” he says. The change in the lifestyle of passengers has adversely affected the likes of Murugan. “Earlier, people carried bulky trunks and hold-alls and not everyone could lift them alone. More than 600 coolies worked here at that time. Today, most passengers come with trolley bags and hence, we get very less work to do. The number of coolies has come down to a little over 300,” says the septuagenarian, who excuses himself as another train arrives at the platform.
Handling a station like this poses numerous challenges. “In times of calamities like flood or rail mishaps, it becomes difficult to manage the situation as such natural occurances are not predictable. There is likely to be around 1,80,000 passengers in the station at a given point and all of them will be looking for information and some arrangement at the station. Getting things done on time is a challenge,” says a railway official. The increased traffic has also made the station stuffy during the peak hours. “The number of terminuses should be increased in Chennai. Perambur and Beach stations should be explored as alternatives,” he says.
A few minutes away from the Central is another major terminus – Egmore. Built in the gothic style, with imposing domes and corridors, Chennai Egmore railway station was earlier a fort called Egmore Redo. Fifty-one year old Karuppaiah, says he has been around the station ever since he was born as his father and grandfather worked as coolies at the station. “The place where the station now stands was earlier used by the British to store their ammunition. Later the land was purchased and railway construction began in 1905. In June 1908 the station was opened to the public,” he says.
Away from all this humdrum, almost forgotten by the public, is the Royapuram railway station, which is now the oldest surviving railway station in the subcontinent. The first train that ran between Royapuram and Wallajah in 1856 had the Nawab of Arcot as its first passenger. Over the last few years, the station has been in the news for having been embroiled in court cases and possibilities are being seen to see if the station can be revived for passenger traffic. If it does happen, it was be the railway story coming a full circle, starting a new chapter from where it began.