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All aboard the nostalgia express in Tiruchi’s Railway Museum

A 1951 Swiss steam locomotive (part of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway) at the Rail Museum in Tiruchi

With four cast-iron water tanks from ‘Negapatam’ (Nagapattinam) punctuating the vast foyer like colon marks and a wooden bench that may have seen many stations before this one, the Railway Museum in Tiruchi is an ode to the romance of train travel in India.
The museum, the first of its kind in the Southern Railway zone, is housed in a 9,000-square-foot double-storey building on a five-acre premises adjacent to the Tiruchi Railway Junction and was inaugurated in 2015. Three vast halls on the ground floor document the history of train travel in southern India, which goes back to the early days of the Victorian era.
Children looking at a vintage signal communication box kept inside the Rail Museum in Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu. M Moorthy

Children looking at a vintage signal communication box kept inside the Rail Museum in Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu. M Moorthy   | Photo Credit: M Moorthy

While the museum displays only a part of the archive built up by the Rail Heritage Centre at Tiruchi that was established in 2004 to collect and centralise the documentation of artefacts, photographs and memorabilia, it still offers a unique view into the importance of trains in the socio-economic growth of India from its days as a British colony to the present.
The Great Southern of India Railway Company (GSIR) started the boom in rail transport in the region by constructing the first line from Nagapattinam to Thanjavur via Tiruvallur in April, 1859.
  • Nearest rail link: Tiruchi Railway Junction
  • Entrance fee: ₹5 for children, ₹10 for adults
  • Timings: 9.30 am to 1 pm; 3 pm to 7.30 pm
In 1874, the lines operated by GSIR and the Carnatic Railway Company were amalgamated as the South Indian Railway (SIR). With the rapid expansion of the railways into the southern hinterland, SIR shifted its operations permanently from Nagapattinam to Tiruchi in 1880. Southern Railway came into existence on April 14, 1951 through the merger of the three state railways: Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway, the South Indian Railway and the Mysore State Railway.
Among the heritage items exhibited outside the museum are a Swiss-made ‘X’ class metre gauge steam locomotive built in 1953 that was being operated in Nilgiri Mountain Railway between Mettupalayam and Coonoor until 2011, a 1931 self-propelled mobile fire-fighting vehicle supplied to the then Mysore Railways in the 1930s, and a broad-gauge steam crane wheel set.
Inside, the halls showcase a wide variety of materials culled from different zones of the present-day Southern Railway. Among these are wind-up ‘time machines’ (aka clocks) that used to be a part of the street furniture in innumerable train stations and administrative buildings, before they were replaced by the modern electronic versions.
An old pendulum clock flanked by vintage lamps kept in the foyer of the Rail Museum in Tiruchi. M Moorthy 

An old pendulum clock flanked by vintage lamps kept in the foyer of the Rail Museum in Tiruchi. M Moorthy   | Photo Credit: M MOORTHY

Intricately-carved furniture from the living quarters of the ‘Agents’ (precursors to the District Regional Managers of today), can also be seen here, along with a motley collection of ink wells (when documents were written out with wooden pens with detachable nibs or quills made from bird’s feathers), terracotta tiles from the 1800s and a pre-Independence Indian Railway map from 1935.
It is interesting to see that most homes in India still have a version of the door padlocks that were used in the Railways in the 1800s. A ticket date punching machine from the 1920s is another unusual exhibit. There are 128 photographs and pictures with information about the Railways that are displayed in the halls. Among these, is a reprint of elephants being marshalled to construct rail lines, and another one of pachyderms being transported by train to another destination!

Wheels of progress

The museum exhibits are also a subtle pointer on how far railway equipment and engineering have progressed in India from the days of its inception.
“Indian Railways has been at the forefront of adapting to technology, just like any other sector in the country,” says a senior Railway official. “From coal to diesel and now electricity, trains have adapted to different fuel sources to keep up with the times, and this is something we want to show the younger generation as well.”
Among the planned new additions to showcase the engineering heritage of the railways is a miniature working model of the Pamban bridge that connects Rameswaram to mainland India over the sea. The model will also demonstrate the double-leaf bascule mid-section of the 6,776 ft sea bridge (built in 1914) that opens to allow ships and barges to pass through. A stall on functional cross-sections of different engines used in rail transport is also being planned.
“These days, operating trains has become very easy with the help of technology. But there was a time when even the smallest manoeuvre used to require considerable physical effort and calculation,” says the official.
The Railways is also engaged in creating a digital database of nine lakh paper documents pertaining to the Southern Railway, that will eventually be made accessible to the public. With the vacations on, the museum is hoping that visitor numbers will be higher than the current monthly average of 2,000-2,500 people. Extended timings are on the anvil, as are restroom facilities and an eatery to be established inside a refurbished stationary train coach.

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