A drawing for a Madras Railway goods engine, dating to 1870
A drawing for a Madras Railway goods engine, dating to 1870

“On the occasion of the inauguration of Metrorail, why don’t you write something on rail heritage?” asked my good friend, K. Saravanan. It’s well-known that the first railway line of South India was from Royapuram to Arcot and that the train was flagged off on June 26, 1856 by the then Governor of Madras, Lord Harris. The Metro had its inaugural run in the 210th year of the Railways’ debut in Madras, starting off on June 29, 2015.

The Madras Railway Company (MRC) began its work in 1853, when a team of three — George Barclay Bruce, Chief Engineer; Edward Smalley, Agent and Major T.T. Pears, Consulting Engineer, took charge. Construction proceeded at a brisk pace thereafter, Bruce designing the Royapuram Station and much of the civil structures. The arrival of the first four steam engines, each weighing 13 tonnes, was quite an event, for they were the heaviest consignments till then to be delivered at Madras. These “ponderous masses of iron”, all made at Glasgow, arrived on board the ship Haveling on June 13, 1855. The Governor, a number of gentlemen and a “fair sprinkling of ladies” proceeded to the Royapuram beach to witness their offloading. There was no harbour then, and the ship was docked two miles at sea. The engines had to be hoisted by cranes from the ship, lowered on to a waiting raft and then rowed ashore. The process of offloading took a day for each engine, and by Monday, June 18, all four were safely on the beach. How they were taken to the railway tracks is an unresolved mystery.

By 1856, there were 65 miles of operating track. The railway earned 5,196 pounds sterling in the first three months of operation — 39, 903 passengers contributing to 3,101 pounds out of the total revenue. The Metro has seen that many passengers on the first day itself! Like the Metro, the railway took forever to build to its final length of 450 km. In the initial days, it was criticised, as beginning nowhere, running through nowhere and ending nowhere, for Royapuram and Arcot were relatively unknown destinations. Bruce was more or less the E. Sreedharan of his times, for he completed the 65 miles of the Madras railway line in record time. But his health broke down in the process and by December 1857, he returned to England. Being an active Freemason, his brothers in the order gave him a grand farewell, an event presided over by the Chairman of the MRC, Robert Stephenson. Back home, Bruce had a long and illustrious career, and eventually received a knighthood.

The MRC offices at Royapuram can still be seen as sad ruins from the over bridge. The station, now the oldest surviving terminal in the Indian subcontinent, also stands, though threatened with demolition. In a way, it is the forefather of all other rail transport in the city — the Southern Railway, the suburban system, the MRTS and now the Metro.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 11, 2015, under the Hidden Histories column

Other stories on the Madras Railway:

Royapuram – where Railway employees first struck work

Royapuram’s tryst with Royalty