Towards the end of the 19th century while the rush for building railroads was ongoing across much of the world, there was a short-lived attempt at developing monorail systems for lighter loads and transport across short distances. While the conventional image of such a service is one where the wagon moves along an overhead rail, there were other options where the guide was under the vehicle. One such monorail was in operation for a brief while between Avadi and Poonamallee, run by the builder baron T Namberumal Chetty. What is of even greater interest is that it was designed by a Madras-based engineer and patented by him from here. 

T Namberumal Chetty

Our story begins with Charles Ewing, Civil Engineer, who after stints in places such as Barrackpore in Bengal came down to Madras in the late 19th century. Over the years his address is given as Adyar, Landon’s Gardens Kilpauk and Spur Tank House, Egmore. It was while he was in residence in our city that he filed for a patent for ‘an improved method of applying steam or any other motive power to the working of monorail tramways or railways with Charles Ewing’s patent mono rail tramway rolling stock’. 

From the 1900 issues of American Manufacturer, a trade magazine, we see Parry & Co had interested themselves in promoting Ewing’s monorail. They exhibited a model at the International Light Railways and Tramways Exhibition held in Islington, London that year. The article waxed eloquent on how this system was ideal for providing transport in the colonies and how it was half in cost as compared to conventional tramways owing to a single, as opposed to a double track. In February 1900, The Street Railway Review, a magazine published from Chicago, quoted from the Electrical Review of London where it described “a single rail tramway invented by Charles Ewing CE, of Adyar Madras”.  The system was the subject of a paper before the United Service Institution of India by Lt. Colonel FFR Burgess who described how with the monorail in place on a level road, one pair of bullocks could “on a single line, draw a train of carts, carrying a net load of from 6 to 7 tons a distance of 15 miles in a day with ease; it requires from 16 to 18 pairs of bullocks to draw this load in ordinary carts carrying the military regulation of 800 pounds load.  The trucks run on a single line of rail laid on the ground or roadway and are mounted on 2 or 3 double-flanged wheels placed under their centre. These wheels are of small diameter, varying from 15 to 30 inches, according to the size and weight of the trucks and rails, the flanges being twice as far apart as the width of the rail on which the wheels run. The whole weight of the truck is thus borne on 2 or 3 double flanged wheels which run on the single rail, so that, unless it was supported in some way it must fall over. The necessary support is afforded by a lightly constructed iron balance wheel of comparatively large diameter from 4 to 5 feet, with a 4 inch wide tyre placed at the side of the truck. This balance wheel runs on the surface of the ground or roadway about 4 ½ or 5 feet away from the rail. It runs on an axle which is pivoted at right angles to the centre of the truck and it is kept in position by a horn plate fixed to the frame of the truck. The axle is also furnished with a double helical spring which eases the jolting of the balance wheel when going over any inequalities. The platform of the truck which carries the load, extends to an equal distance on each side of the central line of the truck over the rail and flanged wheels, and the load would usually be evenly distributed on it but should it not be so there would be no risk of the truck upsetting, as the balance wheel provides for an excess of several hundredweight.” 

A prototype of the Ewing Monorail – the balance wheel can be clearly seen

The same article goes on to quote other advantages. The rails may be laid along the edge of the roadway except at bridges, where they would have to be carried out far enough to permit the carts to clear the sides. Electricity could readily be adapted as the motive power for such a system, and furnish a cheap equipment for light work. There is also reference to a letter from Ewing, wherein he states that the patents were secured on the system in many countries in 1895 and that as early as in 1881 he had exhibited a single rail tramway in which the draft animal was harnessed to the side of the cart.  He gave up that idea because of the width of road occupied, the fact that the animal was necessary to balance the car, and that one team could not draw a train of cars. That he was like all inventors continuously improving on his design is evident from his remark that animals could be given up altogether and a ‘traction engine’ could be used in their place. 

A loaded monorail

The next we hear of this monorail system is that T Namberumal Chetty, about whom a number of articles have already appeared in Madras Musings and this blog, was interesting himself in the project. He was a firm votary of light railways principally for moving much of the construction material his business required. He promoted the Madras Monorail Company and the telegraphic address of his construction businesses was in fact MONORAIL. This was the era when District Boards were investing in building feeder railway lines to the main two systems in Madras Presidency – the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway and the South Indian Railway. Namberumal Chetty clearly envisaged his monorail as a feeder to the SIR at Chengalpattu. The  Tramway and Railway World, in its October 9, 1902 issue took note of progress under him. “The Madras government has approved of the plan and statement of the Chingleput District Board in connection with the construction of tramways in the environs of the city of Madras outside municipal limits. The tramways will be on the monorail system patented by Mr Charles Ewing. The tramway will consist of a steel rail weighing 20 pounds per yard, supported by wooden sleepers [pyngadu or other equally good wood] each measuring 18 inches by 8 inches by 3 inches laid longitudinally, and 2 feet 10 inches apart from centre to centre, the space between the sleepers being 16 inches only. Except where crossing bridges and road junctions, the head of the rail will be one inch above the level of the road; but when crossing bridges and road junctions the head of the rail will be level with the surface of the road. The rails are fastened down to the sleepers by means of dog spikes each measuring 3 ½ inches by 2/3rd  of an inch, two being used to each sleeper. The concession is held by Mr. T Numberumall Chitti, the well-known building contractor of Madras, who will, no doubt, lose no time in pushing on the work, now that the formal sanction of the government has been given.” 

The Gnananbodhini of April 20, 1903 gives further details of the network that Namberumal Chetty planned. The article titled Madras Otraikambi Tramway states that the Poonamallee-Avadi line was to extend from the Poonamallee Toll Gate to the Carnatic Mills at Pulianthope via Ritherdon Road, Vepery High Road, Sydenhams Road, Farrens Road and Cooks Road. A second line was from Salt Cottaurs to Puzhal via Erukkanjeri High Road. A third line was from Moolakkadai on Erukkanjeri High Road via Old Jail to the Harbour (at least I assume that it what it is – the Tamil says Revutthurai). A fourth line began at Old Jail and proceeded via Linghi Chetty Street to Pachaiyappa’s College (on NSC Bose Road). The fifth line was from Salt Cottaurs via Wall Tax Road to a place identified as Manam Depot. A sixth line was from Saidapet Toll to Police Commissioner’s Office, Poonamallee High Road via Pallavaram, St Thomas Mount, Mount Road and Harris Bridge. The final line was planned from Mount Road and ran along the Buckingham Canal via Ice House to a place identified as the stone depot.

Ewing’s patent as displayed in London

The Indian Forrester of 1905 states that Namberumal had by then had many tramway concessions already secured and in addition was planning “ one from Poonamallee to Saint Thomas Mount (7 ½ miles), to connect the two lines already sanctioned by the government of Madras; and a line from the municipal laterite quarries at the Red Hills along the Erukkanjeri Road to the Municipal Toll Bar on that road (7 ½ miles)”.  All of these tramways were on Ewing’s monorail system and were worked by horse and bullock power. By 1907, the Poonamallee to Avadi line was in operation. There was also a similar system in operation in Patiala, Punjab and another at Kundala Valley, Idukki District. Of these, it was the Patiala State Monorail Tramway that was the most fully implemented, for passenger and freight and hauled by a locomotive. It ran from 1907 to 1927. Today, its rolling stock has been restored and is available for viewing at the National Rail Museum, Delhi. 

Change, always the only constant, was already underway, even as Ewing’s system found acceptance in pockets. The Electric Tramways came to Madras as a first in the country even as work on the monorail was on. It would seem, though it cannot be conclusively established pending further research, the relentless push of the railways in the countryside and the tramways and other forms of transport within the city meant the monorail did not stand much of a chance. By 1911, the first line between Avadi and Poonamallee was converted into a double rail tramway. By then, the idea of District Board feeder lines was no longer deemed attractive and the M&SM and SIR were keen on extending their own scope. 

What happened to Charles Ewing is unknown. We also do not know whether Namberumal Chetty simply closed his monorails or sold them to someone else. The Madras Electric Tramway clearly used his network map for much of its route was along what Namberumal had planned for his monorail. His Trivellore Light Railway, which ran from Thiruvallur was in operation till 1939 or so, even though he passed away in 1925. 

This article is part of a series I write on Lost/Surviving Landmarks of Chennai.