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Waiting for the TRAIN of Hope

The Cochin Harbour Terminus Railway Station lies forgotten with a single train gracing its platform. HEMJIT BHARATHAN remembers its glorious days.

AS YOU make your way through the deserted parking lot and step inside this old structure, a foreboding silence acknowledges your presence. The only sound that greets you in this vast building is the echo of your footsteps. Memories of another day, when this structure once represented the lifeline of Cochin sweep past. One of those memories, quite vivid, of me dragging my mother through the hustle and bustle to the Higginbothams book stall (that stood by the entry to the platform) coaxing her to buy me the latest Enid Blyton, while following hastily the porter, laden with our luggage to board the Madras Express, remains etched.

The Cochin Harbour Terminus railway station may not be an architectural wonder. But to most Kochiites it was at one time the mainspring of the city - the ideal spot to begin and come home to, after long journeys, expeditions, travels and jaunts. But now a sense of loss, remorse and guilt sets in anew each time one passes by this dilapidated building, which today is just a shadow of its former glory. Why did the city turn its head away from this `Old Faithful' terminus that was once the hub of activities? Does it deserve this fate?

Tracing the history of this terminus can be frustrating, for the exact date of its inception is not known due to non-availability of records. But a single glance at this desolate, stately structure tells it was built during more gracious times when the world was more sensitive and grateful and had a sense of time and place. Memories estimate it to be somewhere around the 1940s. Then it was under the charge of the Olavakode (present day Palakkad) Division, of Southern India Railways.

Right from the start, this railway station began to flourish rapidly to turn into the nucleus of Cochin. Tea, coffee, coir, cotton and other export consignments came here by wagonloads from the harbour, to be loaded to distant destinations the world over. Its strategic location made it a strong revenue-pulling base for freight traffic. A separate Coal Berth had to be built next to the wharf to cater to the terminus's constant demand for fuel. This berth has now been taken asunder though the line is still used to carry diesel oil for the ships. Those were the days when Cochin had the unique distinction of being the only place in the world where the harbour, railway station and the airport were strategically located within walking distance from the other. The booming of the ships, the puffing of the steam engines and the drone of the flights mingled vibrantly to make Willingdon Island the nerve centre, pulsating with activity.

The first passenger train that puffed out of this station, somewhere in the forties, was the Cochin-Shoranur passenger that had two trips - in the morning and evening. And a striking fact is that it is the only train that now operates from this terminus with the same timing and schedule for the last 60 years. But it was the introduction of the Madras-Cochin Express (now Chennai-Alleppey Express) in 1944 that also had through coaches to Bangalore and Bombay that elevated the status of this station. Being the British Raj era, these trains had separate coaches for privileged goods and travellers. Around the same time another ride, which added a lot of charm and romance, the Ooty-Cochin Tea Garden Express (now Tiruchirapally-Ernakulam Express) set off from this terminus. Many Kochiites hold warm memories of this scenic and picturesque journey that was broad gauge from Cochin to Mettupalayam and metre gauge from Mettupalayam to Ooty. Later the Island Express (now Kanyakumari-Bangalore Express) named after Willingdon Island also kicked off in the sixties.

An important landmark in the history of this terminus was in 1961 when the first diesel train was flagged of by the then Railway Minister, when many other parts of India still ran on steam. By this time this railway station had become a major focal point for passenger and cargo movement. The presence of the harbour, the airport, the naval base enhanced its status. The next two decades witnessed more trains chugging off from this terminus. A second train to Madras (now the Chennai-Trivandrum Mail) set forth. With the opening of this station to many other trains like the two Jayanthi Janathas, the Netravathi, Dadar, Rajkot, Patna, Bilaspur Expresses this terminus was directly linked to all the important and remote destinations of India. The Day Express too (now Parasuram Express) was another gross earner for this terminus. The eighties also saw a swell in cargo movement and container traffic. Storage facilities for Ammonia, Sulphur and Coal for industrial needs came up near the station.

Then, drastically, fate took a different turn. Most of the trains began to be extended or halted either at Ernakulam or Thiruvananthapuram. It began in 1991, when the Cochin-Madras Express, a great revenue earner for this station was extended to Alappuzha. Another major setback earlier in 1978, when Thiruvananthapuram was selected over Kochi as the base station of Southern India Railways, in spite of protests and uproar in the Parliament, contributed heavily to the downfall. However, it was in 1996 that the death knell was sounded when the Railways charted out the electrification route and decided to make this terminus the focal point. But the Navy and the Civil Aviation Department objected due to the risks involved for the incoming and ongoing flights at the Cochin Airport. The electrification was thus done only till the Ernakulam Junction. The six-kilometre route from Ernakulam to Island was thereby left out and remained unelectrified. This sealed the fate of this terminus.

With the Cochin Harbour Terminus now sidetracked, all opportunistic eyes glinted on Ernakulam. Developments at Ernakulam stations increased to accommodate more and more trains that deserted this station to make Ernakulam the hub. Consequently Cochin Harbour Terminus woke up to the new millennium with only two trains - the Shoranur Passenger and the Tea Garden Express. And the following year, the charming Tea Garden Express too, abandoned this terminus for Ernakulam.

Though neat and well swept the station today wears a deserted look. The old British clock no longer ticks. Nobody remembers when this elegant structure received its last coat of paint. The railway lines, trip sheds, coach repair sheds are overgrown with weeds due to want of traffic. Residents and commuters to Willingdon Island fear the scorpions, poisonous snakes etc. that wait to prey in these bushes. The lone faithful Shoranur Passenger, which plies everyday with a stubborn faithfulness, is the only reminder of its glorious past.

What is the future of this terminus? Will it languish itself into non-existence or will it make a comeback? Says Mr. Mathew George, the Area Manager Railways, "Cochin Harbour Terminus has served Kochiites for decades and is close to their heart. It is quite unlikely that this station will regain its former glory as too many developments have taken place outside the purview of this station. But the Railways and the Cochin Port Trust are considering preserving it as a heritage centre of Kochi as it has a lot of vintage value. It is an apt monument to showcase the rich history of the old Kochi and the British Colonial rule."

But yet there are many optimists who hope and would like to believe that this terminus may stumble back into its old self. Hope lies eternal in the human heart. As long as it is situated in the Willingdon Island it shall never stick out like a sore thumb. Its old world charm still has a major hold for many residents. Passenger traffic may have dwindled but this station still exists in the Indian Railway map due to the cargo movement. Besides, the new terminals springing up in the region and the unprecedented growth of container traffic from the Cochin port makes the region around it the hub of trade and commerce raising hopes. The world has witnessed many a strange and unexpected happening in the past - all in the name of economic growth. So who knows maybe some day in the near future Cochin Harbour Terminus with the spurt in container traffic shall once more witness resurgence with the revival of passenger trains.

Photo: Vipinchandran

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