SALEM: A whiff of the Raj days engulfs you as you enter the New Town Railway Station. Right in the heart of the bustling Salem town, it represents an isle of isolation separated from the present by at least 80 years.
As a train chugs into the platform it unleashes a flurry of activities in a clear throwback to the railway communication ritual of the 1920s. The driver throws a token-and-pouch ring onto it, which the station master collects. Then he puts the ball inside the pouch into the Semaphore Arm machine. This is the way to signal a train’s arrival to the next station.
An inheritance of the British system, long jettisoned elsewhere, it still survives here. Every year, an officer from the State Department of Weights and Measures comes to check the Semaphore Arm machines here and the ritual continues.
The characters here fit perfectly into a location suspended in a time warp. Station master R Ratnavelu is visibly excited on receiving us. Not many people drop by in the station that caters to two metre-gauge trains, twice daily, to give him company. He keeps looking on either side as if searching for words, starts talking and gets lost in it eventually.
At a high point in his speech, Ratnavelu proudly declares himself ‘‘a representative of the President of India’’. We smile politely focussing deep into the tea brought by a watchman.
If Ratnavelu does not meet wayward journalists like us, who take short-cuts across rail-roads, then the only people he gets to talk to are beggars and trespassers, he says.
Ratnavelu’s other companion at the work-place is the Chief Parcel Supervisor R Krishnan. Krishnan fondly recollects the days when the station was busy, before the Salem Junction took away half its work; a time when trains ran from this station to Egmore, Nagarpatnam and Thiruvarur, among other places.
He advocates vehemently the resumption of the routes. Parcels may also be sent to the surrounding places like Ayothyapattam, Karippatty, Udayapa, Yercaud and Namakkal. What’s more, trains from Mumbai and Bangalore, may go to the southern centres via Chennai, without having to go to Chennai at all.
He strongly feels it’s a waste that this station, given its location, has not been converted into a Broad Gauge one. The very fact that the station registers a daily earning of approximately Rs 1.5 lakh from the recently-launched computerised Passenger Reservation Service (PRS) counter is proof that it’s only awaiting the infrastructure to cater to the population of the city.
Krishnan is still searching for the foundation stone of the railway station in order to know when this "prestigious place" was inaugurated. Going by the manufacturing dates of some of the machines used here, the station is approximately 100-years-old, Krishnan says, pointing to the British clay titles on the ceiling.
Standing under the sprawling tree that shades the inside of the station, with dozing figures on the platform and not a signboard to give you a clue about the decade in which you happen to be - you’d never guess you’re in the heart of a busy town. Even the PRS booking counter, being in a far corner of the station, does not disturb the tranquility of the station.
The two friendly moustached officers trundling along also exuded an archaic air with their starched white cotton shirts and trousers.
The grandfather-style thick black-rimmed spectacles of one drags you deeper into the past. Ever wondered about being in a time capsule.