Howrah's century

Print edition : December 16, 2005

A railway station that is both famous and spectacular, Howrah turns 100 years old.

Howrah station by night.-

HOWRAH station is not just the rail entrance to Kolkata, but it is the main gateway to the entire eastern and northeastern India. It came into existence as early as 1854 as a shanty that ran just two pairs of trains along a single track. It was in 1905, when a new station building was constructed, that the station came into its own. Howrah station celebrated its centenary on December 1.

On August 15, 1854, when the first train of the then East India Railways rolled out from Howrah to Hooghly, a distance of 24 miles (40 kilometres), the station was just a temporary tin shed with a small booking office and a single line running along a narrow platform. As the rail network started expanding in the region, another platform was added in 1865 and yet another in 1895. By then the station was running 32 trains a day.

The need for a new station building became imperative in 1900 when the Bengal Nagpur Railway laid a line to Howrah. In 1905, the old rudimentary structure was replaced by a new building with six platforms and provision for four more in the south wing of the construction. The station master took charge under the new designation of station superintendent, and his office was shifted to the new complex. A central road between the two wings that joined the Buckland Bridge later became the famous Cab Road.

The man behind the imposing new structure was Halsey Ralph Ricardo, a British architect, who drew up the design of the new station, sitting in his office in London. He chose the Romanesque style for the new station, with brick-built arches and windows and lofty towers that could be seen from across the Hooghly river. A huge clock was installed on the northeastern corner of the station for the benefit of those crossing the river to catch the train. For a long time, this structure remained the pride of eastern India's skyline. The main construction work, which started in 1901, was completed by 1911, and by the time Ricardo passed away in 1928, Howrah station not only was fully functional, but had also expanded towards the south. More than 50 of Ricardo's original drawings still lie with the Eastern Railway.

Down the decades, the station underwent expansion and numerous modifications. During the Second World War, numerous panes were erected in the grand concourse inside the building to provide resting place for passing soldiers. These were later occupied by refugees from East Bengal after Partition. The panes were cleared only in 1957, but not before the inauguration of railway electrification in the east by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who quipped that the station resembled a `marriage pandal'. After the electrification, two more platforms were added, for suburban trains.

In 1987, Howrah was declared a model station following extensive work undertaken to improve passenger facilities. Six years later, the new complex of Howrah station was opened, and four new platforms were commissioned for trains of the South Eastern Railway. The new complex also has within it a guesthouse, `Yatri Niwas', which can accommodate 100 people a night.

SOON Howrah will also have its own Regional Rail Museum, which is being planned along the lines of the National Rail Museum in New Delhi. "The museum will have representation in artefacts and works - old cabins, coaches and locomotives - from all the zonal railway offices in Eastern India," Soumitro Majumdar, Chief Public Relations Officer, Eastern Railway, told Frontline. The project, which will be executed in phases, will cost around Rs.1 crore, and the museum is expected to be open to public by February next year. A unique restaurant is also being planned in the museum, where old coaches will serve as exclusive cabins. Eastern Railways is also bringing out a book on the occasion of the station's centenary, called Vibrant Edifice - The Saga of Howrah Station, written by senior railway officials Soumitro Majumdar, Pradip Kumar and Dhruvojyoti Sengupta.

From an insignificant red brick structure with a roof of corrugated iron sheets, Howrah station has come a long way. From within its magnificent archaic structure, today it handles over 10 lakh passengers along with goods and parcels, through a mammoth system of 21 (soon to be 23) platforms and 297 pairs of trains - a far cry from the time when its platforms were not long enough to accommodate even five carriages of a train.

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