From the 1930s to the 1950s, I regularly used to travel between Ceylon and India by train, with a rather sickening 1½ hour sea crossing in between. It was only recently I discovered that this route was finalised a 100 years ago this year, when there was signed an agreement between the South Indian Railway Company and the British India Steam Navigation Company on rights of business.
Under the agreement, “All traffic from stations south of Madurai to Colombo and vice versa would continue to be routed via Tuticorin (from where B.I. steamers would take them to Colombo).
The new route via Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar (in Ceylon) was to get the traffic from all other stations of the South Indian Railway to Colombo and vice versa.”
The Indo-Ceylon railway connection was formally opened for the Madras-Dhanushkodi Boat Mail in February 1914. By 1918, BI began to phase out its operations and, before long, the rail line was the only link between the two countries, if you don’t count the rather unsafe coastal country craft.
Before it was decided that ferry steamers would make the 21-mile sea crossing that linked the two railway terminuses, a causeway based on Adam’s Bridge – 7 miles on land and 13 miles on water – was discussed, plans worked out and a Rs.11.1 million cost was estimated. This plan was, however, soon shelved and a train ferry was looked at, the carriages being bodily carried by steamer from one point to the other. This plan too was abandoned and piers were built at either end for three 688 tonne, 260 feet-long turbine steamers designed by Sir William White and ordered from A.J. Innis Ltd., Glasgow. They were called the Curzon, Elgin and Hardinge, and were launched in 1912-1913. By the time I was using this route in the 1930s, they had been replaced by the Irwin and Goschcn.
But before the sea crossing, another hurdle had to be crossed. And that was the 1¼ mile-long Pamban Channel linking the Indian mainland with the island of Rameswaram at whose eastern tip was Dhanushkodi. To cross the channel, a 6776 feet long, rail-track-bearing viaduct was built with 113 spans on the western side and 32 on the eastern. Linking them was a 289-feet long rail-track-bearing, steel bridge which had a mechanism that enabled its two halves to lift in the air and provide a 200 feet wide space for ships that needed less than 14 feet depth to pass through. The Pamban Bridge, as it was popularly called, was described as “a two-leaf Scherzer rolling lift bridge”, taking its name from the Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge Company of Chicago that designed it. The bridge was built by a Scottish company, Head, Wrightson & Co. Ltd.
On December 22, 1964, the six-coach Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger was crossing the viaduct in a cyclonic storm when a 20 feet high tidal wave smashed into it and washed it into the sea. The death toll was estimated to be anywhere between 115 and 200, a variation on account of the inability to put a number on the ticketless travellers. The Dhanushkodi track and station were also washed away, putting an end to the service to this terminus. The Scherzer Bridge was also badly damaged, with 126 of its 145 girders collapsing. But with most of them salvaged from the sea and with the Scherzer lift span barely damaged, the Pamban viaduct was make operational again in three months. But the terminus was shifted to Rameswaram. This service continued for about 20 years more but came to an end with the worsening ethnic conflict. I wonder what happened to the two ships after that.
As long as it lasted, the steamers carried passengers, goods, cattle and cars, so you could effectively motor all the way from Colombo to Madras as four of us once did in the 1950s to watch a ‘Test’.