Those were the days of steam engines and meter gauge trains,” recalls a nostalgic Prof N Murali about his college days in the mid-1980s. “We used to reach our college, which was a good 25km away from Madurai, in 40 minutes, the time speeding moffusil buses now take to cover the same distance. And commuting for a month would cost less than Rs 10.” He was one of the many students, teachers and others who relied on the Madurai-Bodi train to commute before the section was dismantled for gauge conversion in 2011.
It was in 1984 that Madurai city took a giant leap in expansion from 51.82 sqkm to 147.99 sqkm, annexing most of town panchayats, municipalities and village panchayats on the outskirts. The city’s population expanded to 14 lakh during the 2011 census. Today, being a major shopping centre and the chief market for south Tamil Nadu, Madurai attracts roughly 5 lakh people who constitutes its daily floating population.
This has made the city lively, but has also made Madurai congested. “Madurai gets crowded by morning because people from across the region come for shopping and work here. Commuting by bus here is costly and cumbersome. An affordable suburban train service will make commuting easier for thousands of passengers,” said S P Jeyapragasam, president of the Tamil Nadu Foodgrains Merchants Association Limited.
Every day, hundreds of people from Madurai travel by rail to nearby towns for work. For A Vadivel, a telecommunications employee from Madurai working in Virudhunagar, taking the Mysore-Tuticorin Express at 7.40am is more economical and time-saving than taking a moffusil bus from Mattuthavani. He comes to Madurai junction from Thiruppalai, 15km from city, and gets into the train for another 40-minute journey. The other option is a two-hour bus trip to Virudhunagar.
“There are hundreds of commuters like me travelling to neighbouring towns for work. We fought tooth and nail with the railways to board reserved coaches with season tickets, since the unreserved coaches are cramped during peak hours,” he said, quite thrilled about the idea of a suburban rail network. “Imagining a network like in Chennai… even a quarter of its size will be of great help to regular commuters like us during peak hours,” he said.
At present, there are a few express and passenger trains on the Madurai-Virudhunagar & Madurai-Dindigul sections that are electrified. There are also passenger trains towards Rameswaram, covering the Madurai-Manamadurai section. Gauge conversion work has been going on in the Madurai-Usilampatti section of the Madurai-Bodi line for seven years. Considering that there is no line in the western direction, rail user forums have been demanding a new line from Madurai and Karaikudi via Melur.
Madurai MP R Gopalakrishnan said the new line project seemed to be shelved after a survey. “But we are not going to give up,” he said. The MP said a suburban train network is a great idea to ease traffic congestion in the city. “A 17-coach passenger train may reduce at least 20 buses on a route and save a lot of money on fuel and bring down damage to the environment. We will start pitching for this,” he said.
General secretary of the Railway Passengers Welfare Organisation in Madurai K Padmanathan said such a demand never struck rail users or elected representatives for long because the railways was taking its own time to even double the Chennai-Madurai line and has begun doubling the Madurai-Kanyakumari line only now. “Creating a suburban network is a mega project for a city like Madurai. It requires a lot of money and state government support in acquiring land. We may be able to take up the demand vigorously once the doubling work between Madurai and Kanyakumari is completed,” he added.