An old city on wheels — Madras’ tryst with transport


From wooden coaches to Metro and horseless carriages to modern cars, Chennai has evolved by leaps and bounds

A few months ago, the Integral Coach Factory at Perambur here rolled out its 3,000th coach in a mere 215 days. It holds the coveted title of being the largest coach-maker in the world. But do you know how and when the first coach was manufactured? Let’s go back in time to October 1955. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated the first railway coach assembled at ICF, and that time, the government pumped in ₹7.5 crore to build one of the largest factories in the world.

The idea of ‘Make in India’ was mooted, and he said, “There can be no real progress or real industrialisation in this country until the machine itself is made here and we cease to be dependent on other countries for setting up our factories.” A decade later, it came up with the first air-conditioned coach and subsequently began exporting coaches to Thailand.

Memories of ICF are etched in the mind of 84-year-old R. Gandhi, who joined the organisation as an apprentice much before the inauguration and retired as a staff superintendent. “We started making a broad gauge third-class compartment that had wooden seats. We had collaboration with Switzerland, and their team stayed and trained us for a few years. The roof, side-wall and other parts for 100 coaches used to be shipped to Madras, and we used to assemble them. As years passed, we started making meter gauge, suburban and now even Train 18 coaches,” he recalls. He said that initially, they used to make the shell alone, and furnishing was done by the respective railways. Later, the Furnishing Division was opened in 1962. “Initially we made 350 coaches per year; now it has gone up to 4,000,” he says.

T. Manoharan, organising president, ICF Labour Union, says that now the manufacture of many parts is outsourced. “We have started assembling them here. However, the quality is not compromised. We have manufactured coaches for Kolkata Metro, we have also exported coaches to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Taiwan, Zambia, the Philippines, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Mozambique, Malaysia, Angola and Sri Lanka,” he says.

From wooden coaches to Chennai Metro and from horseless carriages to modern cars, transport has evolved in leaps and bounds in the city over the past decades.

The city’s tryst with cars manufacturing started in a rather humble way, and has grown exponentially.

Standard Motors made plans as early as 1949 to set up the factory, and the archives of The Hindu show there was an interest in small cars. Balraj Vasudevan of Madras Heritage Motoring Club says, “The interest has always remained quite inherent. So much so that we have some of the finest vintage cars in the city and many became car collectors.” And the city is now home to some of the major players manufacturing cars.

M. Velmurugan, former executive vice-chairman, Investment Promotion, Tamil Nadu Industrial Guidance and Export Promotion Bureau, says Madras, that used to have Standard Motors, over the decades has grown to step into the top 10 spots for automobile manufacturing, housing everything from Ford to Renault. “The idea was to create more employment, and with years of work, now we account for 20-25% of car manufacturing in the country…,” he adds. Right now, as everywhere else, here too, owing to the impact of the pandemic, the demand has dropped and the market has shrunk. Hopefully, it should bounce back soon,” he adds.

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