Cochin Tramways

A reminder of how central the posts were to industry a hundred years ago in Cochin, by the philatelic writer in Kerala, Mrs. Sathi Veerachandra Menon.

Cochin, the small princely state of south India, was well endowed with a great wealth of virgin forests. As early as 1894 many began to think of some way to exploit this forest wealth – timber. A forest engineer was appointed around 1900 to survey and find out the practicability of using the river to float the timber down from the forest. They found the higher reaches of the river full of obstructions. The river could be used only during the four months of the rainy season and that for too short distance. But the engineer found that a land route was possible – a Tramway.

A Tramway in three sections:

  • The first section was to cover a distance of eight miles in the Parambikulam valley, followed by a self-acting inclined tramway, 5,000 feet long. 
  • The second section 4½ miles long followed by a timber slide, 7,000 feet long. 
  • The third section also 4½ miles long, extending to the Kurumali River, from which point timber could be floated down to the railway station at Trichur during the rainy season and then taken to the Chalakudy station by road during the dry seasons.

Tramway construction started in 1901. But soon considerable changes in the plans were found necessary. The original plan was revised and enlarged to a great extent. The river could not be used to float timber at all. So a distance of 12½ miles was added to the original plan so that the virgin forests of Parambikulam forest could be exploited for timber. Since river and then road transport of very large quantities of timber was found to be impractical, that part of the plan was abandoned. Instead another 15 miles of tramway was extended up to the Chalakudy railway station with the acquiescence of the Madras railway authorities.

The timber slide, using manual labour, proved very expensive and slow so it was converted to a self-acting incline. After works that took just over five years, the tramway was in full working order by 1907. The whole tramway was in metre gauge.

The Cochin State Manual states that,  ‘A Tramway of this magnitude and the self-acting inclines are unique in India’. The Tramway was 49½ miles in length when completed. The inclines were worked by means of wire-cables, controlled from brake houses by geared brakes, independent of each other, consisting of horizontal wheels around which the cables passed two or three times. The rolling stock of the forest tramway consisted of open bogie trucks, specially designed for carrying timber with swivelled bolsters and chilled cast-iron wheels. Each bogie had a carrying capacity of  12 tons. The locomotives were generally of one type which were designed to pull or push a gross load of 30 tons on a gradient of one in fifty, or 18 tons on a gradient of one in twenty-five. These were built for an ordinary working boiler pressure of 205lb per square inch. There was a total of eight engines and 70 pairs of trucks. The main office of the tramway was in Chalakudi. The quarters of the forest tramway and the tramway workshop were also in Chalakudi. The Tramway engineer was in charge of the administration in all its various aspects. Like engineering, locomotives, traffic, stores and accounts. The office had adequate staff to deal with each aspect of administration.

Elephants loading timber

The total expenditure on account of the tramway was 18.47 lakhs of rupees. The tramway was also used to carry fuel, canes, reeds and sleepers extracted by departmental contractors. Private traffic was also allowed when it did not interfere with departmental work.

‘Getting Ready’ There are certainly passengers on this trip! This picture was supplied by Mr Devan Varma, to the Indian Railways Fan Club Association, a wonderful network of rail and history enthusiasts. 

The annual maintenance charges of the Tramway were a little over a lakh of rupees and the average earning was calculated as over two lakhs of rupees a year.

The area of virgin forest tapped was about 125 square miles. This tramway was in operation for only five years.


Tramway nearly made it on to a stamp!
This is a proof sheet of a pictorial series of definitive stamps that was planned for the State Post, or Anchal, at the time of Indian independence. Two values did, in fact, appear,  in 1949. Don Griffin, who was a great American collector of this state, reported this sheet, of which he had only seen a photocopy. It had surfaced in India in about 1974, and he reported its existence in The Collectors Club Philatelist, journal of the Collectors Club, New York. His short article is reproduced at the Indian stamps hub

In order to facilitate the people working on the tramways and the coupes two post offices were opened along the tramway route. – Kavala and Kariarkutti. I am sure these post offices were working for 11 years. After that I lost track of them. Let’s keep an eye open for their postmarks.