Development Of Railway During The British Rule

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Development of Railway:-

The romance of train travel in India is legendary, but the task of constructing the railways in the first place was daunting. There were huge problems in dealing with such a vast and inhospitable country. The idea of introducing railways to India had been mooted as early as the 1830s. In May 1845, when the East India Company's Court of Directors finally and formally approved the project of establishing the railways in India, they also impressed upon the current Governor-General, Lord Hardinge, the enormity of the task, enumerating the following six reasons

  • Periodical rains and inundations.
  • Continued action of violent winds and influence of a vertical sun.
  • Ravages of insects and vermin.
  • Destructive growth of spontaneous vegetation of under wood upon earth and brick-work.
  • The unenclosed and unprotected tracts of country through which railroads would pass.
  • The difficulty and expense of securing the services of competent and trustworthy engineers.


The core of the pressure for building railways in India came from London in the 1840s. For a century thereafter, the basic policies and ultimate management of the Indian Railways were issued from London. The British built the railways in India as a step to intermesh the economies of the two countries. While the railways were established by The East India Company primarily to transport troops for their numerous wars, and secondly to transport cotton for export to mills in UK, it is to be noted that several Indian businessmen and merchants took a keen interest in its establishment. This was because the ultimate goal of the railways was to serve as a method of interconnectivity that would operate throughout the nation.

Nevertheless, in April 1853 the persuasive "Railway Minute" of the next Governor General, the "committed technological modernizer" Lord Dalhousie, set large-scale plans in motion. Many of the early worries proved well-founded. The challenges were formidable, and the manpower required to tackle them was enormous too. Ian Kerr, the preeminent historian of the Indian railways of this period, tells us that 10,000 men were employed to drive tunnels and construct viaducts to take a track through the rocky hills and valleys of the Bhore Ghat Incline near Bombay in 1856. He adds that the number had nearly doubled in early 1857. Indeed, the Times reported on its completion in 1863 that as many as 45,000 men had been regularly employed on it. Many died during such hard construction work, as diseases swept through the tent-cities of the huddled masses. For example, as late as June 1885, 2,000 people died of cholera while constructing the upper part of the Sind-Peshin line. A large number of the skilled Europeans who came out also lost their lives, or were permanently debilitated by their stint in India. Still, looking at figures compiled in 1869, it is clear that after hesitations and delays, and sometimes against almost insuperable odds, the railway network was growing exponentially: Broadly speaking the average number of miles opened up to I860 was 120 per annum, after which the annual average was about 400.

A British engineer, Robert Maitland Brereton, was responsible for the expansion of the railways in the period after the 1850s. He linked the Calcutta-Allahabad-Delhi line (completed by 1864) with the Allahabad-Jabalpur branch line (opened in June 1867 and the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, resulting in a combined network of 6,400 km. Hence it became possible to travel directly from Bombay to Calcutta via Allahabad. This route was officially opened on 7 March 1870 and it was part of the inspiration for French writer Jules Verne’s book Around the World in Eighty Days. At the opening ceremony, the Viceroy Lord Mayo reaffirmed that “it was thought desirable that, if possible, at the earliest possible moment, the whole country should be covered with a network of lines in a uniform system”.

From 1875 to 1920, the Railways expanded to 61,220 km primarily through the investments by British companies in Indian guaranteed railways. It later transpired that there was heavy corruption in these investments, on the part of both, members of the British Colonial Government in India, and companies who supplied machinery and steel in Britain. This resulted in railway lines and equipment costing nearly double what they should have costed. It was in this period that the Indian Railways also started manufacturing their own locomotives.

Physically uniting the different areas of the sub-continent, the railways served two important purposes for the colonial masters, facilitating the deployment of officials and military resources, and, of course, the transport of goods, including raw materials and produce destined for export. Between them, these two advantages would enable Britain both to control their "huge dependency" and "intermesh the economies of the two countries". In this way, the railways constituted a key part of the colonial project, and the exploitation that this project involved. But there were direct benefits to the populace as well. The East India Company's Court of Directors was soon found to have been entirely wrong about passenger traffic. "The Indian proved an 'inveterate traveler,'" writes Nalinaksha Sanyal. In the first five years passenger journeys increased fivefold from about 535,000 to more than 2,700,000, and this rate of progress was kept up for another five years. Between 1864 and 1869 these rose from 11 3/4 millions to 16 millions. Here, the ultimate results were unforeseen. One was the growth of a sense of national identity among people of hitherto disparate regions. Another was the very gradual raising of consciousness about social, or rather caste, divides. The rigors of third and even, from 1874, fourth class travel eventually and famously elicited protest from Mahatma Gandhi. Ironically for Britain, these unexpected consequences would help to spell the end of the Raj.

In 1904, the idea to electrify the railway network was proposed by W.H White, however, the First World War placed heavy strain on the railway infrastructure in India. Railway production in the country was diverted to meet the needs of British forces outside India. By the end of the war, Indian Railways were in a state of dilapidation and disrepair.

The period between 1920 and 1929 was a period of economic boom. Following the Great Depression, however, the company suffered economically for the next eight years But World War II further stunted Railway growth and led to the eventual separation of the railway budget from the government budget. Trains were diverted to the Middle East and later, the Far East to combat the Japanese. Railway workshops were converted to ammunitions workshops and some tracks were even dismantled for use in war in other countries. Both World War I and II put heavy strain on the Indian Railways and eventually led to a separation of the railway budget from the government budget.

By 1920, Plans were finally drawn up for “electrification” of Bombay-Poona/Igatpuri/Vasai and Madras Tambaram routes. All the inputs for the electrification, except power supply, were imported from various companies in England.

And similar to the running of the first ever railway train from Bombay to Thane, the first-ever electric train in India also ran from Bombay, but to Kurla, a mere 16 km, on February 3, 1925 along the city’s harbor route. Various sections on the railway network were progressively electrified and commissioned between 1925 to 1930.

As revealed by Sweeney Stuart in his book on the railways, the ruling colonial British government was too focused on transporting goods for export to Britain, and hence did not use them to transport food instead to prevent economic problems or calamities like famines. Indian economic development was never considered while deciding the rail network or places to be connected. Poor resource allocation resulted in losses of hundreds of millions of pounds for Indians, including those in opportunity costs. Most shareholders of the railway companies set up were British. The head offices of most of these companies were in London, thus allowing Indian money to flow out of the country legally. Thus, the railway debt made up nearly 50% of the Indian national debt from 1903 to 1945.

From the very beginning, the enormous railway system was a burden as well as a success story. Many recognized the cost to central and local governments through guarantees (that is, guaranteed interest rates on capital invested) and subsidies to the developers. In 1921 another commentator could say: "Of all the departments of the Government of India, railways stand first and foremost, both in revenue and expenditure". The weight of this "expenditure" was equaled by the weight of responsibility — of trying to ensure that the railways were well administered, in respect of rail network coverage, tolerable comfort for every class of passenger, and safety. Jawaharlal Nehru himself would describe India's "greatest national undertaking" as "not only an asset of importance but … also a great responsibility".

Postcolonial critics raise more specific questions about the long-term costs of establishing the railway system. Even in 1885, a western critic noted that "Imperial railways have in India absorbed, through the medium of guarantees, local funds which might have been spent on local roads, or the support of local industries, or the repair of local irrigation works”. This point is being more closely examined now, and with an eye to the ecology as well: "the very possibility of dislocation by the railway of the elementary ecological ingredients for agrarian production process speaks for further study of the operations of the railways in the highly fluid terrain of Bengal in particular and other riverine atmospheres elsewhere”. Although an India without its railways is unimaginable, both sides of the balance sheet need to be taken into account, and this does mean examining the negative effects of the "great legacy”.



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