The story of Indian Railways

134 total views, 3 views today

The history of Indian Railway which spans over 160 years is an enormous topic, and we will agree that the most interesting part of its is the introduction stage. The first fifty years of Indian Railway is therefore a riveting subject which covers one of the most ambitious projects in India- connecting this massive subcontinent with a network of railways. In the first fifty years Indians under Company and British Raj will find their lands criss-crossed by rail lines cutting across valleys, ravines, ridges and rivers carrying passengers, soldiers, mineral resources and so on. To tell this amazing story I will rely basically on two priceless Indian Railway Reports that was for the year 1860 and 1878.

In May 1845 twenty year after the construction of the first railway line England, the East Indian Railway Company was formed. The Chairman of this Company was Sir George Lerpent, The Deputy Chairman Mr. Bazett D Colvin, and the Managing Director Mr. R Macdonald Stephenson. Mr. Stephenson can be said to be the founder of the Company and it was he who first introduced the idea of railroads in India. The chief intention of the East India Company as was revealed in the meetings between the Company officials with their counterparts of the Railway Company was to construct a railway line from Calcutta to Delhi for all practical purposes.



The first division of the experimental line was opened for passenger traffic on the 15th August 1854 from Howrah to Hooghly and 15 days later an extension reached Pandua. During the first sixteen weeks about 1,09,634 passengers rode the first commercial train amidst cheers, awe and merry making. The profits made in these trips by the Railway Company was roughly about 424 Pounds per week, which made the Railway Board say, “looking to the small proportion of the line opened, the traffic has by far exceeded the most sanguine expectations; and perhaps the most gratifying feature of all is in the fact that contrary to a general belief in the indisposition and inability of the Natives to avail themselves of a Railway communication, by far the largest number of passengers carried has been by the third class.” As a matter of fact it was an outstanding revelation that the poorest of the poor had availed a ticket of 3/8 pennies and traveled by train. The caste prejudices and the conservative nature nothing could prevent the Indians from availing this magnificent ride on the “fire-chariot” (Indian description of train); in fact India had started its journey on wheels.


Mr. Raw Crawford the Chairman of the Board of Director said in his address to the shareholders in 1855, that he looked upon the profits of the Railways as most satisfactory, “not only as regarded its amount and the prospect of its increase but also in particular that it put to an end to the gloomy anticipations of those parties in this country who thought, whose acquaintance with India was rather of a ancient date, and who were apprehensive that the prejudices of the natives would prevent them travelling by railway. Such was not the case.” However it took long time for the English Masters to realise that Indians preferred to reach as fast as they could to their destination, and it was not until 1897 during the Chairmanship of General Sir Richard Strachey that third class passengers were first admitted to mail trains below Allahabad, and not until 1905 that express trains were first run for the lower class passengers.

Talking about the arrangements to achieve this phenomenal task a scheme called “guarantee system” was evolved to fund the projects. Under the guarantee system the foreign companies like the East Indian Railway Company and The Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company raised their funds from England, from their shareholders, and for this a five percent interest was paid by the Government. Profit in excess of five percent was to be shared between the company and the Government. The land required for the construction of railway lines were given free of charge by the Government to the Company.

So upon completion of all the works the railway company yield a profit of 4 % the Government had to pay 1% more to fulfil the promised guarantee of five percent, if the company yielded a profit of 7% the Government had to pay nothing but receive 1% as the 2% would be shared by the company and the Government. The company had the liberty to pull out of its ventures by giving a six month advance notice in which case the Government would provide suitable compensation.


The locomotive ‘Akbar’ being ferried across the Jumna during construction of the railway bridge at Kalpi, 14 January 188. British Library

The East Indian Railway constructed a line from Calcutta to Delhi, with branches to Raniganj, the Barakar River, and the Singaron Valley (river Singaron flows between Raniganj and Andal), and a line from Allahabad to Jabalpur where it joined the trans-peninsular line from Bombay. Its whole length was 1338 miles, being 1338 miles to Delhi including the branches, and about 200 miles for the Jabalpur line. The main line after starting from the right bank of the Hooghly at Calcutta proceeded to Bardhaman, and then to Rajmahal. From Rajmahal it went straight into Allahabad along the course of the Ganga. From Allahabad it went to Kanpur and also to Aligarh. It was necessary to connect Raniganj along the railway line for its mineral resources which could be brought to Calcutta.

The chief obstacles in constructing the railway lines were the rivers as mentioned in the report, the most formidable obstacle was presented by river Soan and Yamuna. The bridges were constructed mainly with a brick foundation with a wrought iron super structure. The bridges over river Soan and Yamuna were constructed by the Messrs Rendel the consulting Engineer of the Railway Company. The waterway of the Yamuna, Tonse, Kiul and Harohar bridge is 9150 feet which is twice that of all the bridges over Thames between London and Westminister bridges inclusive!

The table shows the stations that were constructed by the East India Railway Company and the length in miles railway line construction.

From To When Opened Miles
Howrah Hooghly 15th August 1854 14.5
Hoghly Panduah 1st September 1854 23
Panduah Ranigang 1st February 1855 82
Bardhaman River Ajai 1st October 1858 23
River Ajai Saithia 28th August 1859 24
Allahabad Kanpur 1859 126

Huge amount of material was supplied from England for the construction of these lines, iron rails, sleepers, girders for bridges, locomotives, and other rolling stock, turntables, machinery etc. The tonnage each year are given below.

1850 1851 1852 1853 1854 1855 1856 1857 1858 1859
40000 Tons 58000Tons 65000Tons 48000Tons 35126Tons 32094Tons

The profits made by the Railway Company until 30th June 1859 is given in the chart.

Having told the works of the East Indian Railway Company at length we will take a look at the other companies that were working in India.

The Madras Railway Company concentrating on a railway line from Madras to the Western Coast at Beypore, with branches at Bangalore and Nilgiris, and also a line from Madras to Bombay, covering a distance of about 850 miles.

The Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company worked on the construction of railway line from Bombay via Callian to Jabbalpur, to meet the East Indian railway line from Allahabad, with branches at Mahim and Nagpore. From Kalyan via Puna and Sholapur to Modgul in the Deccan to meet the line from via Bellary from Madras, a total distance of 1266 miles. The object of this undertaking was to assist in establishing a permanent and speedy means of communication for political and commercial purposes between the three Presidency towns and to connect the great cotton growing districts of Central India with the seaport of Bombay. The opening of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway was in 16th April 1853 which eventually became a red letter day for the country. The Overland Telegraph and Courier described the event as, “a triumph to which in comparison all our victories in the East seem tame and commonplace. The opening of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway will be remembered by the natives of India when the battlefields of Plassey, Assaye, Meanee, and Gujarat have become the mere landmarks of history.”

Bombay, Baroda, and Central Indian Railway covered the line from Bombay to Surat and Baroda to Ahmedabad, a distance of 310 miles.

Sind Railway Company had three wings the Sind Railway, Punjab Railway and Indus Steam flotilla which was actually a steamship company. Sind railway covered railway line from Karachi to river Indus at Kotree a distance of 144 miles. The Punjab railway worked on lines from Multan and Lahore to Amritsar, and from there to Delhi, a distance of 490 miles. Indus steam flotilla was working on a steam vessel between Kotree and Multan.

Eastern Bengal Railway Company covered the railway line from Calcutta to Koshtee with extensions to Sirajganj and Dhaka, distance of 220 miles.

Calcutta and South-Eastern Railway Company was connecting a railway line from Calcutta to the port of Mutlah, a distance of 29 miles.

Great Southern of India Railway Company covered the railway line from Nagapatnam to Trichininopally with branches at Salem and Tuticorn connecting a distance of 300 miles.

A map showing railway network during 1882.

There were also other methods than “guaranteed system” for the construction of Railway lines. The State railways were constructed from the capital raised by the Government direct, and the work was executed by the Government employees. The ‘assisted’ railway companies were developed in the later stages they obtained funds from the Government at low interest. The Native State lines were constructed from the capital formed by the individual states. The execution and management of the works are conducted by an employee deputed for this purpose from the Government of India.


Photograph of Sardar Singh, Maharajah of Jodhpur, ruled by the descendants of the Rathor Rajputs, was founded c.1450. Sardar Singh (1880-1911) succeeded as Maharaja in 1895 at the age of fifteen. Sardar Singh’s uncle, Maharaj Pratap Singh and a council of regency assisted him for the first three years until he reached eighteen. Sardar Singh visited Europe in 1901, and is known for his involvement in extending the railway from Jodhpur to Hyderabad. Source British Library.

In fact the Gaekwar of Baroda with the help of Mr. Forde constructed a 2 feet 6 inch broad railway line between Miyagam and Dabhoi. The light rail ran a tram powered by bullocks! By 1885 there were 663.5 miles of railway lines commissioned by the Native states. The principal of these tracks were Bhaunagar-Gondal Railway in Western India, the Bhopal-Itarsi line in Central India, the Jodhpur line in Rajputana, the Nizam’s Railway in Hyderabad, the Mysore Railway in Southern India, and the Rajpura-Patiala line in Punjab.


Photograph of a section of HH the Nizam’s railway line, taken by Deen Dayal in the 1880s, from the Curzon Collection: ‘Views of HH the Nizam’s Dominions, Hyderabad, Deccan, 1892′. This is general view of the line passing through a gorge with a group of Europeans being pushed along in a type of railway car. India’s vast railway network is a legacy of the East India Company. In 1853 there were 32 kilometres of tracks, whereas by 1948 there were nearly 50,000 kilometres. The railway extended to Hyderabad in the 1870s, built by Cyril Lloyd Jones. The line was worked by the Great Indian Peninsular Railway Unit until the end of 1878, followed by the State Railway Agency for the next six years. It was then run by the Nizams Guaranteed State Railway Company from January 1895 to the end of April 1930 when it came into the possession of the government. Source British Library.

As  mentioned before that the introduction of Railways in India had its political purposes there was another very important purpose which was from the economy point of view. Before the advent of Railways huge mines of Coal were left open without any particular interest or attention. But in 1886 proposals were made by the Railway Company to construct a Bridge across the Barakar river and the line was extended to the collieries on the other side. Through this endeavour the Golden Gateway to Indian Mines was opened as we shall soon see. The Secretary of State approved the construction of the much awaited Jharia extension, on 20th May 1894 trains begun running as far as Ghootyra some seven miles below Barakar carrying 100 tons of coal and a handful of 50 passengers. With the entry of iron wheels into Jharia mines led to the mushrooming of Coal business, numerous Coal Companies were formed and so much Coal was mined that trains fell short. Some figures will help to explain this better, in 1894 the Coal traffic from Jharia was 38,831 tons, in 1899 it was 13,10,397 tons and in 1905 it reached 28,27,725 tons, a whopping 72% increase in just six years! This was perhaps the most remarkeable achievement for the Railway Companies, because in the Coal market there was lot of prejudice for the Welsh Coal which powered the steam vessels and engines, there was lot of apprehension against the new Bengal coal however when the Bengal Coal came into the stage it quickly established an absolute monopoly.


View of the Singareni Coal Fields, photographed by Deen Dayal in the 1880s, from the Curzon Collection: ‘Views of HH the Nizam’s Dominions, Hyderabad, Deccan, 1892′. The history of coal mining in India dates back to the 18th century with the formation of the Raniganj coalfieds in West Bengal. In 1871 Dr. King of the Geological Survey of India discovered coal near the village of Yellandu in Khamman, Andhra Pradesh. Coal mining on a large scale began in 1886 when the Hyderabad (Deccan) Company Limited acquired rights to mine in the area. By 1911 the Singareni coal mine had an annual production of nearly half a million tonnes. Source British Library

In the first half of the year 1885 more than 45,000 tons of Welsh Coal was imported to Calcutta, in 1889 the import dropped as low as 1000 tons and then a reverse mechanism started, Bengal began exporting. You wouldn’t believe if I tell you that by the year 1891 the Coal import stood at 1, 37,000 tons, in 1894 it rose to 5,74,000 tons and in 1905 to 27, 67,000 tons! This unbelievable counter business is one of a kind, it will be very hard to find such an instance in the economy of India till date, that in twenty years an import of 45,000 tons is replaced by an export of 27,67,000 tons!! It was this that led Sir Strachey remark, “There is no possible reason, why the whole of the coal now exported from England, whether required on land or for consumption at sea east of Aden should not be replaced by India coal!”

During the Chairmanship of Sir Strachey the Kidderpore docks were being constructed and the Jubilee Bridge across the river Hooghly had been opened for traffic. It was Jubilee Bridge since it was opened on 1887 the year of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. All heavy goods traffic from the West of Hooghly intended for export from Calcutta, coal, wheat etc. passed over this Bridge to Naihati      and from there by Kankurgachi loop to the Kidderpore docks. During the year 1897 the total traffic crossing the Jubilee Bridge amounted to 2040686 tons in 1901 the figure rose to 3613451 tons.


Photograph taken in1891 by an unknown photographer of the newly constructed graving dock, Calcutta Docks. A graving dock (dry dock), is a dock enclosed by gates and pumped dry to allow repairs to be carried out on a ship’s hull. This view shows the RIMS (Royal Indian Marine Steamship) “Mayo”, the first vessel to use the new dock, in the lock leading into the half-tide basin from the River Hooghly. Source British Library.

Although from the British perspective the introduction and expansion of railways in India was a big benefit to the Nation yet for many popular leaders and intellectuals Railways was the cause of a great deal of sorrow. In fact thinkers like John Chapman advocated the introduction of railways to prevent famines, crop failures saying, “all countries are liable to periodical variation or failure of crops. We do not suffer from famine in England because we can pay for the bringing food from any distance by the very efficient means of carriage we possess. In India no price will pay for the transport and often at the time when the scarcity is most severe. Some nationalists argued an opposite cause that the introduction of railways had brought a rapid change in market and brought the local markets in direct confrontation with the goods imported from England. The effect of globalisation will certainly affect the Indian market was their concern, as G S Iyer pointed out, “every additional mile of railway constructed in this country drove a fresh nail into the coffin of one industry or another.”

It is matter of debate whether the effects of Industrial and Transport revolution an inevitable part however it is also true that railways helped nationalistic leaders to reach wider audience, if you look at the venues of the session of Indian National Congress you will certainly attest to this view, the sessions were in Bombay, Calcutta, Puna, Nagpur, Lucknow, Lahore, Madras, Allahabad, Ahmedabad it is all over India! However it is not our agenda to debate about the merits and demerits of India Railways we were only concerned about how the wheels started rolling and now we know how it all happened.

Top of Form


Photograph of the Darjeeling Hill Railway under construction in West Bengal, India, from the Macnabb Collection, taken by Bourne and Shepherd in c.1879.

Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.

Related posts

Leave a Comment