he 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 (Sanyal 3). 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:


The Directors supposed, too, "that as the people of India were poor and in many parts thinly scattered over large areas passenger traffic would not be substantial" (qtd. in Sanyal 8).

Locomotives, historic and modern. [Click on images to enlarge then.]

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 (Kerr, Engines of Change, 17). 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 (Building the Railways of the Raj, 207). Indeed, the Times reported on its completion in 1863 that as many as 45,000 men had been regularly employed on it (9). 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 (Kerr, Engines of Change, 55). 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" (Sanyal 35).

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 the economies of the two countries" (Thorner 81). 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 were soon found to have been entirely wrong about passenger traffic. "The Indian proved an 'inveterate traveller,'" 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" (43). 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 rigours 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.

From the very beginning, the enormous railway system was a burden as well as a success story. Many recognised 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" (Tiwari 35). The weight of this "expenditure" was equalled 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" (qtd. in Vaidyanathan 10).

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" (Connell 262). 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"(Iqbal 184). 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." — Jacqueline Banerjee

Select Bibliography

Allen. Plain Tales from the Raj: Images of British India in the Twentieth Century. New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 1993.

"The Bhore Ghaut Incline — The construction." The Times. 14 May 1863: 9. Times Digital Archive. Web. 10 March 2014.

Connell, Arthur Knatchbull. "Indian Railways and Indian Wheat." Journal of the Statistical Society of London. Vol. 48, No. 2 (June 1885): 236-276. Accessed via JSTOR.

Iqbal, Iftekhar. "The Railway in Colonial India: Between Ideas and Impact." In Our Indian Railway: Themes in India's Railway History. Ed. Roopa Srinivasi, Manish Trivari and Sandeep Silas. New Delhi: Foundation Books, 2006. 173-185.

IRFCA.org (the excellent and comprehensive website of the Indian Railways Fan Club). Web. 10 March 2014.

Kerr, Ian J. Engines of Change: The Railroads that Made India. Westport, CT.: Greenwood, 2007.

_____. Building the Railways of the Raj: 1850-1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Meeks, Carol L. V. The Victorian Railroad Station: An Architectural History. New Haven: Yale UP, 1956.

Sanyal, Nalinaksha. The Development of Indian Railways. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1930. Internet Archive. Web. 9 March 2014.

Thorner, Daniel. "The Pattern of Railway Development in India." Railways in Modern India: Themes in Indian History. Ed. Ian J. Kerr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Tiwari, Chandrika Prasada. Indian Railways: Their Historical, Economical and Administrative Aspects. Ajmer: Scottish Mission Industries Company Limited, 1921. Internet Archive. Web. 10 March 2014.

Vaidyanathan, K. R. 150 Glorious Years of Indian Railways. Mumbai: English Edition Publishers, 2003.


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Last modified 10 March 2014