The progress of railway construction in the earlier years was far from satisfactory.... due to Government supervision, political disturbances such as insurrection and mutiny, natural difficulties which the face of the country presented, and the novel undertaking of extensive public works in a country far away from the source of supplies.... On the whole, however, the development of lines in India bore favourable comparison with the progress of railway construction in England. [Sanyal 36]

[T]he railways of India were colonial railways conceived as a colonial project built primarily to serve the needs of the Anglo-Indian connection.... The colonial connection colours the entire history of India's railways.... [Hurd and Kerr 3, 4]

Proposals and Experiments

The East India Company's Thames Goods-Shed, as seen in an Illustrated London News issue of 1852. [Click on all images for larger pictures and more information, where available.]

1831-32    A proposal made in Madras, to improve communications and trade by building canals and railways across the peninsula, is sometimes taken as a starting point. The wagons, however, are expected to be drawn by animals (see Hurd and Kerr 5).

1836         Again in Madras, Civil Engineer Captain Arthur Cotton (1803-1899; later General Sir Arthur Cotton) advocates railways in India in a "minute" (Sanyal 4). He is the driving force behind the laying of a short experimental line near Chindradripet, and superintends it. This is for the Red Hill Road Railroad, for carrying granite to be used as road-building material. "In the light of the knowledge he then possessed, [Cotton] set himself to prove the advantage of railways over the best roads" (Hope 67), though he later advocates a canal system instead.

1837         The Red Hill Railroad is now in use. Wagons have to be hauled one way, but can return without assistance, or with the aid of a small sail to catch the wind (see Darvill).

1838         Experiments are made with locomotives, apparently based on "a rotary steam engine patented by William Avery of Syracuse, New York, USA" (Darvill). One of these runs on the Red Hill Railroad on 28 August, with twenty-one passengers in altogether four carriages, and is probably the first to do so in India — or at least the first to have come to light so far. Ironically, the first regular passenger line in the Madras area will not open until 1856, long after those in Mumbai and Kolkata (see "IR History: Early Days — I").

1840-41    Founder, director and manager of the East Indian Railway, Rowland Macdonald Stephenson (1808-95, later knighted, no relation of the more famous Robert Stephenson), promotes the idea of constructing a line from Kolkata towards Delhi and Benares. In the back of his book he prints correspondence criticising the Government's disinclination to support such proposals. One correspondent points out testily, "England possesses twenty-nine principal railroads and 108 branches, the former from 140 to 200 miles in length, the latter averaging thirty, with others in progress.... Then let me ask why has not India one?" (qtd. in Stephenson 73-76).

1842         Charles Blacker Vignoles (1793-1878), Professor of Civil Engineering, University College London, submits a report to the East India Company on the possibility of constructing a railway network in India (Hurd and Kerr 1). This is very much a colonial project, with an eye to managing the country and facilitating trade. On "the eve of a period of 'railway mania' a vast country like India, with her resources and wealth," naturally attracts "the notice of many enterprising Englishmen" (Sanyal 4)

1844         In July, Stephenson makes an official proposal on it to the Government of Bengal, and military engineers at last carry out a preliminary survey. "They all led to the view that in spite of the numerous difficulties ... railway lines could be successfully laid to connect remote corners of India" (Vaidyanathan 1). Shortly afterwards "formal proposals for the East Indian Railway were also placed before the Home authorities" (Sanyal 5).

1845         By the beginning of the year, "provisional committees [are] formed for the East Indian Railway and the Great Indian Peninsula Railway and prospectuses [are] laid before the Court..." (Sanyal 7-8). This same year, a railway is built for carrying "stone and construction materials for irrigation works and a dam over the Godavari near Rajahmundry" ("IR History: Early Days — I").

1846         Lord Hardinge (1785-1856), then Governor-General of India, proposes the construction of "a few selected railway lines" to save large amounts "on army transport alone" (Raza and Aggarwal 45; these historians discuss the early days of the railway in India under the heading "Military Objectives").

1847         Registration of the the East Indian Railway Company in June of this year. "The Chambers of Commerce of Manchester and Glasgow strongly [represent] at the same time the case for an early introduction of railways in India, particularly with a view to facilitating the cotton export from Bombay" (Sanyal 13).

The true "Father of the Indian Railways"? James John Berkley's profile on his monument in Camberwell Old Cemetery, Southwark.

1849         Contracts between the East India Company and the East Indian and Great Indian Peninsula Railway (GIPR) Companies are signed in August. "Thus after a delay of more than four years the first stage in the history of Indian Railways [is] reached and a policy of experimental lines [is] inaugurated" (Sanyal 15). At the end of the year, James John Berkley (1819-1862), trained by and a "trusted associate" of Robert Stephenson, is appointed Chief Resident Engineer of the GIPR. Ian Kerr sees him as "one of the great railroad engineers of the mid-19th century" (Engines of Change, 40).

1851         A steam locomotive, Thomason, is used for hauling construction material in Roorkee in Hardiwar district, for the Solani viaduct ("IR History: Early Days — I"). The engine is named after Sir James Thomason, lieutenant governor 1843–53, who had already established a pioneering engineering college in Roorkee.

1852         The first Indian graduates from the institution at Roorkee (soon to be renamed the Thomason College of Civil Engineering). The oldest such institution in Asia, this will also become "the first engineering university of independent India" (see "Thomason College of Civil Engineering"), and is now one of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology. In July, the Madras Railway Company is formally constituted at last, "an Act of Incorporation being obtained a year later" (Sanyal 25).

The First Routes

1853         The most famous date in Indian railway history, invariably cited as marking the beginning of the railway system: on 13 April 1853, the first section of the Great Peninsula Railway, from Mumbai to Thana (12.5 miles) is opened.

1854         The second section of the same railway, from Thana to Kalyan (12.42 miles), opens, then the first section on the East India Railway in West Bengal, from Howrah to Hooghly (23.28 miles), followed soon afterwards by its second section from Hooghly to Pundooah (14.31 miles). The system is clearly underway (see Chandrika Tiwari 1).

1855         The fourth important trunk line company, the Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway, is sanctioned. A period of rivalry between this and the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company, over their routes, follows. This sort of rivalry is inevitable in a "business of 'decreasing costs,'" where profits will clearly depend on how much the service is used (see Raswarup Tiwari 13). Lord Dalhousie (1812-1860), successor to Lord Hardinge, often described as the "Father of the India Railways," finally approves the costly and challenging climbing of the Ghats.

Kitson's Passsenger Engine for the Great India Peninsula Railway, 1856. Ahrons 140.

1857         Progress on the East Indian Railway is checked by the Mutiny. Daniel Thorner points out the obvious: "Had more railways been open, the Government would have had a much less difficult time in reasserting its authority" (112). In this year too the Great Southern company, later amalgamated with the Carnatic Railway under the name of the South Indian Railway, is constituted. Its purpose is "to construct lines in the extreme south of India, from Negapatam [now Nagapattinam] to Trichinopoly, with extensions towards the north to meet the Madras Railway at Errode and to the south to Madura and Tuticorin" (Sanyal 29).

1859         The East Indian railways now has 77 engines, 228 coaches and 848 freight wagons, all such rolling-stock shipped from Britain round the Cape of Good Hope (see "East Indian Railway").

1867         A weekly mail service between England and Bombay is established, to be extended later to Kolkata and further north (Sanyal 34).

1870         The Great Indian Peninsula and the East Indian Railway lines meet at Jubbulpore (now Jabalpur) in Madhya Pradesh, linking Kolkata and Mumbai. This, together with the opening of the Suez Canal, gives a "considerable stimulus" to trade (Ramswarup Tiwari 141).

1871         The lines from Mumbai and Madras meet at Raichur in Karnataka. The East India Railway now has 1350 miles of track, the Great Indian Peninsula Railway 875 miles, the Madras Railway 680 miles, the Sind and Punjab Railway 400 miles, the Bombay, Baroda, & Central Indian Railway 300 miles, the East Bengal Railway 115 miles, and the Great Southern Railway 170 miles (see "IR History: Early Days — II").

The Growing Network and Its Early Impact

The Prince of Wales's Saloon (1875).

1874-80    Construction is stepped up to meet the needs of famine-stricken areas (e.g., in 1880 the Famine Commission proposes another 5,000 miles of railways). Significantly for the future, when the railways would be nationalised, this has to be instituted by the government rather than private investors (Raza and Aggarwal 48). Despite early fears that the the railways would be little used, passenger traffic is now so heavy that fourth class is introduced on some lines, to deal with overcrowding. This is achieved by removing all or most of the seating from third class carriages and redesignating them — "a palliative which was short-lived" (Vaidyanathan 17).

1875         The Rajputana State Railway line reaches Ajmer in Rajasthan. A special royal train is built for the Prince of Wales's long tour of India; this will later serve as the Viceroy's train ("IR History: Early Days — II").

1877         Construction of the Ajmer workshops of the Rajputana-Malwa State Railway starts. This is where the first locomotive entirely built in India is produced ("IR History: Early Days — II").

1878         This year sees the start of construction of the Victoria Terminus (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) in Mumbai, perhaps the single grandest landmark left by the British. A mix of Indo-Saracenic and Venetian Gothic styles, it was designed by Frederick William Stevens (1847-1900).

The Darjeeling Railway in 1895 (Source: Library of Congress photographic print from a black and white glass negative, reproduction no. LC-D426-559).

1879         By April, construction of the first hill station railway has begun. This is the line to Darjeeling. "The steepness of the gradient was considerable — an average of 1 in 25, often rising to 1 in 20 feet.... several loops have to be negotiated before the steepness of the gradient can be overcome" (Vaidyanathan 142). The line will be completed in 1881. The hill railways of India, opening up these places as popular destinations, are a subject on their own.

1882         In the early 80s, several new companies, such as the Indian Midland Railways, are formed without the government-backed guarantees of the early "Dalhousie" years, when investors were assured of a certain return, and an exit strategy if required. The railways are now considered a good economic proposition, though for the benefit of the British rather then the Indians (see Aggarwal 46). The Victoria Terminus is opened on 1 January, despite not being fully completed. It will be named after Queen Victoria in 1887, for her Golden Jubilee, and finally completed in 1888, having taken ten years and a fortune to construct. Hurd and Kerr describe it as representing "power, pride and a certain forced naturalization of the British imposed railway system" (99).

1891         Toilet facilities are finally introduced, at least in first class, adding to the huge gap in "comforts and conveniences" between first- and lower-class passengers (Vaidyanathan 21). Mahatma Gandhi will one day take up the lower-class passengers' cause. The longest tunnel so far, the Khojak tunnel on the Kandahar State Railway, opens. Construction begins for the Nilgiri Hills railway. Another hill line, the Delhi-Ambala-Kalka line, starts the route to Shimla (see "IR History: Early Days — II").

The F-734 (1895), the first locomotive fully built in India.

1895         The first locomotive is built in India at the Ajmer works, for the Rajputana-Malwa Railway (the F-734). This can still be seen at the National Rail Museum. More local involvement has important effects. For one thing, "entry into the railway age [stimulates] the rapid development of a professional engineering literature in India" (Kerr, Building the Railways of the Raj, 34). For another, the hierarchy of railway personnel now comes into question. Laura Beard writes of "increasingly elaborate efforts by the railways to maintain the separation between Europeans, Eurasians, and Indians" in their employment (83). Despite such efforts, or because of them, strikes soon become a feature of the sector (see Sanyal 311-13).

Late 90s    Lighting is introduced in many passenger coaches, often with gas lamps in the lower classes, and electric lighting, or gas or oil lamps, in the upper classes (see "IR History: Early Days — II").

1901         An early version of India's Railway Board is constituted, though it will not be fully instituted until 1905 (Chandrika Tiwari 105). "Railway mileage now at about 24,750 miles in India, of which 14,000 miles are BG [broad gauge], and most of the rest MG [middle gauge] (with only a few hundred miles of 2' and 2'6" gauge lines). The railways also start returning some modest profits; for the last 40 years they had been making large losses" ("IR History: Early Days — III"). Constructing the main railway routes has been a challenging and very costly proposition, in terms of human lives as well as financially. Now it is starting to pay off, and, because of its social ramifications, having some unforeseen results.

A small locomotive used to draw cane cars on a 2 ft. gauge, India (Source: Library of Congress digital file from a glass negative, reproduction no. LC-DIG-npcc-30845).

Related Material


Ahrons, E. L. The British Steam Railway Locomotive from 1825-1925. London: Locomotive Pub. Co., 1927. Internet Archive. Contributed by York University — University of Toronto Libraries. Web. 13 April 2017.

Bear, Laura. Lines of Communication: Indian Railway Workers, Bureaucracy, and the Intimate Historical Self. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Darvill, Simon. "India's First Railways." IRFC (Indian Railways Fan Club). Web. 20 April 2014.

"East Indian Railway"" Grace's Guide: British Industrial History. Web. 20 April 2014.

Hope, Elizabet Reid, Lady. General Sir Arthur Cotton, E.E., K.C.S.I. His Life and Work. With Some Famine Prevention Studies by William Digby, C.I.E. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1900. Internet Archive. Web. 20 April 2014.

Hurd, John, II, and Ian J. Kerr. India's Railway History: A Research Handbook. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.

"IR History: Early Days — I" IRFC (Indian Railways Fan Club). Web. 20 April 2014.

"IR History: Early Days — II" IRFC (Indian Railways Fan Club). Web. 20 April 2014.

"IR History: Early Days — III" IRFC (Indian Railways Fan Club). Web. 20 April 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.

Raza, Moonis, and Yash Aggarwal. Transport Geography of India: Commodity Flows and the Regional Structure of the Indian Economy. New Delhi: Concept Publishing, 1986.

Sanyal, Nalinaksha. The Development of Indian Railways. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1930. Internet Archive. Web. 20 April 2014.

Stephenson, R. M. Report Upon the Practicability and Advantages of the Introduction of Railways Into British India. London: Kelly and Co., 1845. Internet Archive. Web. 20 April 2014.

"Thomason Civil Engineering College" Grace's Guide: British Industrial History. Web. 20 April 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. 20 April 2014.

Tiwari, Raswarup D. Railways in Modern India. Bombay: New Book Co., 1941. Internet Archive. Web. 20 April 2014.

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

Last modified 13 April 2017