Quick Reads

Indian Rail @170, a retrospective

As India's lifeline completes 170 years of service, this a brief overview of the fascinating journey of the railways.

Credit : Indie Journal


"[The railway is] a triumph, to which, in comparison, all our victories in the East seem tame and commonplace. The opening of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway will be remembered by the natives of India when the battlefields of Plassey, Assaye, Meanee, and Goojerat have become landmarks of history." (The Overland Telegraph and Courier, April 1853)

For me, trains were the epitome, the very symbol of modernity and innovation. The ingenuity of this mode of transport, has not only been a fantasy of mine as a child, but has been the fascination of the whole human kind, including litterateurs and powerful personas alike. From Mark Twain and Charles Dickens to Satyajit Ray and P.L Deshpande…Railways have always had a deep connect with the mind of man. What I am going to explore is the result of this fascination. As India's lifeline completes 170 years of service, this a brief overview of the fascinating journey of the railways.

My father has worked for the Indian railways for more than 30 years now. I have been travelling by trains since my earliest memories and still am taken completely by the experience of a rail journey. As a part of my growing up, I have also witnessed the gradual development, both cultural and economical of my hometown of Daund, which is both around and exists because of the railway junction, a gift of the British.

I noticed the exchange of finance, opinions and culture during the daily commutes, and what I saw was extra-ordinary. The mixture of cultures, social stratas, languages, religions and mentalities was such that any social scientist would be dumbfounded.   

The family man from some distant South Indian state looks up at the daily commuting youngster, who got in at Daund, with a natural dislike as the youngster tries to rent a little space in the reserved seats of the southerners’ family. After adjusting his family reluctantly, the youngster asks for the crumbled newspaper from the man, the newspaper was purchased way back at Coimbatore. The man looks surprised as to what the youngster understands of the newspaper's vernacular script. He asks him, the youngster sheepishly replies that he’s just looking at the pictures. The older man smiles…and thus starts a wonderful conversation for the next hour and half until Pune station.


Photo- Prathmesh Patil

This is not just an isolated incident. Worldover, trains have created an assimilative forum, a unique travel experience which provided safety, comfort, speed and leisure. All at the same time, creating the potential-a moving experimentation lab of sorts-for identities to merge and emerge.

How Trains evolved and affected the World.

Trains, the concept of guided traffic routes, is said to have started in Greece in 6th Century BC, where ships built in dockyards were pulled by men and transported through designated wrenches to the sea. [The oldest, man-hauled railways date back to the 6th century B.C, with Periander, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, credited with its invention.-wikipedia.org]

Guided routes mean that the vehicle or container is given a certain restricted route and the direction and distance is dependent on the given structure. The vehicle can only alter its speed and momentum while running on the guided direction. This presents a uniform, unaltered direction and improves the decisional requirements by eliminating other calculations from the human controllers mind thus eliminating the possibilities of human errors in the transport. This makes it one of the safest mediums of travel, rather the safer of them all, both at the rate of per mile and per hour.[When compared to rail, the risk of death in a road accident is 27.5 times greater, by ferry it is eight times greater and by air it is twice as great even using the measure favoured by airlines. –railwatch.org.uk] 



What did the Railways change?

During the Victorian era in England, railways played an integral role in the Industrial Revolution. With the invention of the steam engine, which was a remarkable feat of engineering, came the development of the steam locomotive, which formed the foundation for modern-day vehicles and revolutionized the concept of rail transportation. While railways had existed prior to the advent of the steam engine, they were limited in scope and operated using horse-drawn carriages on smaller tracks. However, the introduction of steam-powered carriages significantly compressed travel time and increased transportation speeds by more than four times their previous levels.

Despite Europe's initial reluctance to embrace railways, Britain rapidly expanded its rail network between 1830 and 1840, eventually spanning 1500 miles (2400 kilometers) and growing to over 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) by 1890. Germany surpassed this with over 26,000 miles (41,600 kilometers) of track, while Russia had laid over 48,000 miles (76,800 kilometers) and the United States had an extensive network of over 167,000 miles (267,200 kilometers).

The U.S is sprawled over an extensive continent both in length and width. The major settlements/cities of that time in the U.S were the cities of New York and California. These two cities are located 4600 Kms apart from each other and at the opposite end of the continent. During this period of expansion, Americans risked their lives travelling on Horses and Mules acroos this expanse. These journeys used to cost a few lives and used to take more than two to three weeks. When the transcontinental railroad was completed on May 10, 1869, the telegraph wire layed with the railway track itself announced the news to the world.

The two coasts of America were now reachable within one week. As the utility of the trains began to be proven year by year, a global race for rail expansion began. On the turn of the century, Europe was gripped by the contraction of imperialism and rising nationalistic fervour. This period saw the rising importance of railroutes and also caused myopic actions taken hastily in the heat of war. The British took 32,000 Indian Railway workers to Uganda to build a railroute. During this work, more than 2600 workers were dead as recorded. Almost 6000 Indians stayed back in Uganda forming the miniscule community of east African Indians.

One of the major impacts of the railroad can be seen in the example of Europe especially Britain. The extensive implementation of the railroutes not only allowed easy transportation but also created a time-space compression. The maximum speed that one could travel on an average could not exceed a horse’s power or the speed of the wind in the sail. The locomotive brought with it the constant and regulated supply of power and thus created a whole new traffic system which gave the industrial activities an unprecedented push.

This created a brilliant potential transport for the industries in Britain. The ports could now be reached or connected to any other industrial centre in the hinterlands and thus the concentration of wealth and population in the port cites started to percolate towards inner landscapes of the nation. The countryside, the villages that Britishers absolutely loved, were now seeing a sudden population and industrial boost and further change in the landscape and demographics of the country. The concentration and monopoly on wealth in the coastal cities was also broken and the wealth started to be uniformly distributed all over the national landscape. New railroads required skilled numbers of labourers, not just for construction, but also for maintenance. This created a whole new employment market and thus added on as an asset to the developing countryside.

This re-distribution and scattering of wealth and work affected Britain in more ways than one. It led to a sociological phenomenon called “suburbanization”. The urban economy was increasingly getting connected to neighbouring independent rural and semi-rural economies, and thus creating the Suburban whole, which extended the flow of the urban economy to greated areas. The trains were run by the rich in order to benefit the rich. But the actual impact of the infrastructural development led to the mass upliftment of the rural masses. Also, industries which were finding it difficult to sustain themselves in the urban areas set up production facilities in the hinterlands.  Other industries too followed suit and thus suburban areas became the specailised industrial production areas. The interconnecting of economic activities brought the whole country under uniform economic entities and identities.

On the other hand the rural peace and tranquil was disturbed by the rising industrial activity. The British felt hurt that their beloved countryside was cut by the train track. The local goods were also being manufactured now according to the requirement of the urban market. The expansion of employment and economy also saw the blatant disregard for natural resources.



The United States also witnessed an overwhelming impact of the Trans-continental railroad. The railroad built in 1869, transported goods, machinery and freight of more $50 million! The railroute saw the emergence of the United States as a connection between Eastern Asia and the European countries. Goods fron Asia could be transported faster and easier by crossing the Pacific and Atlantic and thus the requirement to go through the Panama, or around South Africa was no more. Though this significance of the transcontinental railroad was lost within the next 5 years as the Suez Canal was opened up for use and Europe got directly connected to Asia. 

But this also had a flipside. The Native American tribes had to face the loss of their lands due to the passing railroute. They also could not face the developed weaponry of the armed U.S guards. The huge herds of buffaloes that the natives had bred were now a capital for the visiting businessman from the urban areas. The buffaloes underwent a mass slaughter as industries in the city found a cheap and abundant source of leather, animal fat and meat. The woods and minerals too were excavated and exploited in masses to fulfill the rising requirements of industries.

Europe also saw the madness of a dictator called Adolf Hitler. He curfewed the railway station to segregate Jews travelling from different parts and transported them to concentration camps using specially assigned trains. He is said to have improvised over the concept of railway and wanted to use the vast network of german rail network to the fullest extent. He fit a huge cannon tank over a trains’ rolling stock and created the unique Rail Gun. This, one might say, was the period of the growth of prominence of railways as also the worst use of theirs.

After the world war, the sky rocketing cost of Iron and Steel saw the decline in expansion of the rail routes. The poverty ridden societies leaned on to existing railways as the only affordable mode of transport. This period saw mass migrations and railways played an important part in this too. The infamous pictures of the India-Pakistan partition hauntingly show an example of the same.

Though steam engines were the widely used locomotives, the world war made labour and maintenance of the gigantic machines a costly affair. World war II had also pushed innovations in diesel engine mechanisms. Soon, the world started adapting to diesel locomotives and the steam engines slowly bade farewell by 60’s. During the period of 20 years in 1950 and 1970, the railroads were loosing their commuters to newly developed roadways and airways, the invention of covered freight carriers brought back railways into competition. The creation of the Shinkansen Bullet train in Japan led to a new bout of rail innovation and railways again became a favoured mode of Inter-City and long distance transport.

Today, most of the world uses electricity as the power source to run the trains. Railways world over provide Passenger Services, Frieght carrying services, calamity relief redressal and many such services. Indian RailwaysIn India too, railways have been a crucial fulcrum of the social progress. Indian Railways have stood the test of time and today are one of the worlds’ largest railway networks.


India's Railway

3:35pm on April 16th, 1853, when a train with 14 railway carriages and 400 guests left Bombay's Bori Bunder for Thane, with a 21-gun salute. It was hauled by three locomotives: Sindh, Sultan, and Sahib. The journey took an hour and fifteen minutes. That, however, was just the first commercial passenger service in India. In fact, a few other railways are known to have operated in India prior to 1853, for hauling materials.

In 1835, a short experimental line was laid near Chintadripet. This appears to have been a practice run of sorts for the Red Hill Railroad line. Construction on this line began in 1836. This line was intended for the carriage of granite stone. It was opened in 1837, and while it had teething troubles, it appears that it was definitely in operation in 1837, with a written report of its running from January 1838. While primarily intended for rail wagons hauled by animals, locomotives were also used on the line. One of them may even have been built in India. 

In 1845, a railway was built for carriage of stone and construction materials for irrigation works and a dam over the Godavari near Rajahmundry. Perhaps best known of these early pre-1853 railways is the account of a steam locomotive, Thomason, which had been used for hauling construction material in Roorkee for the Solani viaduct in 1851 (it is said to have begun working there on 22nd December 1851). The Solani viaduct construction was a part of the Ganges Canal project, started in 1845.

The viaduct had 15 arches and spanned the 4km-wide Solani valley (about 145km north-east of New Delhi). Earth for the approach embankments was transported along light rail lines about 5 to 10 km long from Piran Kaliyar to Roorkee. Standard gauge wagons were used, built from parts brought over from England, and hauled by men and later horses. In late 1851, the locomotive Thomason (named for the engineer on the project) was assembled on the spot from parts transported from Calcutta. It hauled two wagons at a time, at a speed of about 6km/h.

It did not last very long, and after about 9 months India's first steam locomotive died a spectacular death with a boiler explosion, reportedly to the delight of the construction workers who had viewed it more as a hindrance than help. It is entirely possible that there were other such railways used for the conveyance of materials and construction supplies in India around this time.Moving past these construction railways, the next locomotive to arrive in India was the Falkland (named for a governor of Bombay), used by the contractors of the GIPR for shunting operations on the first line out of Bombay that was being built. It began work on February 23, 1852.

A third locomotive, Vulcan, is said to have been used by the GIPR for material hauling and shunting duties in 1852 as well. There were also eight more locos from Vulcan Foundry imported by GIPR in 1852 and 1853.



On November 18, 1852, a locomotive hauled some coaches on a trial run from Bori Bunder to Thane. This probably counts as the first "real" train to run in India. Indian Railways after being overtaken by the British Administration and late the Indian Government, the railways were run under the ownership of the government and none of the railway lines were allowed to remain under private ownership. One or two tourist lines, personal lines were maintained by british landlords in the Shimla-Manali area, but they were not exactly fully commercial routes. The Government of India had an already functioning Minsitry of Railways which was in effect since 1935, transferred to them completely in 1951. The Railway Ministry had a separate budget decided in the parliament and the concentration of the efforts in function and expansion of the railways was on the objective of national public welfare. 

The tickets were minimum and reasonable and the freight costs affordable. The boom in the transportational functionality of Indian Railways was carefully planned and regulated, thus not allowing the focus on the welfare to be lost. Indian Railways functioned as a vital asset during the period of 62 years of Indian Government control. It has helped in carrying Machineries, Construction materials, Water, Milk, Petroleum, Kerosene, Foodgrain, Coal, Soil, Sand, Metals, Minerals, Salt and almost every commodity now available in the market.


Photo- Steve McCurry

One of the most depressing moments in train history is that of the Partistion if India and Pakistan. Millions of people were given 48 hours to choose which country they wanted to live in. Millions, scramble their belongings and used whatever they could, to reach the other country. Trains from India to Pakistan and from Pakistan to India, were filled to their maximum limits with people running for their lives. Thousands of women children and men lost their each other in the crowds. The Hindu-Muslim riots raised the casualties manifold adding to the anxiety of the fleeing passengers.

After that horrid period of Partition, the citizens of each nation were to face multiple wars and the enmity between the two countries was increased. As a part of multiple trials of peace talks, the Samjhauta Express was used as a beacon of Peace between the two nations and the international service by the Indian Railways has been very successful in patching the relations between the two neighbours. In spite of the success of the Samjhauta express, the peace of these nations continues to be disturbed by violent acts from both sides of the borders, resulting in breaking of all links with each other.

Today the Indian Railways transport 230 lakh people each day. To give you the perspective on this number, let me tell you that there are sovereign countries with lesser population. The average yearly number of Passengers comes to around 9 billion! Indian Railways carry there are 10,000 trains running daily. 2.8 million tons of freight is carried by trains in India.

As we come to face the giant challenge of Climate Change and economic disparity, the Railways will be one of the most crucial solutions and thus an arena for innovation. On this note, we must reconsider the magic of this energy-saving, climate-friendly and almost magical way of travel.