Railway Development in India: 1854 to Now


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.

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.

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 harbour route. Various sections on the railway network were progressively electrified and commissioned between 1925 to 1930.

By 1929, there were 66,000 km of railway lines serving most of the districts in the country. At that point of time, the railways represented a capital value of some £687 million, and carried over 620 million passengers and approximately 90 million tons of goods a year. In colonial India, the railways were operated by a group of privately owned companies, which consisted almost entirely of British shareholders and whose profits invariably returned to Britain.

As revealed by Sweeney Stuart in his book on the railways, the ruling colonial British government were too focussed 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.

After attaining Independence in 1947, India inherited a rather dilapidated Railway Network. Moreover, nearly 40 per cent of the railway lines were in the newly created Pakistan. This caused the additional expense of rerouting railway lines through Indian territory and new lines had to be constructed to connect important cities such as Jammu.

In 1952, it was decided to replace the existing rail networks by zones. A total of six zones came into being in 1952. The prices of tickets were standardised at 30 pies,16 pies,9 pies and 5 pies depending upon the class of ticket one purchased.

As India developed its economy, almost all railway production units started to be built indigenously. The Railways began to electrify its lines to AC. In 1985, steam locomotives were phased out. In 1987, computerization of reservation first was carried out in Bombay and in 1989 the train numbers were standardised to four digits. In 1995, the entire railway reservation was computerised through the railway’s internet. In 1998, the Konkan Railway was opened, spanning difficult terrain through the Western Ghats. The Railways Act 1989 replaced the Railways Act 1980 by replacing the framework nearly a century later. In 1984 Kolkata became the first Indian city to get a metro rail system, followed by the Delhi Metro in 2002, Bangalore’s Namma Metro in 2011, the Mumbai Metro and Mumbai Monorail in 2014 and Chennai Metro in 2015.

Today, the Indian Railways is the world’s seventh largest commercial employer with over 1.3 million. As for rolling stock, IR holds over 245,267 Freight Wagons, 66,392 Passenger Coaches and 10,499 Locomotives The trains have a 5 digit numbering system and runs 12,617 passenger trains and 7421 freight trains daily. As of March 2013, 21,614 km (almost 1/3rd the total length) of the total 65,808 km route length was electrified. Moreover, the importance of the Railways to the Indian Economy is brought out by the fact that its Budget is presented in the Parliament one day before the Union budget.
In recent times, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the choice of Japan to build India’s first high-speed railway. The planned railway would run some 500 kilometers between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, at a top speed of 320 km/h. Under the Japanese proposal, construction is expected to begin in 2017 and be completed in 2023.

Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, in his visit to Japan to strengthen cooperation in rail sector, held a series of high-level meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso among other ministers and senior officials and has highlighted that the Indian public transporter would be the next major destination for infrastructure investment worth USD 140 billion.

The Japanese government has shown willingness to invest in the high speed railway system between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The JICA has worked with Ministry of Railways over the last two years and prepared a feasibility report. Japan has offered an assistance package with a loan on very concessional terms of 50 years repayment period, 15 years moratorium and a 0.1 % rate of interest.

The areas of cooperation includes railway safety; rolling stock like train sets/EMUs; information sharing for station development and land value capture; information sharing for environment friendly sanitation technology(including the development of waterless, odourless toilets in trains and at stations) in trains signalling and telecommunication; railway electrification; civil structure and railway track system; train control system; mitigation of natural disasters and any other areas jointly determined by both sides within the scope of this MoC.

Railways research wing – Research Designs & Standards Organisation (RDSO), will sign an MoU with Railway Technical Research Institute of Japan to carry out research work on acquiring modern technology for the public transporter, as per the finalisation of the action plan. Mr Prabhu also held meetings with heads of leading financial institutions and highlighted the investment prospects in railways in the coming years. Railways has chalked out a plan to investment USD 140 billion in infrastructure upgradation in the next five years.

Lastly, on November 9, the Ministry of Railways issued GE with a letter of award for a US$2·6bn joint venture contract to develop a factory to supply and maintain 1 000 diesel locomotives; thus marking the first time the Indian Government has allowed a foreign company to manufacture locomotives for public use. Hence, it is clear that the government recognises the importance of the Indian Railways, especially as a part of its economic dominion and is taking fervent measures in the furtherance of the same.


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