History of rail transport in India

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This article is part of the history of rail transport by country series.
Extent of Great Indian Peninsular Railway network in 1870
Extent of Indian Railway network in 1909

The history of rail transport in India began in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1853, there was not a single kilometer of railway line in India. By 1929, there were 66,000 km (41,000 mi) 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.[1] The railways in India were a group of privately owned companies. The military engineers of the East India Company, later of the British Indian Army, contributed to the birth and growth of the railways which gradually became the responsibility of civilian technocrats and engineers. However, construction and operation of rail transportation in the North West Frontier Province and in foreign nations during war or for military purposes was the responsibility of the military engineers.[1]

The linking of the Indian Railways[edit]

In 1845, along with Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, Hon. Jaganath Shunkerseth (known as Nana Shankarsheth) formed the Indian Railway Association. Eventually, the association was incorporated into the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, and Jeejeebhoy and Shankarsheth became the only two Indians among the ten directors of the GIP railways. As a director, Shankarsheth participated in the very first train journey in India between Bombay and Thane on 16 April 1853 in a 14 carriage long train drawn by 3 locomotives named Sultan, Sindh and Sahib. It was around 21 miles in length and took approximately 45 minutes.

A British engineer, Robert Maitland Brereton, was responsible for the expansion of the railways from 1857 onwards. The Calcutta-Allahabad-Delhi line was completed by 1864. The Allahabad-Jabalpur branch line of the East Indian Railway opened in June 1867. Brereton was responsible for linking this with the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, resulting in a combined network of 6,400 km (4,000 mi). 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 concluded 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".[2]

By 1875, about £95 million (equal to £117 billion in 2012) were invested by British companies in Indian guaranteed railways.[3]

By 1880 the network route was about 14,500 km (9,000 mi), mostly radiating inward from the three major port cities of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. By 1895, India had started building its own locomotives and in 1896 sent engineers and locomotives to help build the Uganda Railways.

In 1900, the GIPR became a government owned company. The network spread to the modern day states of Assam, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh and soon various independent kingdoms began to have their own rail systems. In 1901, an early Railway Board was constituted, but the powers were formally invested under Lord Curzon. It served under the Department of Commerce and Industry and had a government railway official serving as chairman, and a railway manager from England and an agent of one of the company railways as the other two members. For the first time in its history, the Railways began to make a profit.

In 1907, almost all the rail companies were taken over by the government. The following year, the first electric locomotive made its appearance. With the arrival of World War I, the railways were used to meet the needs of the British outside India. With the end of the war, the railways were in a state of disrepair and collapse.

In 1920, with the network having expanded to 61,220 km, a need for central management was mooted by Sir William Acworth. Based on the East India Railway Committee chaired by Acworth, the government took over the management of the Railways and detached the finances of the Railways from other governmental revenues.


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. The Second World War severely crippled the railways. 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 (such as Churchgate to Colaba in Bombay) were dismantled for use in war in other countries. By 1946 all rail systems had been taken over by the government.[citation needed]

Start of Indian Railways[edit]

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai is the busiest railway station in India. It is also a World Heritage Site

Following independence in 1947, India inherited a decrepit rail network. About 40 per cent of the railway lines were in the newly created Pakistan. Many lines had to be rerouted through Indian territory and new lines had to be constructed to connect important cities such as Jammu. A total of 42 separate railway systems, including 32 lines owned by the former Indian princely states existed at the time of independence spanning a total of 55,000 km. These were amalgamated into the Indian Railways.

In 1952, it was decided to replace the existing rail networks by zones. A total of six zones came into being in 1952. As India developed its economy, almost all railway production units started to be built indigenously. The Railways began to electrify its lines to AC. On 6 September 2003 six further zones were made from existing zones for administration purpose and one more zone added in 2006. The Indian Railways has now sixteen zones.

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. 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 and the Mumbai Metro and Mumbai Monorail in 2014. Many other Indian cities are currently planning urban rapid transit systems.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sandes, Lt Col E.W.C. (1935). The Military Engineer in India, Vol II. Chatham: The Institution of Royal Engineers. 
  2. ^ R.P. Saxena, Indian Railway History Timeline
  3. ^ British investment in Indian railway reaches £100m by 1875


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