As a retired professor of History and Senior Scholar in the Department of History, University of Manitoba, Canada, Ian Kerr has chosen to delve deep into the history, evolution, and the development of the Railways in India. Though essentially a British legacy, the Indian Railways came into its own after Independence, mapping a new course for itself and becoming the country’s lifeline as well as a massive public sector monolith, providing employment to about 15 lakh people.
The research that has gone into the book is courtesy the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, and the photographs come from the Indian Railway Fan Club.
When the British came to rule India and found travel and communications so difficult, they decided to lay the foundations of what promised to be one of the world’s largest railway networks. For the British, it was essentially to connect the major cities, the ports, to make administration easier, and to reach the hill stations for their summer vacations. So those were the routes or destinations that got connected.
Construction of railroads in India began in 1850. Experiment and load testing trains came over, and finally, on Saturday, April 16, 1853, the first train was run officially in the country, transporting a large group of dignitaries along the 21 mile track that connected Bombay (now Mumbai) with Thana (Thane). The launch was marked by a 21-gun salute for the departure of the first train. After prolonged debates and discussions, the British opted to go in for the Great Indian Peninsula Railway and the East Indian Railway to build a rail network. In 1853, Governor General Lord Dalhousie laid out a comprehensive plan for the development of the trunk lines.
His objectives were clear and simple: Maximise political and commercial advantages along specific routes, and construction of subordinate lines. The construction was to be taken up by private companies “formed in and directed from England,” under the general control of the Government of India.
The Great Indian Mutiny of 1857 posed a serious challenge, but was overcome the very next year for the works to continue. The British presence in railroad construction was “crucial but small” — roughly 500 people in 1861. They could find skilled labour in India, and people who were better suited and adaptable to the weather conditions and the terrain they had to work in. Technology transfer held the key. Soon the construction work got into the difficult stretches — the ghat sections. Work on the Bhore Ghat Incline was an accomplishment by itself, taking almost 8 years of arduous work. Then came the equally challenging mountain railways to Ooty and Shimla. Construction of tunnels and long bridges was a necessity in India, and easily executed too, with the experience the workers gained in every project.
With Independence, the purpose and the drive of the Indian Railways changed. Though the British were more in favour of letting private companies manage and run the railway systems in different regions of the subcontinent, Independent India decided that the Indian Railways was a “national asset” as Jawaharlal Nehru called it, and decided to keep it in the public sector. The railways then became an engine of change and development, in much larger measure than under the British. The goal was clear, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, it was the railways that should link the country and unite it.
Construction of new lines began in a major way and the development of public sector iron and steel plants helped this process. All this led to job creation across the country and a full-fledged development of the hinterland wherever a new railway line was built.
In more recent decades, the development of Konkan Railways can be cited as an illustration of the development agenda. Despite the high costs, the Government of India, with the help of the States in the region, decided to go ahead with the construction of this massive rail link along the western coast that would provide a direct connection from Kerala and Karnataka to Goa and Maharashtra. Unfortunately, the full benefits of this project have not yet been realised.
Given the huge costs involved in the development of Railways, the Centre came up with a cost-sharing formula with the States. Roughly it was a 2:1 ration, which some States even bettered to ensure early completion of projects. All new lines, suburban sectors, and the Metro railways have all been built under this understanding.
What has somewhat vitiated this huge development seems to be the politics. Regional parties came to occupy a critical role in the era of coalition politics and governance and they demanded and got key portfolios, including the Railways. This meant that priorities changed depending on who was the Railway Minister at the time. Zonal Railways were sanctioned and operationalised to satisfy the aspirations and promises of these parties and ministers. The larger picture and a nationalistic approach to the development and management of Indian Railways may have been lost in this process. But whatever happens, the Railways will remain the lifeline of India. Despite the growth of Civil Aviation and the mushrooming of airlines, the demand for passenger trains has only increased and people are still unable to get tickets in the trains of their choice unless they book well in advance. It is perhaps in the movement of goods and commodities that the Railways has not been able to meet the challenge of the surface or road transport, which has become cheaper, quicker, and easier.