On the right track

THE Indian Railways celebrates April 16 in a modest way. Saturday, April 16, 1853, the first Aag-gadi or Pugaivandi (carriage of fire) ran on 21 miles of rails laid by the Great Indian Peninsular Railway between Bori Bandar (later Bombay Victoria Terminus) and Thane. The awe and curiosity of the crowd which attended the event is vividly described by K. N. Kabraji in his reminiscences:

"Most of them would not believe at first, that this strange locomotive, called the steam engine, could be a product of human skill and science. They saw that no horses or bullocks were employed to draw the train and were convinced that the wonderful White man who could work other miracles had employed some demons or other invisible powers to draw so swiftly and easily the enormous load of wagons and carriages. There was no other way to account for this wonder and so they brought propitiatory offerings of coconuts to the unearthly power and were ready to worship it. The day the line was opened from Bombay to Thane was observed as a holiday. Thousands of natives lined the railway track to witness the wonderful phenomenon ..."

The inaugural ceremony was performed at 3:35 p.m. amidst applause, the Governor's band and to a 21-gun salute. The train drawn by three engines arrived at Thane around 4:45 p.m. with all pomp. The next day, April 17, the famous, wealthy Parsi merchant and philanthropist, Sir Jamsetji Jijibhai, second Baronet, reserved the whole train and travelled along with his family and friends to Thane and back.

Although the question of building the railways was being discussed for sometime, it was the then Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie (1848-56), who was committed to railway development. He actively involved himself in deciding where the experimental lines should be built. In March 1849, the East India Company agreed on the terms with the Great Indian Peninsular Railway and the East Indian Railway, whereby the two companies would build and operate their respective lines with a guaranteed five per cent return on the stockholders' investment, assured by the revenues of the British Government of India.

The first phase of railway construction in the country began as a "private enterprise at public risk." The investment came almost entirely from Britain but the risk was borne by Indians whose taxes paid the difference between the five per cent guarantee and the lower rate of profit which the guaranteed companies consistently earned throughout the 19th Century. With British investment in Indian railways totalling some �150 millions in the 19th Century, of which some �95 million was invested by 1875, the revenues of the Government were tapped for �50 millions to meet the guarantee. At an average cost of �18,000 per mile, the railways built in the 1850's and 1860's were not cheap, and were, for some who were responsible for India's finances, a "gift of an elephant". The guaranteed companies, moreover, had no land assembly costs and small legal costs because government provided the right of way.

Three days after the inauguration of the first line, on April 20, 1853, Dalhousie wrote the famous 216 pages of Railway Minutes after consulting the reports and opinions of various engineers and railway experts. He gave his unstinted support for construction of an extensive railway network for the subcontinent. He was not only guided by the defence and administrative needs but also the trade and industrial requirement of the British empire. He established the basic blueprint that was to guide the early decades of railway development including the rooting of the major trunk lines, promote private companies under guarantee and the degree of government control. He advised the land assembly programme for major lines that would provide for subsequent double-tracking. He went on to suggest the terms of contract including the termination and acquisition of the lines by the government. It was a very exhaustive analysis covering every aspect and contingency in the introduction of a large railway system.

The central elements of Dalhousie's planned railway map of India were the trunk lines connecting the major administrative centres of the presidencies and the provinces. The line from Calcutta would strike north-westward up the Ganges valley to Allahabad, and then on to Agra, Delhi and beyond into the newly conquered Punjab and its capital, Lahore. A line from Bombay would strike north-eastward, by a route to be subsequently determined, to join with the line in the Ganges valley, thus providing a Bombay to Calcutta connection. The Railways were also to be built from Bombay into Khandesh and to the city of Poona. Lines from Madras city were to be built to the western coast of the Madras Presidency with branches to Bangalore and the foot of the Nilgiris, while another line was to strike north-westward through Cudappah and Bellary and this was to be extended to Poona, thus creating a Madras - Bombay connection.

An official sod-turning ceremony in Madras took place in June 1853, but work was placed on hold while the overall direction of railway development was determined. Construction in the Madras Presidency began in early 1856, and by July that year, the easy 64 miles from Madras to Arcot, had been completed and the line opened for traffic. Subsequent development was slower, but by late 1860 the Madras Railway (later Madras and Southern Maratha Railways) had some 136 miles of operating line and 548 miles planned or under construction. The more recently sanctioned Great Southern Railway of India (later South Indian Railway) was nearing completion of its 78-mile connection of Nagapattinam and Tiruchirapalli.

In the early stages of the steam engines, all sorts of fancy gauges were chosen. After some experimentation the standard gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches was adopted in England, the U.S. and most of Europe. In the 1840's, the Directors of the East India Company recommended the adoption of the principle English gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches. But W. Simms, consulting engineer to the Government of India for Railways recommended the 5 feet 6 inches gauge. He argued: "The wider gauge which I would recommend for adoption will give 9.5 inches more space for the arrangement of several parts of the working gear of the locomotive engines and this additional space, will be more needed in India than Europe, not only on account of the machinery itself, but it would lower the centre of gravity of both the engines and the carriages, the result of which would be to lessen their lateral oscillation, and render the motion more easy and pleasant, and at the same time diminish the wear and tear.

The lowering of the centre of gravity, consequent on the adoption of the wider gauge, appears to me of great importance for another reason, namely, the fearful storm of winds so frequent at certain seasons of the year, and I think it very probable that in one severe nor-wester to mention such hurricanes as that of 1842, the additional 9.5 inches of which might make all the difference between the safety and destruction of the trains, and one such accident attended, as it doubtless would be, with great loss of life, would probably retard the progress of the railway systems of this country very considerably."

Thus in 1851, the Government of India accepted the unique non standard broad gauge of 5 feet to 6 feet. In 1869, Lord Lawrence recommended a large extension of railways throughout the country and strongly argued that where the broad gauge was expensive, a narrower gauge would be justified. The Government of India proposed the construction of trunk lines on the broad gauge and secondary lines on narrower gauge. In December 1870, the then Viceroy, Lord Mayo, decided that the secondary lines should be in 3 feet 3 inches. Since the question of adopting the metric system of weights and measures was then under consideration, the metre gauge 3 feet 3/8 inches was taken as the measure of the narrow gauge. This opened the chapter of controversy over gauges.

A solitary line was even tried with a 4 ft gauge from Nalhati to Azimganj in Bengal. The narrow gauge of 2 feet 6 inches and 2 ft were selected for the mountain railways and lines with extremely light traffic. In 50 years, 14,477 miles of 5 feet 6 inches (BG), 11,421 of metre (MG), 796 miles of 2 feet 6 inches (Narrow Gauge) and 262 miles of 2 ft gauge (NG) were in operation.

In this controversy of gauges, one of the most affected was the Great Southern Railways of India (later South Indian Railway). They chose to follow the advice of Lord Mayo and went on to the extent of converting some of the working lines in broad gauge and metre gauge. Their BG line from Nagapattinam to Tiruchirapalli was completed on March 11, 1862 and later converted to MG by July 17, 1875. Likewise Arakkonam to Kanjeevaram, originally constructed on BG, was also converted to MG by July 14, 1878. This unwise decision, to follow a false sense of economy has adversely affected the growth of present day Tamil Nadu. It now requires great effort and financial support to set right this folly.


The writer is Convenor of the Pondicherry Rail link Action Committee.

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