• Omer Haq

Raj and The Railways: Part One

Updated: Jan 13

The railways aptly called ‘India's nervous system’, was aimed to serve a different purpose than it does today. This topic has been broken into two segments to help cover the subject better. The are one of the most embodied facets of English colonialism in India.

The first time a railway was proposed in India was in 1832 in Madras and it took five years for the Red Hill Railway to make its first run. Built by the Knighted engineer and General, Sir Arthur Cotton, the rail was constructed between Red Hills to Chintadripet to be used for carrying laterite stone for construction purposes. The Madras Railway was incorporated in 1845, and later in 1852 was made into Madras Guaranteed Railway Company. The "guarantee system" promised on providing free land and a guaranteed five-per cent rate of return to private British companies willing to build railways,


The First Passenger Railway was built from Bombay’s Boribandar station to Thane and was constructed and operated by the Great Indian Peninsular Railway. Dedicated by Lord Dalhousie, the rail was hauled by three steam locomotives, named Sahib, Sindh, and Sultan. The train travelled for 30 km and could carry 400 people on a 5ft 6in broad gauge which remains India’s standard for the railway.


In terms of material and designs, the Indian Railway during its growth in the colonial-era was far more superior than the ones in the United States. From 1860 onwards, British India possessed the seven most extensive rail networks in the world. The rails in India were of the finest quality and expensive to lay whereas, in contrast, the rails in the US were of low cost and mass-produced.


In the early decades of railroad development, British India imported not only the necessary manufacturing goods but also technical expertise from Britain. This ensured a state of the art network in the subcontinent and goods such as rails, sleepers, prefabricated bridges, and locomotive engines. Although Indian workshops began to emerge at the end of the nineteenth century, British manufacturers remained the primary suppliers of these industrial goods. Between 1850 and 1940, more than 14,000 British locomotives were sold to colonial India compared to slightly more than 700 that were manufactured here. Indian workshops such as those established in Lahore focused on repair and assembly work for the duration of this period.



Railway promoters in London argued the military benefits of extensive railway networks. Some suggested a railway route connecting Madras, Calcutta, Delhi, and Bombay and connecting all major military posts, to reduce the time taken for troop movements, ammunition, and supplies to these bases. These routes would also spare the European troops the journey of marching through perilous terrain and weather. In India, the government began to see the development of rail as a key to the policy of military control and expansion and public administration in the subcontinent. Faced by the pressure both in London and in India, the Court of Directors eventually acquiesced. In 1849 they authorized two limited liability companies, under the supervision of the EIC, the right to build railroads in British India. The proposed line would revolutionize the way the colonial regime dealt with defensive and offensive military conflicts. According to Kennedy, this line would enable the “concentration of troops on any required point” in a way that would dramatically increase the military power of the government.

Whereas it took three to four months in the previous system to assemble a field force of 60,000 men with sufficient artillery and provisions at a site of combat, the Great North-Western line would hypothetically reduce the mobilization time to a matter of days.

Although major decisions regarding railway development in British India had been made by 1857, the railroad lines did not play a significant role in the Indian Mutiny (May 1857-July1858). When Dalhousie left India in 1856, thousands of miles were still either under construction or survey. Technical decisions, as well as bureaucratic friction between the EIC’s resident engineers and government consulting engineers, slowed down construction considerably. Observers of the Mutiny such as William H. Russell were conscious of how much of a difference an operational railroad network would have made in reducing the violence and internal unrest. As the newspaper correspondent remarked in a diary entry:

“One is wary of thinking how much blood, disgrace, misery, and horror would have been saved to us if the rail had been but a little longer here, had been at all there, had been completed at another place. It has been a heavy mileage of neglect for which we have already paid dearly.”

During the upheaval, the rebels intentionally targeted railway construction sites as well as existing railroad infrastructure, such as stations and bridges. In one of these incidents, the mutineers managed to gain possession of a railroad station and reportedly immediately sought to destroy the stationary locomotives by throwing rocks at them. Such acts of vandalism were frequent and caused serious damage to railroad development, especially in northern areas such as Delhi and Cawnpore. The mutineers feared the military potential of the railway. However, their destructive activities were not motivated by opposition to the rail transportation technology, but rather, by strategic interests, general hostility to colonial rule, and widespread frustration towards the economic as well as administrative changes that the British leadership brought about during the mid-nineteenth century.

Instead of denouncing the railway development in the country, the sepoy-backed rebel Mughul Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II proclaimed at the beginning of the mutiny to provide Indian merchants with government-financed railway tracks and steam locomotives once he is restored back to his power.

Following the rebellion, the opinion that railways could ensure the internal security of colonial India gained substantial support in Westminster. A parliamentary committee was organized to make railroad development into an imperial priority. In holding the EIC responsible for the delays in construction, the committee decided to make legislative reforms that removed the technical and administrative obstacles, which prevented the rapid construction of railroad tracks. Although colonial India had a mere 325 kilometres of railway in 1855, it possessed over 8000 kilometres by 1870. From 1858 to 1859 alone, more tracks were laid than ever before. By 1871, a transcontinental railway network connecting Bombay, Allahabad, Calcutta, Delhi, and Madras had also been completed. Thus, driven primarily by Britain’s desire to enhance state security in colonial India, the swift and massive railway construction that occurred, in turn, resulted in the technology becoming a major mode of military transportation on the subcontinent in less than two decades.



Historians agree that technological diffusion from Western Europe to the Indian subcontinent had occurred by the early 1800s. Many, however, have claimed that British colonial rule imposed restrictions on technological development in South Asia. In the case of the Indian railway network, historians such as Ian Inkster and Ian Derbyshire have asserted that the rigidity of colonial policy caused railroad construction to debilitate rather than motivate industrial development in British India during the late-nineteenth century. These authors, however, have overlooked the apparent paradox between, on the one hand, their claims about curtailed technological growth and, on the other hand, the vast as well as the rapid expansion of advanced railroad technology.


The advent of railroads and the expansion of similar services which increased transport and communication state were a part of the historic process that allowed the creation of modern India, and the day to day administration of such vast lands as possible and manageable.

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