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Indian Railways Under the British Raj

Indian Railways - 1853Of all the merely material reforms which revolutionised India, silently and almost without observation, the most remarkable was the railway, its rapid extension and financial results. It took ten years to persuade the East India Company of the value of what the Marquis of Dalhousie urged on them as the greatest improvement which man's invention has yet applied to the means of movement the locomotive engine upon iron rails.

The strong barriers of one of the most rigid and exclusive caste systems in the world have been penetrated on every side by the power of steam. In India for many years past, caste prejudices have been practically extinguished within the fences of a line of railway, and the most sacred Brahmin will now contentedly ignore them rather than forego the luxury and economy of a journey by rail, whilst everywhere the usually imperturbable and lethargic Eastern has been aroused out of sleep, has learned to move with alacrity, and even to acquire the virtue of punctuality, under the uncompromising and imperious tuition of the locomotive whistle.

Railways in India have reduced the effective size of that continent to less than one-twentieth of its former dimensions, so that places situated 400 miles from the home of an intending traveller or producer of goods for the market, are now as practically near to him as others only 20 miles distant formerly were, and journeys which would have occupied the time, imposed the fatigue, and consumed the daily charges of the best part of a month, can now, with ease, comfort, and economy, be performed within the compass of a day.

The existing system of railway communication in India dates from the administration of Lord Dalhousie, who brought to bear upon this question an experience gained at the Board of Trade when railway speculation in England was at its height. The first Indian line of rail was projected in 1843 by Sir Macdonald Stephenson, who was afterwards active in forming the East Indian Railway Company. But this scheme was blighted by the financial panic that followed soon afterwards in England. Bombay, the city which has most benefited by railway enterprise, saw the first sod turned in 1850, and the first line of a few miles opened as far as Thana (Tanna) in 1853.

The elaborate minute, drawn up by Lord Dalhousie in 1853, faithfully represented the railway map of India of later days, although modified in detail by Lord Mayo's reform of 1869. Lord Dalhousie's scheme consisted of well-chosen trunk lines, traversing the length and breadth of the peninsula, and connecting all the great cities and military cantonments.

When at last, in 1853 from Bombay, and in 1855 from Calcutta, the first short sections of the great trunk system which crosses the peninsula of Hindostan were opened, a steady fight was maintained till the authorities were convinced that fares low enough to tempt the poor millions of the natives to travel would soon make Indian railways pay better dividends than would ever be possible in Great Britain, so far as ordinary capital is concerned.

Step by step the passenger rates have been reduced, till from Chaman (near Kandahar) and Peshawur in the far north to Tinnevelley and Tinticorin in the extreme south, the third-class fare is below the third of a penny per mile. Not until 1870 did the Government of India in India realise its own success, when the Dalhousie policy, which had created the great trunk lines which cross and recross India by means of guaranteed companies, gave place to an extensive form of railway development by the direct agency of the State. Giving up the India gauge of 5-1/2 feet as too costly and slow in construction, the authorities would have nothing but light lines to feed the trunk system on the metre gauge. This craze continued ten years, long enough to disorganize the Imperial organization of railways all over India by the short-sighted break of guage, when, in 1880, private enterprise was again invited to help, and there was a return to the 5-1/2 feet gauge, which was taken as the uniform system of the future, for both strategic and commercial reasons, save in isolated or hilly tracts.

The Guaranteed lines, including the East Indian, which was transferred to Government in 1879, in accordance with terms applicable to all alike, comprised the following :(1) The East Indian, running up the valley of the Ganges from Calcutta Sreat lines (Howrah) as far as Delhi, with a branch to Jabalpur. (2) The Great Indian Peninsula, which starts from Bombay, and sends one arm north-east to Jabalpur, with a branch to Nagpur, and another south-east to the frontier of Madras. (3) The Madras line, with its terminus similarly at Madras city, and two arms running respectively to the Great Indian Peninsula junction at Rdichur and to Beypur on the opposite coast, with branches to Bangalore and Bellary. (4) The Oudh and Rohilkhand, connecting Lucknow and Moraddbad with Cawnpore and Benares. (5) The Bombay, Baroda, and Central India, which runs due north from Bombay through the fertile plain of Guzerat, which was destined ultimately to be extended across Rajputana to Delhi.(6) The Sind, Punjab, and Delhi, consisting of three sections, one in Lower Sind, another from Delhi to Lahore, and the third from Lahore to Mdltan. (7) The South Indian (the only guaranteed line on the narrow gauge), in the extreme south, from Cape Comorin to Madras city. (8) The Eastern Bengal, traversing the richest portion of the Gangetic delta.

The State lines are too numerous to be described singly. They include railways, the extension from Lahore to Peshawar on the north-west frontier, which in 1879 stopped short at Jhelum; the 'missing link,' from Mriltan to Haidarabid, thus bringing the Punjab into direct connection with its natural seaport at Karachi (opened throughout in 1878); the line up the valley of the Irawadi from Rangoon to Prome; and many short lines which have been constructed entirely at the expense of Native States.

Indian Railways - 1871The State bought up the early guaranteed companies, and created sinking funds and annuities for the commutation of their capital. It continued to invite private undertakings, like that of the Bengal and North-Western Railway, to which it gave no direct pecuniary help, while it encouraged others by assistance in varying forms, and uses them to construct and work State lines. The whole enterprise was by the 1890s on right lines, and in every case Government reserved power to take over each new railway at stated times and terms. India enjoyed all the advantages of the English system of private enterprise and working, with those of the continental plan of State ownership and control.

Even were they as costly as they are profitable to the shareholders and beneficial to the people, the railways of India were made and maintained for strategic reasons. Although he said little about that, save in his secret dispatches, it was on military grounds that Lord Dalhousie urged their construction, and with a view to the defence of the Empire that he planned their route from Calcutta to Lahore, from Agra through Gwalior and other warlike States to Bombay, and from Poona by the borders of Haidarabad to Madras. Ever since the Mutiny of 1857 railway stations have been built so as to be easily converted into forts of refuge and defence.

Lahore was hardly reached before Lord Napier of Magdala, who had made the costly trunk road thence to Peshawar, gave the Government of India no rest till a system of military railways for the north-west frontier was planned. What that distinguished engineer-soldier began, till he saw the iron horse enter Peshawur, his successors, especially Lord Roberts, largely extended. The evil second Afghan War had one good result: it compelled the Government to hurry on the frontier lines, till the British locomotive was within an hour's English express railway journey of Kandahar. Only Afghanistan proper was left out of the railway system, for political reasons.

The railway was the great peace-maker and peace-keeper of the Indian Empire. As the railway system of India approaches its completion, the relative importance of the roads naturally diminishes. From a military point of view, rapid communication by rail has now superseded the old marching routes as completely as in any European country. Like Portsmouth in England, Bombay in India has become the national harbour for the embarkation and disembarkation of troops. On landing at Bombay, regiments proceed, after a rest, to the healthy station on the plateau of the Deccan, whence they can reach their ultimate destinations, however remote, by easy railway stages.


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