Indian Railways - Whose Legacy?

October 30, 2007
Harold Bergsma

“The Indian railways traverse through the length and width of the country; the routes cover a total length of 63,140 km (39,462 miles). It is one of the largest and busiest rail networks in the world, transporting just over six billion passengers and almost 750 million tonnes of freight annually. Indian Railway is the world's largest commercial or utility employer, with more than 1.6 million employees. The entire railway reservation system was streamlined with computerisation in 1995.”
Indian Railways Network, WorldJute.com.

"What an amazing system, one of the world’s greatest! Six billion passengers is a lot of people to transport. Indian railways provide jobs to more than a million and a half employees! How in the world did it get so big, so important to the social, economic and cultural life of India?"
(See: Exploring Indian Railway, OUP India, New Edition, 1996, by Bill Aitken.)

Here are a few statements to consider.

India’s trains are a shining legacy of the British Raj, a track record of which they can be proud. The railway system unified India as little else did, sparking economic development and social sharing. The system of rails that ran from Calcutta to the Khyber Pass provided employment, training and a way of life for thousands upon thousands of Indians. The development of a railway system necessitated the construction of thousands of miles of steel tracks which sparked industrial development, galvanized the iron and steel producing industry. Trains became social levelers which broke down caste as millions shared crowded quarters. Trains facilitated the movement of vast numbers of Muslims who moved to Pakistan and millions of Hindus who moved to India.

Without the railway system the present economic boom in India would never have taken place. The British Raj left behind an efficient and smoothly operating infrastructure, India Railway, second to none in the world!

Sound familiar?

True? It depends on who writes the history.

It is peculiar that so many educated Indians fondly remember the Raj. The British Empire ruled India for more than 200 years; British rule drained India of natural resources, induced famines by interfering with agricultural production and the distribution of foodstuffs, dismantled previously competitive Indian industries (e.g. shipbuilding, steel production), and acerbated poverty. The British parliament never considered conferring citizenship to Indian...Indian nostalgia for the Raj; What’s going on?,

To the vast majority of Indians who travel on the trains such statements may mean little. To Indians who remember an India before partition, the statements may spark fire. To the steel developers, such as at Tata, the track record of the development of the railway system is a history of struggle against the policies of the Raj which supported English steel mills, English manufacturing plants, to the detriment of economic development within India. Indian cotton was shipped out to be processed into cloth in England to bring back to sell to Indians who could have produced their own textiles. As far as being a social leveler, travelers developed their own systems of segregation. Do you remember?

Hindu Pani!” How often I heard the cry as a kid at the railway stations. I remember there was a third class, a second class, an inter-class and first class reserved compartments. I remember that only select folk were welcomed in the train stations’ catering tea-rest rooms. Being a gora sahib was all it took to be served there. When the British left India, the train system had been sorely neglected and it took the new Indian government some time to get it running well.

Wait, let’s give credit where credit is due; what was started by the British was a legacy, an enduring infrastructure that facilitated future development. I was traveling in Baluchistan by car some years ago and came across a beautifully constructed railway bridge. On it was the year of its construction, 1932. That bridge is still functioning very well, thank you, as are thousands in India that were designed by British engineers and constructed in the early years of the development of the railway system. Yet it was Indians that took it over who made it what it is today.

Trains played a huge role in the development of the United States. There are some parallels to the development of the Indian railways to that system.

Do you remember the legendary American golden spike that was pounded into the ties at Promotional Point, when the two railway lines met, one coming from the east, the other from the west. At that time, the old saying, ‘go west, young man, go west!’ took on new meaning. No longer did a lad with a gun slung across his shoulder, have to hike two thousand miles, fight Indians, and critters to get to the WEST. Now, for the price of a train ticket people could move, and move rather quickly for the time. The date was May 10th. 1896.

The transcontinental railroad unified America. It surely was an impetus in the great western movement; in the eventual development of California, Oregon and Washington. It enhanced the ‘gold rush’; it served the North in the Civil War. The railway became a social mixer; people of all walks of life used it for trade, for bilking others, for carpet baggers and snake-oil salesmen who used the train to find their markets. It made the slaughter of the American Bison a reality, since meat, skins and eventually bones could be shipped to the east by rail. Traditional folk, called Indians were strongly affected by the rail which brought droves of white men with guns into their territories, and eventually led to their being placed on reservations. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Remember Custer’s last stand? It is true that the railway provided employment for thousands to build the track system. Remember the role the Chinese ‘slaves’ had in laying tracks? They slaved for pennies a day and died by the hundreds and then, imagine, government policies cut off Chinese immigration in the Exclusion Act and made interracial marriages illegal. The rails carried mail, bullion, building materials and fancy dresses and booze. Goods were shipped all the way from Paris to ‘Californ-eye-aye’. It is the stuff that old Western movies are made of.

Thousands of miles of steel tracks had to be made for this American transcontinental railway line. The eastern steel mills roared; millions of dollars were made by tycoons who invested in steel mills, and they did not have to pay capital gains taxes. Yes, the railway was a significant factor in development of all types and opened communications from east to west.

I have traveled across the United States on trains and I give them a B- for impact and A for effort. Yes, today the trains still operate, many with government subsidies. Amtrak’s stock is owned by the Federal Government and employs some 19,000 people. (Compare this to how many work for the railways in India.) But Henry Ford certainly changed American’s ideas of how to get around. Cheap cars, Model A and Model T Fords became affordable and people loved having their own way of getting from point A to B. The vast majority of cars that fill America’s highways have no passengers, only the driver. Roads, roads, ‘grand trunk’ roads were developed from north to south, east to west and began to eclipse the impact of the railroads. ‘A chicken in every pot’ and later a car for every home were the slogans. Extensive roads brought the development of huge trucks called semis (sem eyes) which currently carry the vast majority of goods within the country.

In 1896 a gold spike was driven in America, celebrating the construction of a railway line across the country.

What was happening in India at that time?

After the first passenger train run between thane and bori bander, almost six years later, on March 3, 1859, the first Railway Line in North India was laid between Allahabad and Kanpur. This was followed, in 1889, by the Delhi-Amballa-Kalka line. Both Bombay and Calcutta were competing for the first train run in British India. One of the major reason behind the introduction of the Railways in India help movement of freight, particularly cotton, from the interiors Gujarat and Maharashtra to the coastal cities like Bombay. In the early 1850s British cotton and textile industry was booming and it was decided to tap the Indian cotton market. Bombay had a stronger cotton market and advantage of neigbouring cotton producing states and won the race for the first train. The services in Calcutta began the following year.”(Spelling recorded as written)

India beat the Americans at the railroad game, or was it the British in India? I was amazed at the speed of the development of rail lines in India. (Howrah Station for Hoogly, August 15th, 1885.); a small beginning of only 24 miles, but by 1880, an Indian railway system had developed which had a route of 9000 miles! What a lot of track to lay, what brutal labouring conditions! And you think the Chinese coolies in America had it bad.

“The Railways became the pride of British India, but their construction aroused fears that contributed to the great rebellion, or mutiny of 1857-8.” (Illustration no.11) in The Lion and the Tiger, The Rise and Fall of the British Raj, Denis Judd, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Judd’s book The Lion and the Tiger is a good read, including the animal imagery. Yet Judd mentions the trains only in passing in his book, seems to avoid dealing with them and the controversies which surrounded them in India’s struggle for nationhood. I think that the railway system was a real Tiger, the Sher Khan of India. ‘Sher Khan’ is a reality, and could well be the name for the vast Indian rail system that has developed since the British left; all 39,462 miles of it! (Excluding Pakistan)

He does say, “Trainloads of waylaid and murdered refugees steamed into their final destinations, the flies swarming over the corpses and the stench of death hanging over the carriages like a miasma.” Page 188.

The trains got bad press in 1947!

Trains are very much an Indian institution. Billions of people use them. I can not imagine an India without trains. People of all ‘castes’, of all walks of life, of all social groups, move around in India on trains. Roads, such as the Grand Trunk Road may move millions, but the common man in India does not own a car and relies on trains, the grand trains, broad gage and narrow gauge, that service the sub-continent so very well.

In recent years, communications along the railways occur in local vernacular; signs are posted in English, Marathi, even the Devanagari script. (Rajendra Allekar, Vernacular Languages in Indian Railways). Schedules are computerized; trains have entered the digital age and few are steaming about it.

The old Indian trains with their grand steam engines foster nostalgia, memories of sounds and sights that remain with me for a lifetime. Hissing steam engines, clouds of black smoke filled with coal cinders that got in one’s eyes, clothing and food; toilets that gave one a view of the filthy ‘tracks of time’ clacking below, bistar bunds rolled out in the luggage racks, Hardwar monkeys during the great Kumbha Mela festival that swarm over the loaded carriages and steal passengers’ food, wails of the train whistle in the night answered by jackals, and buying aloo cholay, oranges and sugar cane from vendors through the passenger windows at a train station. Water any one? “Hindu Pani” “Chai, garam chai!” “Thande ande”


Wails of passing Lucknow train
Cries of jackal, answer in yipping tunes
Black night, black, life sounds far, far
Away, away, sleeping children awake, listen
Stir on squeaky charpai, tomorrow, tomorrow
Six copper coins on the table near the bed
King George Two Annas, tomorrow’s treasure!

Shiny-topped tracks run hot, silvery, away-away
Listening ears against the metal, glistening eyes
Sea shell sounds, messages of distant motion
Rumbles of a metal surf, clacking waves of steel
Railgaree telegraphs, rumbling, excitement moving near
Excited smiles and nods; its coming, watch out, hurry!
Six coins placed, set carefully on the tracks

Hissing, chuffing, rumbling, puffing, hooting
Get away, away! Black and charging it comes
Annas neatly laid two feet apart; stand back!
Engineer waves and people hanging from doors
Shouting, wind blows dhotis, black smoke billows
Steam escapes in short pants, a track star.
Pistons push, push, huge iron wheels rumble
Coins flatten, flatten, flatten small chappaties!

Tracks, all shiny with birthday cake medallions
Six copper discs shine, sparkle brightly in the sun
Children shriek, pick up their track treasures
One by one, compare, laugh, rub surfaces
Smooth against their cheeks, stroking cool flat discs
Busy little fingertips explore, thumbs flip coppers
Spinning up, catch the sun, no heads, no tails.

Wails of the Lucknow train cry in the distance.
Harold Bergsma, San Diego, 2007

Harold Bergsma has published widely in professional journals, and novels. In 2007, One Way To Pakistan was published and in April of 2007 was awarded the Indie Excellence Award for Multicultural Fiction.
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October 30, 2007
01:59 PM

Thanks Harold- I cant imagine India either without her trains. My trips on the Grand Trunk Express and Tamil Nadu Express between Delhi and Chennai cannot be described- the ravines of the chambal, dense forests of Maharashtra, arid stretches of Madhya Pradesh, lush green rice fields of Andhra...

A. S. Mathew
October 31, 2007
07:54 PM

Even though Britain colonized India for two hundred years, we must not forget that they
have contributed the English language and laid
foundation for the great Indian railwasy system.

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