How was India’s first railway line built and opened in 1853?

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India’s first 33.79 km railway line between Bombay and Thane was opened in 1853. However, there was an earlier plan to build a line from Calcutta to Delhi, and a rare map from 1846, which helped to hail the rise of modern India, was prepared for initial investigation by the East India Railway Company.

The construction of the railway system across India during the second half of the 19th century completely transformed the society, communications and economy of the subcontinent. Disparate regions that were separated by journeys that could take weeks could now take days or even hours.

Peoples and cultures that historically had little contact with each other could now easily interact. The products of rural India that languished far from the market could now be brought quickly to cities and ports.

From a political point of view, it also allowed the British colonial regime to move troops and officials quickly across the country, thus strengthening its control over India.

The first completed railway in India was a 33.79 km long line between Bombay and Thane, which opened in 1853.

Although seemingly a modest breakthrough, everyone knew it was the prelude to a revolution – a pan-India railway network.

In 1845, the East Indian Railway Company was established with the aim of constructing a line from Calcutta to Delhi. Such a railway would connect the capital of the Raj Company with the ancient Mughal capital and would serve to unite the most populated regions of India.

The Ganges plain was the breadbasket of India and many cities such as Kanpur and Allahabad were increasingly important industrial centers.

The railway promised that, for the first time, goods and people could be easily transported across the plains and even to the seaport of Calcutta. The potential was enormous, and if the railway was realized, it would radically transform northern and northeastern India.

The East Indian Railway Company was officially launched on June 1, 1845 with £4 million in investment capital – a huge sum for the time.

Rowland Macdonald Stephenson (1808-1895), an experienced railway engineer, was chosen as the Company’s first general manager.

Stephenson and three surveyors immediately headed for Calcutta, arriving in July 1845.

George Huddleston, a future railroad general manager noted, Stephenson proceeded

With a diligence and discretion which cannot be too lightly recommended, to survey the line from Calcutta to Delhi, passing through Mirzapore [Mirzapur], and so great and persevering were the efforts of himself and the staff that in April, 1846, the surveys of the whole line were completed; important statistical information obtained and an elaborate report transmitted to your managers in London.

Copies of Stephenson’s handwritten surveys were given to the J. & C. Walker Company, the official cartographers of the British East India Company (EIC).

The Walker Company grafted Stephenson’s proposed route for the railway onto one of its own existing general topographic maps depicting central and northern India and printed the present map to measure. Copies of the map were then provided to the directors to accompany Stephenson’s report.

The map is extremely rare as only a very small number of copies have been released. Nevertheless, it would then have played a very important role as the only authoritative graphical representation of the railway.

The East India Company, once an ambitious and hyperactive organization, was at that time plagued by institutional fatigue and lack of funds. While he recognized the value of railways for India’s future, he proved too tired to provide leadership and ended up presenting only bureaucratic obstacles to railway builders.

It was not surprising that following the rising of 1857, Queen Victoria put the Honorable Company out of its misery and replaced it with the reign of the Crown over India.

After three years of delays, in 1849 the EIC finally authorized the East Indian Railway Company to build an “experimental line” from Calcutta to Rajmahal (Jharkhand), 100 miles long.

In 1850 Stephenson appointed George Turnbull (1809-1889), a highly experienced Scottish railway engineer, to lead the construction efforts. Turnbull would later gain great fame as “India’s first railway engineer”.

Turnbull proceeded to survey the exact line of the new route and design the Howrah terminus, across the Hooghly from Calcutta, which with 23 platforms would soon become the largest railway station in Asia. Construction began in 1851 and proceeded slowly due to supply problems and continued lack of cooperation from the EIC.

The first stretch of line from Howrah to Hooghly, just 23 miles long, was opened to traffic in 1854. Construction then continued towards Rajmahal.

Progress was further slowed by the 1857 uprising, during which many supplies and track pieces were stolen. A cholera epidemic in 1859 killed more than 4,000 railroad workers. However, the project still moved forward.

The biggest technical hurdle ahead of us was the construction of a bridge across the 1 mile width of the Son River, the largest southern tributary of the Ganges.

This bridge (now Koillar or Abdul Bari Bridge) would prove to be a great feat of engineering, being the longest bridge in India built before 1900. Beginning in 1856, it was not completed until 1862.

The line connecting Howrah to Benares was opened in 1862.

Another section of the line was built separately along the Ganges valley, with a line connecting Kanpur to Allahabad completed in 1860, while Benares and Allahabad were connected in 1863.

In 1866 all the gaps between Howrah and Delhi were closed and direct service on the whole line began.

Meanwhile, the pioneering, but tiny, Bombay-Thane line had become the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. In 1870, it linked Bombay to Allahabad, linking the two major railways and making it possible to cross India in just a few days.

While the railway system had the effect of tightening the grip of the British Raj on India, over time, by allowing Indians from different parts of the country to easily interact with each other, it helped to foster a coherent sense of national identity. In this way, it was an essential prerequisite for the rise of the Indian independence movement.

Today, the custodian of the integrated national rail system, Indian Railways, employs over 1.3 million people, operates 151,000 km of track and operates over 7,000 stations.

The story featured may, in some cases, have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, that provided the content.

1. Cf. George Huddleston, George (1906), History of the East India Railway(Calcutta, 1906)
2. Hena Mukherjee (1995), The Early History of the East India Railway 1845–1879(Kolkata, 1995)
3. MA Rao, indian railways(New Delhi, 1988)

Special thanks to Dr. Alex Johnson.

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