IR History: Early Days - I

The first trains in India

Q. When did the first train run in India?

The customary answer to this question is 3:35pm on April 16th, 1853, when a train with 14 railway carriages and 400 guests left Bombay's Bori Bunder for Thane, with a 21-gun salute. It was hauled by three locomotives: Sindh, Sultan, and Sahib. The journey took an hour and fifteen minutes.

That, however, was just the first commercial passenger service in India. In fact, a few other railways are known to have operated in India prior to 1853, for hauling materials.

In 1835, a short experimental line was laid near Chintadripet. This appears to have been a practice run of sorts for the Red Hill Railroad line. Construction on this line began in 1836. This line was intended for the carriage of granite stone. It was opened in 1837, and while it had teething troubles, it appears that it was definitely in operation in 1837, with a written report of its running from January 1838. While primarily intended for rail wagons hauled by animals, locomotives were also used on the line. One of them may even have been built in India. More here.

In 1845, a railway was built for carriage of stone and construction materials for irrigation works and a dam over the Godavari near Rajahmundry. More here.

Perhaps best known of these early pre-1853 railways is the account of a steam locomotive, Thomason, which had been used for hauling construction material in Roorkee for the Solani viaduct in 1851 (it is said to have begun working there on 22nd December 1851). The Solani viaduct construction was a part of the Ganges Canal project, started in 1845. The viaduct had 15 arches and spanned the 4km-wide Solani valley (about 145km north-east of New Delhi). Earth for the approach embankments was transported along light rail lines about 5 to 10 km long from Piran Kaliyar to Roorkee. Standard gauge wagons were used, built from parts brought over from England, and hauled by men and later horses. In late 1851, the locomotive Thomason (named for the engineer on the project) was assembled on the spot from parts transported from Calcutta. It hauled two wagons at a time, at a speed of about 6km/h. It did not last very long, and after about 9 months India's first steam locomotive died a spectacular death with a boiler explosion, reportedly to the delight of the construction workers who had viewed it more as a hindrance than help. Hughes' book states that this was a six-wheeled tank engine, probably a 2-2-2WT built by E. B. Wilson, and of standard gauge. Some details of the wagons and the use of the locomotive are in Sir Proby T Cautley's Report on the Ganges Canal Works (3 volumes, 1860). More here.

Read more about these early railways in this article by Simon Darvill: The First Railways in India.

It is entirely possible that there were other such railways used for the conveyance of materials and construction supplies in India around this time.

"[The railway is] a triumph, to which, in comparison, all our victories in the East seem tame and commonplace. The opening of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway will be remembered by the natives of India when the battlefields of Plassey, Assaye, Meanee, and Goojerat have become landmarks of history." (The Overland Telegraph and Courier, April 1853)

Moving past these construction railways, the next locomotive to arrive in India was the Falkland (named for a governor of Bombay), used by the contractors of the GIPR for shunting operations on the first line out of Bombay that was being built. It began work on February 23, 1852. Hughes' book suggests that this was also built by E. B. Wilson, and was probably a four-wheeled tank engine (0-4-0T?) with dummy crankshaft. It later became GIPR loco #9. A third locomotive, Vulcan, is said to have been used by the GIPR for material hauling and shunting duties in 1852 as well.

There were also eight more locos from Vulcan Foundry imported by GIPR in 1852 and 1853.

On November 18, 1852, a locomotive hauled some coaches on a trial run from Bori Bunder to Thana. This probably counts as the first "real" train to run in India.

Q. What was the Guarantee System? What were Guaranteed Railways?

In the 1840s, when the first proposals for railways in India were being debated in Great Britain, there was intense lobbying in support of these proposals by banks, traders, shipping companies, and others who had a strong interest in seeing railways be formed in India. These supporters prevailed upon the British Parliament to create the Guarantee System, whereby any company that constructed railways in India was guaranteed a certain rate of interest on its capital investment. This guarantee was honoured by the East India Company which then controlled large parts of India. The railways that were formed with such agreements governing them were called guaranteed railways. Typically, the guarantee was for a return of 5% annually, and the right for the railway company to pull out of the venture and get compensation from the government at any time.

Chronology of railways in India, Part 2 (1832 - 1865)

Note: This chronology is intended as a general overview for non-specialists to give them a feel for some of the interesting and complex events that shaped the development of railways in India. Many line openings are mentioned to give an idea of the geographic spread of railway services. Dates in most cases are those for when the completed lines were open to traffic; usually sections of the line may have been opened years earlier, and might even have supported revenue traffic in parts. Dates are often somewhat uncertain because of varying reports in different sources, or lack of documentation, hence in many cases they may be off by a couple of years. Anyone seeking reliable and specific information and more detail is strongly urged to consult the reference works listed in the guide to historical research and the section on books about IR history

  • 1832
  • First proposal for a railway in India, in Madras. This remained a dream on paper.
  • 1835-1836
  • A short experimental railway line is constructed at Chintadripet, near Madras, which later became the Red Hill Railroad. More here.
  • 1837
  • The first operational railway in India - the Red Hill Railroad near Madras, used for transporting granite stone. More here.
  • 1838
  • Likely date of first locomotive built in India - an Avery design rotary engine built for the Red Hill Railroad. More here.
  • 1840s
  • Various proposals for railways in India, especially around Calcutta (EIR) and Bombay (GIPR).
  • 1844
  • R MacDonald Stephenson's "Report upon the Practicability and Advantages of the Introduction of Railways into British India" is published.
  • 1845
  • A railway is in operation near Rajahmundry for conveying construction material and stone for irrigation works and a dam across the Godavari. More here.
  • Survey work carried out for Bombay-Kalyan line and an extension up the Malay Ghat for proposed connections to Khandwa and Pune.
  • May 8: Madras Railway Company is formed.
  • East India Railway company is formed.
  • 1848
  • Governor-General Lord Dalhousie while advocating railway construction in India also says, &uot;No one can safely say whether railways in this country will earn or not".
  • 1849
  • August 1: Great Indian Peninsular Railway incorporated by an Act of Parliament.
  • "Old Guarantee System" providing free land and guaranteed rates of return (5%) to the private English companies willing to work on building railways. Agreed upon in March, finalized on August 17.
  • 1851
  • Locomotive Thomason is used for construction work in Roorkee, beginning on December 22. More here.
  • Construction begins of an "experimental" section of track (Howrah-Rajmahal) for the proposed Calcutta-Delhi link via Mirzapur (EIR).
  • 1852
  • Construction of a line out of Bombay begins, and a locomotive, Falkland, begins shunting operations on February 23. The line is ready by November, and on the 18th of November, a trial run of the Bombay-Thane trip (35 km) is held. (Some accounts suggest another locomotive, Vulcan might have also been used for shunting operations here.)
  • The Madras Guaranteed Railway Company is formed.
  • 1853
  • On April 16th, at 3:35pm, the first train in India leaves Bombay for Thane (see above for details). Initial scheduled services consist of two trains each way between Bombay and Thane and later Bombay and Mahim via Dadar.
  • Madras Railway incorporated; work begins on Madras-Arcot line.
  • Lord Dalhousie's famous Railway Minute of April 20 lays down the policy that private enterprise would be allowed to build railways in India, but that their operation would be closely supervised by the government.
  • 1854
  • On August 15th, the first passenger train in the eastern section is operated, from Howrah to Hoogly (24 miles). The section is soon extended to Pundooah. Howrah station at the time is simply a tin shed with a small booking office, and a single narrow platform.
  • By May, GIPR Bombay-Thane line is extended to Kalyan and is a double tracked line; inaugurated by Lord Elphinstone. Dapoorie viaduct is completed.
  • GIPR opens its first workshops at Byculla.
  • Stations are classified into 4 groups on some railways, according to traffic and the proportion of European and Indian passengers.
  • 1855
  • BB&CI Railway incorporated, and begins work on a Surat-Baroda line.
  • Thane-Kalyan line extended to Vasind on the north-east.
  • February 3: EIR's "experimental" track for a Calcutta-Delhi route now consists of a Howrah to Raneegunje (Raniganj, collieries near Asansol) section of 121 miles.
  • August: EIR 21 and 22 ('Express' and 'Fairy Queen') begin work. The Fairy Queen is still working!
  • 1855-1856
  • HMS Goodwin carrying railway carriages for East Indian Railway Co. sinks. Another ship carrying a locomotive is mis-routed to Australia.
  • 1856
  • May 28: Royapuram - Wallajah Road line constructed by the Madras Railway Company
  • Jul 1: The first train service in the south begins, from Royapuram / Veyasarapady (Madras) to Wallajah Road (Arcot) (approx. 100km) by the Madras Railway Company.
  • A combined Loco, Carriage and Wagon Workshop is set up by the Madras Guaranteed Rly. (later part of the MSMR) at Perambur, near Madras, later to become the Carriage and Wagon Workshops of SR (and the Loco Workshops at Perambur).
  • Sind (later Sind, Punjab and Delhi) Railway is formed, a guaranteed railway.
  • GIPR line extended to Khopoli via Palasdhari on the south-east. Regular services are now run from Mumbai to Vasind and from Mumbai to Khopoli. Stations opened at Dadar, Kurla, Titwala, Badlapur, and Neral.
  • 1858
  • Eastern Bengal Railway and the Great Southern of India formed (guaranteed railways).
  • June 14: Khandala-Pune section of GIPR open to traffic. The 21km gap over the Bhore ghat (Karjat - Khandala) is crossed by palanquin, horses, or on foot. In some cases the passenger cars were also carried over each way.
  • 1859
  • On March 3rd, the first train in the north was operated, from Allahabad to Kanpur (180km).
  • BBCI Railway obtains permission to extend its lines southwards from Surat, and opens its Grant Road terminus for its proposed line from Surat.
  • Eastern Bengal Railway begins construction on Calcutta-Kushtia line (175km).
  • Calcutta and South-Eastern Railway formed, with 5% guarantee from the government.
  • 1855-1870
  • Several (about a dozen) railway companies are incorporated.
  • Early 1860s
  • Various early experiments with providing passenger amenities such as toilets, lights, etc. These naturally tended to be introduced first in the First Class carriages and only later in the lower classes of accommodation.
  • Sind and Punjab Railway is engaged in construction of a northward line from Karachi, a Lahore-Multan line, and a Lahore-Delhi line.
  • Kanpur-Etawah section opened.
  • 1860
  • Bhusawal station set up by GIPR.
  • Vasind-Asangaon line opened.
  • 1861
  • Madras Railway's trunk route from Madras extended to Beypur / Kadalundi (near Calicut). Work begins on a north-western branch out of Arakkonam.
  • Great Southern Railway of India completes 125km BG line between Nagapatnam and Trichinopoly. (? Some sources suggest the line was till Tanjore, and extended to Trichinopoly by March 1862.)
  • Churchgate station opened by BBCI Railway as its new terminus for Bombay.
  • January 1: GIPR's Kasara line opens (extended from Asangaon).
  • May 13: Karachi-Kotri section of the Scinde Rly. opens to public traffic, the first section in the region that would later become Pakistan.
  • 1862
  • Feb. 8: Jamalpur Loco Works established.
  • Khanderao, the Gaekwar of Baroda, opens 8 miles of an NG railway line from Dabhoi towards Miyagam. Oxen were used as the motive power!
  • EIR's Delhi-Calcutta route progresses as far as the west bank of the Yamuna, via Mughalsarai. Sahibganj Loop.
  • Sealdah station commissioned.
  • Bhore ghat incline constructed, connecting Palasdhari to Khandala.
  • November: EBR's Calcutta-Kushtia line open for traffic.
  • Calcutta and South-Eastern Railway's 45km line from Calcutta to Port Canning is constructed.
  • Amritsar-Attari section completed on the route to Lahore.
  • The Indian Branch Railway Co. formed to construct short branches and feeder lines in northern India, with a 20-year subsidy but no guarantee.
  • The Indian Tramway Co. is formed for building short lines around Madras, also with a 20-year subsidy. This suffered losses later, was reorganized to become the Carnatic Railway and finally was taken over by the South Indian Railway.
  • Two-tier seating is introduced in Third Class (on EIR, GIPR, etc.) as a measure to alleviate overcrowding. A typical coach carries 50 passengers on the lower seats, and 70 on the upper level, nearly doubling the capacity of the already overcrowded third-class coaches. These were the first double-decker coaches to be used in India, and perhaps in the world (?).
  • Madras Railway extends its lines to Renigunta.
  • GSIR's Nagapatnam - Trichinopoly line opened to traffic.
  • 1863
  • May 14: GIPR line from Bombay across the Bhore Ghat to Pune constructed.
  • BB&CI Railway completes Surat-Baroda-Ahmedabad line.
  • EIR completes Arrah bridge over the Sone.
  • Port Canning - Mutlah line opened by the Calcutta & South-Eastern R Railway.
  • Nalhati - Azimganj 4' gauge line built by the Indian Branch Railway Co.
  • First luxury carriage in India is built for the Governor of Bombay.
  • 1864
  • August 1: First train into Delhi. Through trains run between Delhi and Calcutta; coaches are ferried on boats across the river at Allahabad.
  • Bombay-Surat line completed by BB&CI Railway.
  • Jolarpettai - Bangalore Cantt. branch added by Madras Railway; Bangalore Mail begins running.
  • First proposals for (horse-drawn) trams in Bombay.
  • 1865
  • Sind and Punjab Railway's Multan-Lahore-Amritsar line is completed. Works begins on line from Delhi to Amritsar.
  • BB&CI completes Bombay-Ahmedabad rail link.
  • Yamuna bridge at Allahabad opened, allowing EIR trains to cross over without using ferries.
  • Arakkonam-Conjeevaram 3'6" line built by the Indian Tramways Co.
  • Kasara line extended to Igatpuri over the Thull (Thall) ghat.
  • GIPR timetables show 'local trains' separately for the first time. These are in the sections to Mahim and Kalyan.
  • Alambagh Workshops set up by the Oudh and Rohilkhand Rly. (formerly the Indian Branch Rly. Co.).
  • Howrah station gets a second platform.
  • 1866
  • Railway Branch formed in Central Public Works Department.
  • Delhi and Calcutta are linked directly by rail as the completion of the Yamuna bridge (road and rail) in Delhi allows the trains to reach what later became Delhi Junction. The 1 Dn / 2 Up Mail begins running -- this is the predecessor of the Howrah - Kalka Mail.
  • Bhusawal-Khandwa section opened.
  • W. Newman & Co. begins publishing the "Newman's Indian Bradshaw" for train timetables in India.
  • Indian Branch Rly. Co. begins construction of Lucknow-Kanpur light MG line.
  • 1867
  • Virar - Bombay Backbay suburban service commences (BB&CI); one train in each direction each day.
  • Some Indian locos are sent overseas for the Abyssinian expedition.
  • GIPR branch line extended to Nagpur; Bhusawal-Badnera section opened.
  • EIR branch line extends from Allahabad to Jubbulpore (Jabalpur).
  • Lucknow-Kanpur line opened by the Indian Branch Railway Co.
  • 1868
  • Madras Railway extends its network (with a new terminus at Royapuram) to Salem, and also finishes the Jolarpettai - Bangalore Cantonment branch.
  • November: Sind, Punjab, and Delhi Railway's line towards Amritsar from Delhi (Ghaziabad) is open for traffic up to Ambala.
  • Calcutta and South-Eastern Railway, having suffered extensive losses on their Sealdah-Canning line because of floods and other problems, decide to transfer the line to the government in return for capital costs, becoming the first railway to be taken over by the state.
  • GSIR's line reaches Erode, connecting to the Madras State Rly.
  • Charbagh workshops set up by the Oudh and Rohilkhand Rly
  • 1869
  • Governor-General Lord Lawrence suggests that the Government of India itself undertake all future construction of railway lines. But GIPR's guarantees and leases are extended, and also those of the Bombay, Baroda, and Madras Railway Companies. Still, this year marks a turning point in government policy away from the guarantee system.
  • GIPR locals extended from Mahim to Bandra.
  • Jan. 25: Runaway train on the Bhore Ghat derails and crashes after failing to be stopped by a catch siding, and is made (in)famous by pictures in the Illustrated London News.
  • Total trackage in India is about 4000 miles.

The chronology continues in Part 2, listing events from 1870 to 1899. Part 3 lists events from 1900 to 1947.

Part 4 covers 1947 to 1970. Modern times are listed in Part 5 - 1970 to 1995 & Part 6 - 1995 to 1999, and finally Part 7 covering 2000 to the present day.

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