Railways in India

An extract from the Railway Gazette, 25 August 1911, pp. 173-174. The piece was written by an American correspondent of the Railway Gazette reporting on the state of railways in India.
This material is under copyright held by the Railway Gazette International and is reproduced here by permission granted generously by the Editor of the Railway Gazette International.

They say in the Orient, 'First comes the Bible, then the British and then the railways.' All three generally come to stay. In India the three are working admirably.

India now possesses a vast railway system that stretches from Trichinopoly on the sea coast in the extreme south to the Khyber Pass in the further northern frontier among the high Himalayas; from Indus in the west to Brahmaputra in the east. And now the railway lines are penetrating the mountain fastnesses of Baluchistan to Quetta. They are also going down through wild country, through forests and over hills, southward beyond the Brahmaputra to meet the lines from Rangoon and Mandalay in Burmah. Between these furthest points the system has shot out many trunks and innumerable branches all over the great plains, connecting remote cities and industrial centres. All the chief cities of India are connected by railways. In fact they would not rank among the principal cities if they did not possess a railway station. Every year more towns and cities are entering the zone of the locomotive whistle, and the lines are breaking into new fields. The development is rapid.

The immense system is composed of six separate parts or nuclei working in harmony. They are: (1), the East Indian Railway (E.I.R.); (2), the Bombay, Baroda Railway (B.B.C.I.R.); (3), the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. (G.I.P.R.); (4), the Bengal-Nagpur Railway (5), the North-Western Railway (N.W.R.); (6), the South Indian Railway (S.I.R.). Beside these six distinct branches, which cover practically all India, there are many smaller systems that serve the districts in the interiors and parts far away from the main trunk lines. The E.I.R., the oldest of the systems, covers the eastern parts with its terminus at Howrah, a suburb of Calcutta. The B.B.C.I.R. has its headquarters in Bombay, which is the terminus of other lines as well. Nagpur is the central station of the B.N.R., which accommodates the public of the central provinces. The S.I.R. is focussed at Madras on the cast coast of the Southern Indian Peninsula. The names are a good guide to the regions each system supplies.

Most of these systems, forming one great unit, although nominally the enterprise of private companies, are heavily subsidised by the Indian Government and are more or less under its control. This is almost a necessity, for the rails are primarily laid for the easier transportation of troops. Under such conditions there is no competition, and though the service is efficient it lacks the stimulus of competition.

In the independent native States, the railways are built, maintained and managed by the State treasuries. The officers and higher employees, even of the independent native State railways, are nearly all Europeans. The stationmaster, the enginedriver, and the guards are Europeans. The guards or conductors on some lines are Parois and Hindus, but only a very small number occupy this position. Perhaps in all India there is not one engine driver who is a native of the land, though there are many Indian stationmasters in small, out-of-the-way places, where, perhaps, only one passenger train stops in 24 hours. The clerks and telegraphists are mostly Indians. It is of course British policy to maintain such a personnel, for there are many efficient natives, well able to perform the duties of the various departments.

Each train for passenger service is made up of four classes: First class, second class, intermediate class and third class. The first and second classes are used by Government officials and the wealthy. The intermediate is used by middle class Indians and the poorer Europeans. The third class is used almost exclusively by the Indian travelling public. In both the intermediate and third classes, separate compartments are provided for Europeans and women.

The first and second classes are well furnished. The long seats are covered with leather and are soft and springy. At night they are used as sleeping bunks. In each compartment, and there are two in each car, are hung two hammocks for sleeping purposes. In the day time they are pushed up out of sight. Sometimes the inner walls of the compartments are fitted with folding bunks, such as one finds in the cabins of old-fashioned steamers. The first and second classes are invariably supplied with bathrooms, so that the traveller can enjoy the luxury of the tub. The water which is carried on the roof is replenished frequently at the larger stations. In summer the windows are fitted with rotating fans, that force moist, cooled air through dripping khus khus (a species of tall grass) mats. These luxuries are a necessity in the burning sun of the Indian plains. The intermediate and third classes are fitted with long bare wooden benches that stretch across the width of the car. Each compartment contains two such benches facing each other. The compartments, of which there are six in a car, are divided by long iron bars, and look for all the world like a travelling circus cage. Sometimes even the windows are barred. There is no kind of sleeping accommodation, and absolutely no pretence of comfort. The poor unfortunates, who are obliged to ride in these cages are huddled together like wild beasts. No Siberian transport carrying exiles could be much worse. Yes, the passengers do complain, but-

The track is broad gauge; that is, 5 ft. gauge. That is one reason why Indian cars look so heavy and cumbersome. But plenty of elbow room is required in that hot climate. The subway and Brooklyn Rapid Transit crushes would mean apoplexy and sudden death. It cannot be said, for all that, that Indian cars are luxurious and up to date. There is no competition, therefore the railway companies do not find themselves called on to furnish anything more than bare necessities. They still use those antediluvian gas lamps, dropped in at sunset from the roof. It is impossible to regulate their glare; generally the weary traveller pulls a green shade over it when he wants to sleep. Or just at the exciting part of a railway penny dreadful the gas gives out and the compartment is left in darkness. These are some of the inconveniencies that the Indian traveller suffers. Yet, one must be thankful that there is a train at all.

Although there is not much fear of accidents, on the busiest lines, every train is fitted with vacuum brakes. A collision in India must partake of the nature of a phenomenon. Except at about a score of points not four trains run through in an hour. There are countless numbers of stations through which only one passenger train passes in 12 hours. However, the service is sufficient. It is not so very long ago that railway trains were regarded with fear, as something preternatural, by the ignorant peasantry of outlying districts. To-day the fear is gone, but still the train is viewed with much curiosity. To travel in a train is still a great achievement with untold thousands. The traveller will return to his village, and, as the people gossip at the noon hour under the spreading banyan tree in the middle of the village, will relate his experiences as something of surpassing wonder; and his fellows will look up to him as one who has entered a field outside the realms of human labour and invention, and straightway he gains a prestige in the community: even a reputation for wisdom, as one who has ridden in a train and seen something of the vast world beyond the shades of the village roofs. These simple villagers call trains 'howah garry,' meaning 'air carriages.' How near they are to the truth these innocent hamleteers do not imagine!

The railway is undoubtedly one of the greatest blessings that has followed in the wake of the British occupation of India. Great cities have grown greater, and scores of insignificant towns have developed into centres of immense industries. Fertile lands, difficult of access, have been brought within the scope of profitable commerce. The farmers can sell their products more easily, and buy the conveniences the cities supply without much trouble. Employment is offered to thousands, who would otherwise find it harder to live. Large tracts of country, hidden in oblivion for centuries are opened up for improvement. Bombay has been brought near to Calcutta and Delhi to Madras. That in itself is a great achievement, in a country where people seldom travel beyond the limits of their landlord's territory, where the next village, a few miles away, is too far to reach in a lifetime. Good government is made possible, something utterly beyond the imagination in India without easy and rapid modes of transit, for it is a country half the size of the States with a population nearly three times as great. But above all, the railway has helped to circulate common ideas, new ones, from village to village, from city to city, from east to west and north to south. What that means to and for India no one who has not lived in India and studied Indian life will be able to realise. No country in the world, not even China, has such a heterogeneous population, with heterogeneous creeds, beliefs, ideas, ideals and languages as India. The railway has made possible a common standard of civilisation in India, and is knitting together three hundred million individuals into one compact mass of humanity with a potential energy for good or bad that no imagination has yet dreamed of calculating. What greater work can any human invention do in any clime?

The material above is under copyright held by Railway Gazette International and is reproduced here by permission granted by the Editor of the publication.