Indian Railways History: Early Days

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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. The journey took an hour and fifteen minutes. The identity of the locomotives is still a subject of research.

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 in Madras. 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 on this railway.

In 1836, a railway was built for the carriage of construction material for the anicut across the Kollidam river near Trichy.

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).

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.

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 the GIPR in 1852 and 1853.

On November 18, 1852, several dignitaries, notably the Hon. Jagannath Shankarseth, a wealthy philanthropist and educationalist from Bombay, traveled the whole length of the line from Bombay to Thane, in a decorated tender hauled by the locomotive Falkland.

“[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.”

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: 1832 - 1869

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.


First proposals for railway lines in India in the Madras presidency. These proposals were never implemented.


May 1836: A short experimental railway line is constructed at Chintadripet, near Madras, which later became the Red Hill Railroad.

August 1836: Construction work on the Red Hill Railroad commenced.

August - October 1836: A short experimental railway is constructed near Trichy (present day Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu). This is used for the construction of the anicut over the Coleroon (Kollidam) river. Link to Early railways in India - Part II


The first operational railway in India - the Red Hill Railroad near Madras, used for transporting granite stone.


Likely date of first locomotive built in India - an Avery design rotary engine built for the Red Hill Railroad. More here.


Various proposals for railways in India, especially around Calcutta (EIR) and Bombay (GIPR).


A short railway, constructed with wooden rails, is used by Sir Arthur Cotton for construction work near the beach in Vizagapatam (present day Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh). ((Insert Anirudh's link))


R MacDonald Stephenson's "Report upon the Practicability and Advantages of the Introduction of Railways into British India" is published.


May 8: Madras Railway Company is formed.

A railway is in operation near Rajahmundry for conveying construction material and stone for irrigation works and a dam across the Godavari.

Survey work carried out for a Bombay-Kalyan line and an extension up the Malay Ghat for proposed connections to Khandwa and Pune.

The East Indian Railway company is formed.


June: The Madras Railway company is dissolved due to a disagreement with the East India Company which prefered a railway line near Calcutta instead of Madras.


Governor-General Lord Dalhousie while advocating railway construction in India also says, “No one can safely say whether railways in this country will earn or not".


August 1: Great Indian Peninsular Railway incorporated by an Act of Parliament.

August 17: "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.


October 31: First sod turned for the Great Indian Peninsular railway’s Bombay-Kalyan line at Sion.


February: Construction work commences on the Bombay-Kalyan line.

December 22: Locomotive Thomason is used for construction work in Roorkee.

Construction begins of an "experimental" section of track (Howrah-Rajmahal) for the proposed Calcutta-Delhi link via Mirzapur (EIR).


February 18: A locomotive, Falkland, begins shunting operations near Byculla. (Some accounts suggest another locomotive, Vulcan might have also been used for shunting operations here.)

July 26: The Madras Guaranteed Railway Company is formed.

November 18: A trial run on the Bombay-Thane route (35 km) is held. A decorated tender, attached to the locomotive Falkland carrying several European and Indian dignitaries ran the whole length of the route.

December 22: The East India Company and the Madras Railway Company enter into a contract to construct a line commencing at Madras and heading westward.


April 16: At 3:35pm, the first train in India leaves Bombay for Thane (see above for details).

April 18: Regular services start on the Bombay-Thane and Bombay-Mahim routes. Initial service consists of 2 trains each way between Bombay and Thane and 2 trains each way between Bombay and Mahim.

April 20: Lord Dalhousie's famous Railway Minute 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.

June 9: Construction commences on the Madras-Arcot line. The first turf for the line was turned at Madras.


May 1: GIPR Bombay-Thane line is extended to Kalyan and is a double tracked line, inaugurated by Lord Elphinstone. Dapoorie viaduct is completed.

July 6: The first train runs in Bengal. A short train, consisting of a locomotive and a single carriage carries several dignitaries along the whole length of the route from Howrah to Pundooah and back. This trial run also had an unfortunate casualty - a cow strayed across the track and was struck dead by the train!

August 15: The inaugural special train is operated, from Howrah to Hoogly (24 miles). The section is soon extended to Pundooah. Howrah station at the time was a tin shed with a small booking office, and a single narrow platform.

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.


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.

March 6: The Scinde Railway company is established (Incorrectly spelled as Sind in most accounts). This company was established to work on a railway line connecting Karachi and Kotri, and together with the Punjaub Railway and the Delhi Railway, provide a quick connection between Karachi and the East Indian railway at Delhi.

July: Bombay, Baroda & Central India Railway (BB&CIR) company is incorporated. The company was set up to construct a broad gauge railway line from Bombay to Ahmedabad (Gujarat). Due to uncertainties in deciding on the best route between Bombay and Surat, the company starts working on a line between Surat and Baroda.

August: EIR 21 and 22 ('Express' and 'Fairy Queen') begin work. Both locomotives have been revived and are currently used for heritage runs.

August 11: Lord Harris, the Governor of Madras, along with some other dignitaries, participates in a trial run on the Madras railway between Royapuram and Chinnammapettah (35 miles from Madras).

October 1: Thane-Kalyan line extended to Vasind on the north-east.

A combined Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Workshop is set up by the Madras Railway (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).


(Perhaps suspect information) HMS Goodwin carrying railway carriages for East Indian Railway Co. sinks. Another ship carrying a locomotive is mis-routed to Australia.


May 1: First sod turned for the BB&CIR’s Surat-Baroda line.

May 12: GIPR line extended from Kalyan to Khopoli.

June 28: Royapuram - Wallajah Road line constructed by the Madras Railway Company.

July 1: The first train service in the south begins, from Royapuram (Madras) to Wallajah Road (Arcot), operated by the Madras Railway Company.

Regular services are now run from Mumbai to Vasind and from Mumbai to Khopoli. Stations opened at Mahim Road (Dadar), Kurla, Titwala, Badlapur, and Neral.


Eastern Bengal Railway (EBR) formed to establish a railway connection between Calcutta and the districts to the north and east of Calcutta.

Great Southern of India Railway (GSIR) formed to establish a railway network in the southern part of India.

Calcutta and South Eastern Railway (C&SER) formed to construct a railway line between Calcutta and a new harbour at the Multah estuary (Port Canning).


April: BB&CIR commences construction of the Bombay-Surat line.

April 29: First sod turned for the Scinde Railway’s Karachi-Kotri line.

May 15: First trial run on the Pune-Khandala section of the GIPR. Several dignitaries make a round trip on the line, starting from Khandala in the morning and returning back in the evening after participating in some events at Pune.

May 19: Madras Railway extends its mainline to Gudiyattam.

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. Dapoorie viaduct opened for regular traffic.


March 3: Allahabad - Kanpur line (180km) opened.

April 16: Eastern Bengal Railway begins construction on the Calcutta-Kushtia line (175km).

May: Great Southern of India Railway commences construction of a Broad gauge line between Trichy and Nagapattinam.


February 6: Vasind-Asangaon line opened.


January 1: GIPR extends its North-east line from Asangaon to Kasara.

May 11: Karachi-Kotri section of the Scinde Rly. opens to public traffic, the first section in the region that would later become Pakistan.

July 1: Kanpur-Etawah line opened.

July 15: The Great Southern of India Railway opens a broad gauge line between Nagapatnam and Tiruvavur.

November 1: The East Indian railway extends its main line from Tinpahar to Bhagalpur.

December 2: The Great Southern of India Railway extends its BG line from Tiruvavur to Tanjore (Thanjavur).


January 2: The Calcutta and South Eastern Railway’s Calcutta-Port Canning line is opened till Champahati.

February 8: Jamalpur Loco Works established.

February 10: The EIR main line is extended from Bhagalpur to Jamalpur.

March 11: GSIR's Nagapatnam - Tanjore (Thanjavur) line extended to Trichy.

April 10: Amritsar-Lahore section of the Punjaub Railway opened for traffic.

April 13: First train runs from the East Coast to the West Coast of India. The train was a special train from Madras to Beypore, carrying the Governor of Bombay, Sir Bartle Frere, who was on his way to Bombay from Calcutta.

May 6: The Madras-Beypore mail commences operations. This train runs today as the 12601/02 Mangalore mail. Likely the oldest continuously operated train service in the country.

September 15: Madras Railway extends its lines to Tirupati (Renigunta).

September 29: The EBR’s mainline is opened to operations between Calcutta (Sealdah) and Ranaghat.

November 15: The EBR’s mainline is extended to Jagati Junction from Ranaghat.

November 17: The EIR mainline is extended from Jamalpur to Dinapore (Danapur).

December 22: The EIR mainline is complete till Mughalsarai. The magnificent bridge over the Son river near Ara is opened for traffic.

Sealdah station commissioned.

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, etc.) as a measure to alleviate overcrowding. These were the first double-decker coaches to be used in India.


January 21: The BBCIR completes its mainline between Bulsar (Valsad) and Ahmedabad.

February: Khanderao, the Gaekwar of Baroda, opens a Narrow gauge (2’6”) railway line from Dabhoi towards Miyagam. Oxen were used as the motive power! This was the first commercial tramway in India, and also the first railway line constructed by an Indian state on its own, without any assistance from the British Indian government.

April 21: Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of Bombay, inaugurates the Bhore ghat incline between Palasdhari and Khandala in a grand ceremony at Khandala.

May 14: The Bhore ghat line is opened for regular traffic.

May 15: The Calcutta and South Eastern railway’s mainline between Calcutta (Beliaghata) and Port Canning is opened throughout.

May 20: The GIPR North-East mainline is opened till Bhusaval. Passengers had to cross the Thull ghats by road.

December 21: Nalhati - Azimganj 4' gauge line opened by the Indian Branch Railway Co.

First luxury carriage in India is built for the Governor of Bombay.


August 1 : First train into Delhi (Shahdara) from Calcutta. Passengers from Calcutta changed trains at Mughalsarai and Allahabad.

Bombay-Surat line completed by BB&CI Railway.

August 1 : Jolarpettai - Bangalore Cantt. branch added by Madras Railway; A day-time train starts running between Jolarpet and Bangalore Cantt. This train connected with the Madras-Beypore trains at Jolarpet.

First proposals for (horse-drawn) trams in Bombay.

December 26th - The Gujarat mail commences running between Grant Road (Bombay) and Ahmedabad on the BB&CI railway. Passengers had to take a ferry to cross the Narmada river.

Total length of railway lines at the end of the year stood at 2962 miles.


January 1 : The Thull ghat incline between Kasara and Igatpuri is opened for public traffic.

April 24 : The Punjaub Railway between Multan, Lahore and Amritsar is opened throughout for public traffic.

Yamuna bridge at Allahabad opened, allowing EIR trains to cross over without using ferries.

May 8 : The Indian Tramway Company opens a 3'6" gauge tramway between Arakkonam (Arconum) and Great Conjeevaram (Kanchipuram).

August 1 : The Indian Tramway Company extends its Arconum - Great Conjeevaram tramway by 2 miles to Little Conjeevaram (Kanchipuram).

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.

Total length of railway lines at the end of the year stood at 3369 miles.


Railway Branch formed in Central Public Works Department.

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.

Total length of railway lines at the end of the year stood at 3568 miles.


January 1 : The first EIR train runs over the Yamuna Bridge into Delhi. A through-service is started between Howrah and Delhi. Over the years, this mail train was replaced with the present day Howrah-Kalka mail and the Howrah-Bombay mail.

February 20 : GIPR branch line extended to Nagpur; Bhusawal-Badnera section opened.

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.

EIR branch line extends from Allahabad to Jubbulpore (Jabalpur).

Lucknow-Kanpur line opened by the Indian Branch Railway Co.

October - The overland mail service between Bombay and Calcutta commences. This involved a journey by train from Bombay to Nagpur, by mail cart from Nagpur to Jubbulpore (Jabalpur) and from thence to Calcutta by train.

Total length of railway lines at the end of the year stood at 3937 miles.


January 1: GSIR's line reaches Erode, connecting to the Madras State Rly.

April 1: 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.

November 14 : The then Viceroy of India, Sir John Lawrence, declares the Meerut-Umballa section of the Delhi Railway open for public traffic.

Charbagh Workshops set up by the Oudh and Rohilkhand Rly.

Total length of railway lines at the end of the year stood at 4017 miles.


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.

January 26: 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 length of railway lines at the end of the year stood at 4287 miles.

The chronology continues in part 2, listing events from 1870 to 1899. Part 3 lists events from 1900 to 1946.

Part 4 covers 1947 to 1969. Modern times are listed in Part 5 - 1970 to 1994, Part 6 - 1995 to 2004, Part 7 - 2005 to 2014 and finally Part 8 covering 2015 to the present day.