Indian Railways Research Guide

By Julian Rainbow. Additional information from Dr. Ken Walker and others. Online resources contributed by DSP Anirudh, Ajai Banerjee and others. (Edited in March 2021)

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The Aim

The aim of this document is to try and collect together various sources of information on Indian Railways, so that people unfamiliar with India and or railways are given some ideas on where to look. It has been prompted by a number of requests received recently from individuals or TV companies for help, and rather than try each time to tell people about sources of information and possibly forget, I will try to list all I know here.

The notes on sources here will also be of use to people researching Africa and South America. It is not meant to be for committed railway enthusiasts, so I have kept the technical side very simple deliberately. It is strongly recommended that before you visit any museum or institution, that you contact them first to see if they have the relevant documents.

Note: Much of this document is written for researchers primarily based in the UK interested in pre-Independence India. For those interested in post-1947 developments related to the expansion of IR’s network, introduction of new trains, budgets etc., the online resources section below has links and pointers and will prove the most helpful.

The Context

In the context of this document India should be taken to mean those countries governed by The India Office prior to Indian and Pakistani Independence in 1947, and their subsequent names after Independence. It will therefore include India, Pakistan (both East and West), Bangladesh, Ceylon/Sri Lanka and Burma/Myanmar. India will be used as a generic term, unless other names are specifically needed.

General History

In general it is fair to say that the history of Indian Railways has not received the degree of attention that railways in Great Britain, Europe, America and Australasia have received. Most of the countries concerned do not have an overall history, or if they do then it is not up to date. In order of volume of information about the Railways the ranking is this:

  1. India (dated overall history)
  2. Ceylon/Sri Lanka (dated overall history)
  3. West Pakistan (dated overall history)
  4. Burma/Myanmar (no overall history)
  5. Bangladesh (no overall history)


The Indian Railways FAQ section on books on Indian Railway history shows what has been available. For general overviews of history, see the books by Westwood, Kerr, and Sahni. The books by Bhandari have concise summaries of the histories of several railway systems. The 3-volume set, Railway Construction in India, has a lot of historical detail on the building of railways in India. In general the individual Companies that were the constituents of Indian Railways do not have company histories. Very brief historical summaries are available in Hugh Hughes' series on Indian Locomotives (see the FAQ section on books on locomotives).

Journals & Other References

  1. The Locomotive, Railway Carriage and Wagon Review: Commonly known as Loco Mag. Published from about 1896 - 1959 it was noted for the accuracy of its content. It contains technical and historical information about most railways. There are some small biographical notes. Copies should be available in the Science Museum Library, the National Railway Museum, York, and Ashford (Kent) Library Railway Room.
  2. The Railway Gazette: Primarily a journal for professional railwaymen, its technical content is superb. There are biographical notes. Of importance is the fact that in about 1913 and 1922 it produced a two-volume set in each year dedicated to Indian Railways. These sets contain a fair amount of history, and current operating details, as well as many photos. In the 1920s to the 1930s Railway Gazette also produced an annual Overseas number, which effectively gives a snapshot of the railway for the previous year. Not all railways are included every year. Of interest are the issues on Indian and south-east Asian railways published in 1929. Copies should be available at the Science Museum Library and the National Railway Museum, York. The Railway Gazette was later renamed the Railway Gazette International, and is still published regularly, with occasional focus on India and neighbouring countries. Website
  3. The Indian Railways Study Group newsletters: This group is now defunct but their newsletters are available through the British Overseas Railways Historical Trust on payment of photocopying and postage charges. What is useful here is that there is a listing for Indian references in both Locomotive Magazine and Railway Magazine.
  4. The Railway Officials Yearbook: Produced from about 1898 onwards, with increasing amounts of information as time progresses. It lists the senior officers of each company, but who gets in will depend on what the company supplied, how large the company was and how junior an officer the compilers decided to include. Available at the National Railway Museum, York.
  5. The Engineer: A broadsheet trade weekly journal produced from about 1850 onwards, it includes biographical details, detailed articles on civil engineering feats, locomotives produced etc. The drawback is its size and its indexing system that seems to vary almost with every volume. To give some idea of the size of a bound volume, take 26 copies of a reputable broadsheet newspaper, like the Daily Telegraph, bind them together and had heavy board covers. It is only recommended to use The Engineer if you have fairly specific dates. It should be available from the British Newspaper Library at Colindale.
  6. The Beyer, Peacock Quarterly Review: From about 1926 onwards until the early thirties Beyer, Peacock, one of the largest British Locomotive manufacturers produced a quarterly Firms magazine. It concentrates on their products, but does include details of visits made overseas to clients, biographical notes on employees and ex-employees. Try the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.
  7. Allied to the Beyer, Peacock Review are their publicity books, many of which are lavish products which give details on the latest locomotive placed in service on a railway and solving their problems. Try the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.
  8. The Colonial Office List: An annual British Government List that states who was doing what and where for that year.
  9. The Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers: The ICE published annual proceedings in which various members are given talks on some civil engineering problem they had encountered. They are available from the Institution of Civil Engineers.
  10. The Proceedings of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers: As for the ICE, and should be available from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, some are available at Ashford (Kent) Library.
  11. Proceedings of the Royal Engineers Institution: In India, Royal Engineer officers were often seconded to Railway Companies for experience, or had to build lines themselves. Some accounts may be found in the Proceedings of the Royal Engineers Institution. Try the Library, Royal Engineers Museum, Brompton Barracks, Chatham, Kent.
  12. The Railway Magazine: This used to be a serious magazine until about 1990, when it changed to a more tabloid style, there were good articles on overseas railways.
  13. History of Indian Railways: Constructed and In Progress: This was a very useful periodic publication of the Railway Department (Government of India, Railway Department (Railway Board), New Delhi / Simla, Government of India Press). Each issue gives details of all the then-extant railways of India including dates of construction of all railway lines, dates of agreements and charters governing the railways, occasional brief engineering details, and a summary of the legal arrangements for each railway's access to other companies' lines, access by the government, etc. This was published periodically until about 1961, after which it continued in a briefer format as the Annual Report and Accounts of the Railway Board. Copies exist at the India Office archives held by the British Library (see below). In Australia, try the Australian Railway Historical Society, and the Mitchell Library in Sydney.
  14. Another useful periodic publication is the Report by the Railway Board on Indian Railways (Government of India, Railway Department (Railway Board), Calcutta. This was published annually, and has details of line constructions, freight and passengers carried, revenues, accident statistics, operating statistics, etc.
  15. The Administrative Report on Railways in India: By the Director General of Railways to the British Parliament was published periodically from the 1860s till about 1920, after which the History of Indian Railways mentioned above took over much of the statistical reports. Copies of this publication and other governmental reports and documents (Public Works Department Papers, the PWD's Railway Letters and Enclosures, and Railway Proceedings, etc.) relating to railways in India are also held at the India Office archives (see below).
  16. Issues of The Indian Railways Workshop Magazine have information on technical developments in India.
  17. Another periodical dealing with technical railway developments in India was The Indian Railway Engineer.
  18. Other periodicals of interest include Engineering, The Indian Engineer and The Indian and Eastern Engineer (from the 1890s through the early 1920s), Indian Engineering (from the 1880s through 1952), and the Indian Railway Gazette (from about 1910 through the 1940s). The last carried many rolling stock diagrams. Many of these issues are available at the British Library's Newspaper Library at Colindale.
  19. The Annual Reports of various railway companies in the 19th century, and after 1904, of the Railway Board, contain administrative and statistical information, stock holdings, line opening and closing dates, technical data, and occasionally photographs or pictures of rolling stock.
  20. The RDSO Annual Reports carry quite a bit of technical information and drawings (RDSO is the Research, Design, and Standards Organization of IR).
  21. The Technical Papers of the Railway Board in India are periodically published and often carry very interesting technical articles. Copies are at zonal railway headquarters, RDSO, Lucknow, and the Railway Board library (see below).
  22. Issues of Jane's World Railways provide brief annual snapshot statistics on most railways, including those in India. These may be more useful for collecting summary data on IR in more recent years rather than for detailed historical research.
  23. World Steam has carried many reports on Indian steam, although these cover only the periods from 1974 or so onwards (many very detailed reports appearing between 1979 and about 1985), and not earlier.
  24. The Continental Railway Journal had some articles on Indian railway operations in the early 1970s (A E Durrant and others). Again, this periodical does not cover earlier periods.
  25. Some pointers to repositories of Locomotive Diagrams can be found in the section on locomotives.

Libraries, Museums, etc.

  1. The Royal Commonwealth Society Library at Cambridge University contains a number of collections from people who have served in India.
  2. The Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Temple Meads Station, Bristol, is a recently opened museum which has some of the Crown Agents Archives. The Crown Agents were in charge of ordering and shipping material and equipment for railway construction in India. Unfortunately many of their archives were discarded after they were privatized.
  3. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers contains the archives of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers.
  4. The National Rail Museum in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, has some archives and a small library with many diagrams but few books or official records. It also houses the Indian Rail Archives, organized in March 2002, a separate collection of books, maps, pamphlets, booklets, film, and photographs for preservation and reference use.
  5. The National Rail Museum at York, England is another source of information regarding pre-independence railway operations in India. Most of their collection, however, deals with home (i.e., British) railways and not with railways in British colonies. They do have a large collection of builders' records from the steam era. Contact the Librarian of the museum. The museum is located on Leeman Road in York, England.
  6. The British Overseas Railways Historical Trust also holds a few Indian archives. Please see their web page.
  7. The National Archives network in Great Britain is accessible on-line through Archon.
  8. Another place to try is the Public Records Office at Kew, London.
  9. Many governmental and other official documents from British India used to be at the India Office Library at Blackfriars, London. The bulk of the records that remain have now been transferred to the British Library at St. Pancras. Most of these records are closed to casual visitors, and you have to show proof of being a bona fide researcher with references from an academic or research institution. Many catalogs are available online to peruse though. The records include company documents, official correspondence, and reports of traffic, finances, inspections, and more.
  10. The British Library has some material of interest, but not a whole lot (they do have many governmental documents such as British Parliamentary Papers, which often have a lot of material relating to railways in India. Access to these sections of the British Library is reserved for bona fide researchers which usually means you have to be vouched for by an academic or research person or organization. The Science Reference Library (at the Patent Office near Chancery Lane) is another place worth looking through. The Newspaper Library of the British Library, at Colindale, carries issues of many periodicals of interest, including The Engineer, Locomotive Gazette, and Railway Gazette, and others mentioned above.
  11. The Railway Design and Standards Organization (RDSO, at Lucknow in India) and the Railway Staff College (now NAIR) at Vadodara in India have libraries with some records, diagrams, etc. Rail Bhavan in New Delhi has the Railway Board's library, and the production units (Chittaranjan Locomotive Works, Diesel Locomotive Works at Varanasi, etc.) also have libraries as do the various zonal railway headquarters. But it is not easy to gain access to any of them without the help of friends in IR. RDSO has unfortunately discarded many of its older diagrams and records in recent decades. (See below for online access)
  12. Other sources to try in India are the National Archives in New Delhi, and the National Library in Calcutta, and the public libraries at Mumbai (Bombay), Calcutta, and Chennai (Madras), but the railway-related materials there, although extensive in some cases, especially at the National Library, are poorly stored and organized, and not always easy to get access to. The National Archives contain records of the Railway Board from the 1940s. (See below for online access)
  13. Other libraries: The Birmingham City Library in the UK has a vast collection of Metro-Cammell rolling stock drawings and other material. The Mitchell Library at Glasgow has the bulk of the North British collection (records, photographs), whereas the North British plans are at the University of Glasgow Archives. The Sheffield City Library holds material from the Yorkshire Engine Company, and Stafford has the records of the Midland Carriage and Wagon Company.

Online Resources

  1. Abhilekh Patal: This is the digital front to the National Archives of India. Many resources are free to browse (although one needs to register to view). They have a fairly extensive collection of documents, with new ones being added consistently. Where documents haven’t been digitised yet, they have a ‘Record on demand’ service to digitize them, but it is quite an expensive service.
  2. Ministry of Railways, Digital Repository of Official Documents: This is the Ministry of Railways’ official digital repository and is expected be the definitive source. Documents and books are being added on a fairly continuous basis. Currently (11/2021), it has all the railway budgets, annual railway boards reports and annual yearbooks for most of the post-1947 period. The organisation is a bit haphazard currently, but this is expected to improve. Free to use.
  3. Parliament of India, Lok Sabha Digital Library: This is an extensive online library containing all the Lok Sabha debates from the post-independence era and all the pre-independence era government debates (dating back to the Council of States Debates from the 1920s). There are several documents available on this site containing historical, technical and operational information about the Indian Railways. In addition, this library is also a rich source of information about various social, economic and political factors that shaped the Indian Railways over the years. Free to use.
  4. Rajya Sabha Debates: This is similar to the Lok Sabha library, but covers only debates from the upper house, starting 1952. The search feature is ineffective, but titles and other meta data is shown. Useful as a starting point for larger searches. Free to use.
  5. HathiTrust Digital Library: This has an extensive collection of documents, magazines and Gazettes. Caveats: A large amount of the material is copyrighted by location and full access is granted only to partner institutions and universities.
  6. The Dhananjayrao Gadgil Library of the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune has a fairly extensive collection of annual reports, statements, Gazettes and speeches related to IR dating back to the mid 1800’s. The catalog is reasonably well organised, but individual files are large and bandwidth intensive. Free to use.
  7. The British Newspaper Archive: This website has a massive collection of newpapers from Britain and its colonies. The collections run all the way from the 1700s into the 2000's. Issues of the Times of India between 1860 and 1889, and several decades worth of issues of the Bombay Gazette were added in 2000. They also have several decades worth of issues of The Englishman's Overland Mail which mainly covered the Bengal province. There are scores of articles, editorials and advertisements (new trains, schedules etc) available in these newspapers. This collection is particularly is useful as most of the major happenings in the Indian subcontinent were also reported in the newspapers in the UK. The service is paid and needs a subscription to access.

Family History

The higher up the ranks your ancestor got, the easier it ought to be to find out about him. He would probably have had to join his relevant professional institution, and this will give you at the least dates of admission, promotion within the institution, possibly an article written by him, and an obituary. When searching for obituaries bear in mind that they often show up in an issue 2 or 3 months later. He may also get mentioned in the professional Railway Press.

Senior railway personnel are listed in the Biographical Directory of Railway Engineers (Marshall, Railway Canal and Historical Society, 2003, Oxford, ISBN 0901461229). Another book worth consulting is Was My Ancestor a Railwayman (out of print now but available second-hand). This covers railways of Africa and India.

The Public Records Office (National Archives) at Kew, London, has records of some foreign and colonial projects and many wartime and military records which may be relevant.

The website and organization has a searchable database of UK railway employment records, covering 1833 to 1963.

Persons employed by the government of India above a certain level will be mentioned in official dispatches or gazette notifications; a search of these and public records archives may help (in the UK for pre-1947, in India for post-1947 searches). Former railway employees are eligible for complimentary tickets and other benefits from Indian Railways, hence for persons employed in railways in India in this century it can be useful to check with the Personnel department of the appropriate zonal railway in India.

Staff posted at various railway stations will normally have their appointments and tenure recorded in the employment records of the concerned station, division, or zone. However, in the case of older material, it can be extremely difficult to find archived records — should they even exist — and only in rare cases will a persistent searcher be rewarded with access to such archives. Enquiries will have to be made in person at the stations and divisional/zonal headquarters. Divisional or zonal headquarters also normally have the records of projects undertaken under their jurisdiction; again, archives may not exist or it may be extremely hard to get access to them.

The Institution of Civil Engineers (UK) has published a few books on the biographies of important civil engineers, including those of the 19th century (covering 1830 and later). These books may be of some use in locating material on those who worked as engineers, surveyors, architects, planners, foremen, etc., on railway projects in British India.

There is a mailing list, INDIA-L hosted at RootsWeb, for discussion and information about researching ancestry in India for those of European, British, or Anglo-Indian descent. Information about this mailing list, as well as other resources for tracing family history in India are available at the site on family history in India.

There is also The Society of Geneaologists in London. The society does not conduct research on behalf of non-members, but does make its library available to those who wish to use it for their own research.

Other useful avenues of research include issues of various directories and registers published in India at different times. The Oriental and India Office collections, the Humanities collections, and other collections of the British Library have issues of the Thacker's Directories and other directories which contain data on appointments to the Government of India, official government directories for India and various provinces, mofussil directories, lists of European and Anglo-Indian residents, lists of “principal native inhabitants”, directories of merchants and firms operating in India, lists of scientific institutions, clubs, hospitals, and charitable groups.

The Railway Directory of India and maps of railways in India found in the Thacker's Directories are particularly useful. There are many other regional and city-based registers, directories, almanacs, and calendars with useful information for tracking down appointments and postings of persons in various capacities.

See the RootsWeb page on India directories for a comprehensive list of resources of this kind.

Appendix: Steam Loco Wheel Arrangements

As I expect most people who read this document will not be railway enthusiasts and would be researching a period when the steam locomotive reigned supreme, I thought that some very brief notes on steam locomotive wheel arrangement should be included.

Steam locomotive wheel arrangement is a function of a number of quite possibly opposing forces. These include: task for which the locomotive is designed, e.g. passenger or goods, expected operating speed, expected range of operation, expected weight of locomotive, weight of rail over which the locomotive will have to run, maximum degree of curvature of the track maximum and permitted axle load. In the British tradition, which was followed in India, steam locomotives were classified by the Whyte notation, which counts the number of wheels.

Starting from the front of the locomotive there may be a lead bogie whose task it was to help guide the locomotive around curves and help spread the load, then there will be a number of driving wheels, whose function it was to transform the power provided at the pistons by the steam into useful motion, and finally a trailing bogie whose task was to spread the load. So the number of wheels of each type can describe a locomotive.

In the British tradition wheels on both sides are counted, and if here are no leading or trailing bogies then a zero is inserted into the wheel arrangement. E.g. if we have a small locomotive with no bogie wheels at either end and 4 driving wheels then this is described as an 0-4-0. A locomotive with the wheel arrangement of 4-6-2, has a leading bogie with 4 wheels, 6 driving wheels and a 2 wheeled trailing bogie.

All locomotives need space to store their coal and water, this can be done on the engine in side tanks, in which case the engine is known as a tank engine and will have its wheel arrangement described as 0-4-0T, larger engines hauled a tender and do not have their wheel arrangement modified. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but these are outside the scope of this document.

Few brief notes on some common classes of steam locos in India can be found on the section on specific steam loco classes.