India's railways steam in after 150 years

#1 May 14th, 2002, 03:51
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NEW DELHI, India --On April 16, 1853 the first train steamed its way from Bombay to Thana over a distance of some 32 kilometers (20 miles).

Now, 150 years later, Indian Railways is celebrating its anniversary with one of the biggest systems in the world, and one that plays an integral role in the life of India.

The network carries 12 million passengers every day and one million tons on routes which stretch 63,000 kilometers (39,146 miles).

Historians have said the railways were the mightiest symbol of the Raj, and grand stations like Bombay's Victoria terminus, a Saracenic-Gothic cathedral of the railway age, and Calcutta's Howrah, cited as the largest station in Asia, were built to impress Indians with the might of their rulers.

The railways were also the greatest achievement of the Raj.

British engineers and armies of Indian laborers bridged treacherous rivers with ever-shifting courses, crossed some of the hottest deserts in the world, and cut high into the Himalayas.

They laid track at the rate of a mile a day, a feat today's railway engineers, with all their modern equipment, might find difficult to emulate.

A success story
Looking back on the contribution the railways made to the Raj, it seems strange this anniversary would have been several years earlier if it hadn't been for all the arguments put forward against building railways.

Some experts suggested that Indians would not be competent to run railways.

They feared that maggots would eat sleepers, trains would be blown off the tracks by cyclones, or lines swept away by floods.

But above all was the fear that the railways would not make money.

This problem was eventually solved by issuing bonds with interest guaranteed by the Indian tax payer.

So it was a win-win situation for Britain -- Indians took the risk and the British got trains that brought cheap cotton to the ports to be exported to the mills of Manchester and then distributed the cloth they manufactured to outlets throughout India.

India's steel frame
The railways were also considered the steel frame that held India together.

The North Western Railway, most of which is now in Pakistan, was known for its strategic lines because it was built for military purposes.

When it came to crossing the Khyber Pass, the fierce Pathan tribesmen would not allow the engineers to start work until they had been assured the trains would go so slowly they would be easy to loot.

Of course the railways of the Raj also provided services appreciated by Indians.

They made it much easier for Hindus to go on pilgrimage to Varanasi and other holy cities and Muslims to visit shrines in places like Ajmer and Delhi.

Indians also used trains for more secular purposes, to increase their trade and businesses, and to migrate to the big cities the railways created.

But not all Indians approved of the railways. Mahatma Gandhi blamed them for carrying "the pest of westernization" around India, but he didn't hesitate to travel by train to spread his own message.

An early traveler was so overcome by the speed with which he reached his destination that he refused to go back by railway fearing the train that shortened every other journey so dramatically, that it would "shorten the journey of life too."

Standard way for Indian travel
When India became independent the government appreciated the role the railways played.

A railway ministry was set up not just to guide, but to run the railways, and it is still the only ministry to have an entirely separate budget.

The government was determined that the railways should become thoroughly Indian so workshops and factories were set up to make locomotives and rolling stock and now almost every train is pulled by an Indian manufactured electric or diesel locomotive.

Unlike so many countries, the government has continued to invest in railways, with bigger, faster and better trains steaming to more destinations.

Also unlike so many countries, the railways remain the standard way for Indians to travel longer distances. Those with money travel close to luxury, while the less prosperous journey in some discomfort.

A new challenge
It has to be said, however, that the railways have not yet had to face the challenge of modern roads.

That challenge is now coming. As someone who has a passion for railways, especially Indian railways, I am worried that the country's notorious bureaucracy will stifle the initiatives needed to respond to that challenge if the railways remain a department of the government.

It would be wise to make them an independent corporation, to free them from the restraints of government procedures, and political pressures, but Indian politicians do not tend to show wisdom when it comes to surrendering any of their powers.

If railway men and women are not freed from the shackles of government to manage professionally, I fear that when India celebrates two hundred years of its railways, it will not be possible to say they are still getting bigger and better.

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