The Genesis of the Indian Railway Network—An Excerpt

The 1840s were a decade of marking time, discourse and debate. Though trains would not run till the 1850s, two major railway companies were formed in the 1840s—East India Railway Company (EICR) in 1845 and Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR) in 1849. Madras Railway Company (MCR) was formed a little later, in 1853. The debates happened through official reports and correspondence, surveys and newspaper articles. They involved both the British and Indians. There was a special interest in Bombay and Calcutta. In Britain, the 1840s have been described as an era of railway mania, when a bubble had been created through over-investments in stocks of relatively unregulated railway companies. This had its spillover effects in India too: ‘The Report12 can be placed in the general background of the English railway mania of 1844-47, which was transplanted from the metropolis of London to both Europe and the Empire by investors, contractors and promoters. The mania invaded India in the early 1840s, infiltrating Bombay and Calcutta, where the railway question was busily discussed and acted upon during this period.’

The prime supporters of railway development were Rowland Macdonald Stephenson (1808-95) and Lord Dalhousie. Stephenson had much more than Calcutta or India on his mind. He had railway plans for China too, linking Calcutta, Peking and Hong Kong, and visited Hong Kong in 1859 to find support for this idea. In 1844, John Chapman (1801-54) prepared the first proposal for GIPR, and this received the support of Stephenson too. As for Stephenson himself, he submitted his first private proposal to the East India Company in 1841. But this proposal was dismissed as a ‘wild idea’.

Undeterred, he eventually—after dabbling in journalism for a while—left for Calcutta in 1843, to try and persuade government of India officials to consider his proposal. In Calcutta, he wrote a piece in the Englishman in 1844, advocating railways for India.

There were six main railway lines in his proposed structure: (1) from Calcutta to Mirzapur/Delhi through the coalfields and with an extension to Firozpur; (2) from Bombay, joining the first line at Mirzapur; (3) from Bombay to Hyderabad, leading on to Calcutta; (4) from Hyderabad to Madras; (5) a line from Madras to Bangalore, Mysore and Calicut; and (6) a line from Madras to the southernmost tip of the country, via Arcot, Tiruchirapally and Tirunelveli. The layout was determined either by military considerations or by the need to facilitate export of raw materials and import of finished goods.

‘The first consideration is as a military measure for the better security with less outlay, of the entire territory, the second is in a commercial point of view, in which the chief object is to provide the means of conveyance from the interior to the nearest shipping ports of the rich and varied productions of the country, and to transmit back manufactured goods of Great Britain, salt, etc. in exchange.’

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The famous 1844/45 report followed.18 EICR was formally constituted in 1845, and Stephenson became the first agent and chief engineer. Stephenson actually thought of a railway line connecting London and Calcutta, with two breaks—one at the English Channel and the other at the Dardanelles. In 1850, he wrote to Viscount Palmerston,

‘The European lines already completed are from the port on the British channel to Vienna, the distance about 1000 miles which will be hereafter reduced to about 700 miles. The Austrian extension to the frontier will be 300 miles. The distance on either side of Istanbul will be through European Turkey 500 miles and through Asiatic Turkey 1300 miles, in all 2800 miles from the channel port to the port on the Persian Gulf. This would constitute the first step, the passage to Bombay 1600 miles, being made by steamer and thence by railway to Calcutta and the interiors of India. The second step embraces the extension from the port on the Persian Gulf through Persia 550 miles and through Baluchistan 550 miles to the Indus, a distance of 1100 miles. The connection with the North West Province and southward with the Narmada Valley would complete the chain of communication by the East Indian, and Indian Peninsular lines with Calcutta and Bombay. The third step which will connect the East Indian trunk line through the Nepalese range of the Himalayas with the river Tsangpo will open up to the entire trade with China and the Eastern seas by means of the river Yangtze-kiang and Mekong.’

At that time, nothing much could be done with this idea, not even when it was raised with Lord Dalhousie in 1856. It was premature, and Lord Dalhousie minuted,

‘Mr. Ronald Stephenson waited upon me some days ago, for the purpose of submitting a plan which he had projected for uniting Europe with India by a line of Railway communication continued through Asiatic Turkey. It has been at my suggestion that the plan is not laid before the Government of India….The project consists of a proposal for continuing the European Railways, already completed (I am informed) as far as Belgrade and about to be constructed from Belgrade to Istanbul by a line of rail and from Istanbul through Asiatic Turkey to Basra. The project contemplates hereafter a prolongation of the line from Basra through Persia and Baluchistan, but at present the scheme would complete the communication with India by steamers from the mouth of the Euphrates down the Persian Gulf. Mr. Stephenson desires to elicit from the Government of India an expression of its approval of his project, and of its readiness to render assistance in the way of surveys and otherwise. This great project is of course in the merest outline at present. It would, no doubt, be very easy to raise objections against the plan founded on the difficulty of obtaining the necessary capital, on the wide extent of country to be traversed, the natural obstacles which obstruct its surface, and the lawless and unmanageable character of a large portion of its people. I abstain from entering into any such details at present. Even after all that has been already achieved it cannot be defined or doubted that the formation and maintenance of a line of Railway from Istanbul to Basra would be a gigantic undertaking.’

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