How Britain’s Colonial Railways Transformed India.(Christian Wolmar)

This article appears in “Reconnecting Asia”, and text and images reproduced courtesy the author, Christian Wolmar


Nowhere other than India is the railway so indelibly connected with the image of the nation. Just as there is no single country on earth that has such a broad cultural, ethnic, and racial mix as India, there is also no railway system that has played and, crucially, continues to play such a fundamental role.

There are endless paradoxes about the Indian railways. They were the greatest gift left by the colonial power, and yet they were not built to serve the needs of local people. The fact that they did so, and continue to do so, was almost incidental. The British companies that laid down the tracks had not envisaged that people would pour en masse onto the iron road to take advantage of the immeasurably improved experience of traveling across the vast sub-continent offered by train services. Even though for the best part of the first 100 years of the railway age, they were owned and controlled by companies based 5,000 miles away in the United Kingdom, they immediately assumed an Indian identity, which only became stronger over time. A neat illustration of that is the fact that Indian Railways adopted a rather bowdlerized version of the famous London Underground roundel on its station signs.

The Indians took to the railways, not just physically, but emotionally. Railways and India are a good fit, an enduring one since not only are the Indians still building new lines, but virtually none have ever been closed. The railways delivered much for India. Just as with the United States of America, they bound the country together. They allowed fast travel between one end of the country and the other and cemented relationships between the various provinces. They enabled goods to be carried around the country far more cheaply than ever before. They allowed the development of markets in foodstuffs and other agricultural produce that increased their availability and, eventually, did make famines less likely. They created an infrastructure that in India was unprecedented in its sophistication and extent. They gave the opportunity of secure jobs to millions of Indians and enabled many of them to acquire new skills. They helped the development of the trade union movement. They laid the foundations of the large Indian middle class. They brought sophisticated technology to the sub-continent.

And so much more. They were transformative in so many ways, creating the India we know today. As Theroux summarizes, ‘The railway was the bloodstream of the Raj, and it affected nearly everyone. It linked the centers of population; and the cities, which until then had been identified with their temples and forts, became identified with their railway stations, Howrah with Calcutta, Victoria with Bombay, Egmore and Madras Central with Madras.’ He goes on to suggest, with some justification, that India only functions thanks to its railways.

That is not to say that the railways were always welcomed by Indians. Indeed, they were the subject of huge controversy because they were seen as the principal instrument of colonization. The British, with their small army, could not have kept hold of a turbulent country for so long without the ability of the railways to move troops around quickly. After a slow start in 1853, the construction of the railway network envisaged by Lord Dalhousie was sped up rapidly after the 1857 Rebellion. The railways were an instrument of control. The stations became fortresses, the white and, later, the Eurasian, staff became an auxiliary army, and the tracks became lines of communication in the event of conflict. The 1857 Rebellion, coming as it did at a crucial stage in railway development, had an enormous impact on the railways’ eventual shape and the attitude of the British colonial rulers to their Indian subordinates. This was a nakedly military project, but not solely one. There were immeasurable economic benefits, too, and though the very design of the railways was as conduits to and from the ports to help British imports and exports, inevitably the Indian economy received a stimulus through their construction.

There was another source of mounting antagonism: the treatment of third-class passengers who were virtually all Indian. While the Europeans traveled in world-class luxury in first-class, the masses were crammed into world-class squalor. There was even a long battle for them to have toilets on trains and conditions remained squalid well into the twentieth century. This proved to be a great source of dissent and encouraged nationalistic sentiment. The invention that did most to keep the Indians in check proved to be double-edged, stimulating the nationalistic forces which eventually triumphed. Gandhi made great use of the railways but also criticized the conditions that third-class travelers – of which he deliberately was one, despite his relative wealth – endured.

At times it seemed that the authorities set out wilfully to ensure that the railways antagonized the local population. In the mid-1880s, various lines were built supposedly to relieve famine, though they were a remarkably inefficient way of doing so. The Bengal-Nagpur line, for example, was built with funds from the Rothschild family but the British government decided that their guaranteed profits should be paid by an extra tax on the local peasantry. Consequently, the profits accrued by the richest family on earth were being provided from a group that was certainly among the poorest. You could not make it up.

Quite apart from the antagonism created by their construction and operating, the railways could have done so much more for India had they not been first and foremost a colonial project. There was a fantastic missed opportunity whose ramifications stretch far beyond transport considerations. If the British had nurtured the skills of their Indian workers and used the economic clout of the railways to stimulate the Indian economy, and if the companies had treated their third-class as customers rather than as chattels, much of the anger towards the colonial power might have been allayed. That is not to say independence would not have happened, as clearly decolonization was an irresistible historic force, but the horrors of Britain’s rapid departure might have been avoided.

The failure was, above all, economic. In an analysis of the impact of railways, John Hurd, an economist who has written extensively on India, concludes that India only enjoyed limited economic development under the Raj precisely because the railways were not allowed to be the catalyst for growth that they proved to be in so many other countries. While they undoubtedly enabled the cheaper flow of goods, stimulated increased agricultural output, and created many jobs in modern industry and mining, “these changes did not affect the basic structure of the economy. Not until Independence when economic development became a conscious and pursued policy did the railways begin to realize their potential for assisting in the transformation of the Indian economy.”

The failure was cultural, too. Imagine if the British had allowed far greater mingling of the races on the railways; if they had consciously helped to develop a managerial class of Indians able to share the burden of running the railways with them; if they had, essentially, seen Indians as partners rather than subordinates. Who knows, there might still be a group of Europeans working on India’s railways today.

Christian Wolmar is the Author of Railways and the Raj, how the steam age changed India forever which will be published by Atlantic Books on November 2, 2017.