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The great Indian Railway bazaar

The Indian Railways began its sesquicentennial year with the recreation of its historic run between Bori Bunder and Thane on April 16, 1853. SHAHEED KHAN traces the events that led to the British laying the 21-mile line as a pilot project.


The impressive railway network of the subcontinent in 1853.

IF THERE'S one enduring legacy the East India Company has left us, it is the railways. From a modest beginning of 32 km in 1853, it grew to about 9,100 km in 1875, 38,640 km in 1900 and 49,323 at the time of Independence. Today, 150 later, we have over 63,000 km of lines snaking through the length and breadth of the country. We have the second largest railway network, with over 14,000 trains transporting some 1.3 crore people and 14 lakh tonnes freight daily.

The very first train chugged off on April 16, 1853 at 3:30 in the afternoon from Bombay amid applause, wonderment and to the salute of 21 guns. Three locomotives named Sultan, Sindh and Sahib hauled the 14 carriages and 400 guests on board. The historic event merited mention in The Illustrated London News. The paper said the opening of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway was of much greater importance than their "victories in battlefields of Plassey, Assaye, and Gujarath". Remarkably the first railway passenger service had been introduced in England only 23 years prior to that, the Liverpool-Manchester Railway in 1830.

The Bori Bunder-Thana route, a distance of 21 miles (33.8 km), was the first step of what was to be Indian Railway, now the country's largest employer.

The idea of a railway to connect Bombay with Thana and through the Thal and Bhore Ghat inclines first occurred to George Clark, Chief Engineer of the Bombay Government during a visit to Bhandup in 1843. His scheme (not company) was named The Bombay Great Eastern Railway, which was fully investigated by Henry Conybeare, who came from England to assist in the project. A committee appointed by the Bombay Government studied the proposal, and the report appeared in the Bombay Gazette of January 18, 1845. Prominent citizens of Bombay, including Jagannath Shanker Shett and Cursetjee Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, who had been debating since 1840 on the introduction of railways in India, took it up. They met at the Town Hall on April 19, 1845 and formed the Inland Railway Association.

The same year, the first step towards organising the Great Indian Peninsular (later Peninsula) Railway Company was taken in London by John Chapman, who helped form the GIPR's provisional committee in London. Mr. Chapman, the `projector' of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, had spent three years pursuing the idea.

M/s. White and Borret, solicitors of Whitehall, also applied to the East India Company for cooperation on the `important subject of the construction of Railway in India by private capital and enterprise,' and, along with Mr. Chapman, formed The Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company. On August 3, 1845, Mr. Chapman was sent to India by a provisional committee constituted under the chairmanship of Mr. J. Stuart Wortley to make investigations on the spot. He arrived in Bombay on September 6.

All these developments were taking place at a time when the Island Railway Association was working at improving communications in India. An identical body was established in Bombay with 20 members, headed by J.P. Willoughby, Chief Secretary to the Government, and which included Jagannath Nana Shanker Shett and Cursetjee Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy once again. Eventually the latter two became the only Indian directors of the GIP Railway Company's Bombay Board of 10.

The GIP Railway Company was incorporated on August 1, 1949, by an Act passed in the British Parliament and had a share capital of 50,000 pounds. The Court of Directors of the East India Company appointed James J. Berkely as Chief Resident Engineer, with C.B. Kar and R.W. Graham assisting him.

The Directors of the East India Company were constantly monitoring developments and advised Mr. Berkely to go in for 5'6" width track rather than the 4'8" one originally planned.

Engineers surveyed the land up to Thana, and then Kalyan, with a short branch to the port of Mahim. In early 1851, a contract was entered into with M/s. Faviell and Fowler for construction of the railway line up to Thana. At the time, the English railway authorities in India and England were apprehensive whether `native workmen' would be available, capable, industrious and persevering to achieve the results, including complicated tunnelling work. However, these fears were belied and the so-called `native' workers began work in a disciplined manner. The big event, however, was the arrival of a locomotive from England in April 1852, symbolising the transfer of technology and industrial spirit from the West to the feudal East. The engine, used for ballasting and doing sundry work in a limited area, soon became an object of great attraction in Bombay, drawing large numbers. A bonus was that the public, fascinated by this big dark iron monster that was capable of moving without the power of a bullock or horse, was psychologically prepared to accept it. Aptly, this locomotive was christened Falkland, after the Governor of Bombay.

George Stephenson, the great British locomotive inventor who caught the public's imagination, was one the first directors of GIPR, and his son Robert was appointed the consulting engineer at London. Though the GIPR Company was formed in 1844, George Stephenson could not see his locomotives run on Indian soil as he died in 1848.

Lord Hardinge, Governor General of India, considered the railway's proposals from political, military and commercial point of view, and thought that Court of Directors of East India Company should assist private capitalists willing to buy the railways in India, without waiting for proof that the exercise should yield reasonable profit. Finally, the East India Company suggested the historic pilot project between Bori Bunder and Thane.

And when the first train rolled out, it was the beginning of a lifeline, helping the common man reach, at a still reasonable price even today, to the remotest corner of our mighty land. More than one per cent of our billion population uses the railways everyday.

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