150 years of Bombay – Calcutta connection: The inauguration

This is Part I in a series on the region where the Bombay Calcutta rail connection was first completed 150 years ago.

Railway connectivity between Mumbai and Kolkata just entered its 150th year on March 7. Interestingly, this rail line was neither inaugurated at Bombay nor at Calcutta, but at Jubbulpore (as Jabalpur was called then).

The inauguration was attended by the who’s who of those days. The Duke of Edinburgh, the British Viceroy Lord Mayo, Governor of Bombay, and the Maharajahs of Holkar, Kewal, Punnah, Rewah, Negode and Myhere were present at the ceremony.

A report by Juland Danvers – the then Government Director of the Indian Railway Companies to the Secretary of State for India – documented the opening as on March 7, 1870.

Map of the Indian Railways around 1870s

He says: “The most important event which has marked the history of Indian Railways during this year is the junction of the Great Indian Peninsula and the East Indian Railways at Jubbulpore, whereby the whole breadth of the Peninsula is spanned, and Bombay · and Calcutta., as well as Bombay, Delhi, and Lahore, are brought into railway communication with each other.

The line in question proceeds from Bombay up the Thull Ghat via Jubbulpore to Allahabad; thence it follows the valley of the Ganges to Calcutta. Before the end of the year a more direct route will be opened for the latter part of the line by a completion of the chord line of the East Indian Railway from Luckeeserai via Raneegunge to Calcutta [the chord was opened on January 1, 1871].

Water tank at Jabalpur station with East India Railway markings. The line from Kolkata to Jabalpur was under EIR territory.

The distance from Bombay to Calcutta by the present route is 1,470 miles. It will then be 1,400 miles. The journey occupies about 70 hours. By means of this line, a saving of three or four days in the journey between Calcutta and England has during the past year been effected. No greater time is now occupied in reaching Calcutta from London than it took twenty years ago to get from one end of India to the other.”

Robert M Brereton’s Account

The event is also vividly documented by Robert Maitland Brereton, an English engineer who earned his spurs assisting Robert W Graham, the superintending engineer in–charge of construction of the Thull Ghat contract and of the Northeast line through the Nassick (Nashik), Khandeish (Khandesh), Asseerghur Jungle, Nerbudda (Narmada) Valley, Berar and Nagpore districts.

In his book ‘Reminiscences of an Old English Civil Engineer’, Brereton wrote that the Duke had arrived at Jubbulpore by the East Indian line by 4 pm. A special silver key was cast and kept ready to be hammered into the rail, signalling the line was finally ready. The viceroy struck the silver key with the silver-plated hammer connecting the Great Indian Peninsula Railway (GIPR) with the East Indian Railway (EIR). The Duke gave it an extra royal tap. With this Bombay had finally been connected to Calcutta.

The day, March 8, 1870, was an anxious and fatiguing one for Brereton and his staff. The Viceroy’s train from Bombay took twelve hours to cover 128 miles. This was a distance that older locos would have covered in 6 hours. Locomotive superintendent C W Hawkins, in his zealous pride for the appearance of his department, had put his newest and gorgeous locomotives to haul the Viceroy’s train into Jubbulpore, wrote Brereton. The reason; the engine machinery being new, worked, “Oh! so stiffly,” and the boilers were ‘priming’ all the way from Hurda to Jubbulpore.

Construction woes

Brereton was appointed chief engineer in-charge of the North East line – from Bhosawell to Jubbulpore and of the Nagpore branch in July 1868. This happened after the contractor firms for these lines threw-up their contracts.

In 1867, a consulting engineer was sent to make a thorough examination of the masonry works of bridges and viaducts over the entire system upto Bhosawell. He found the contractors wanting in execution of masonry works.

It was found that the contractors were not watering cement mixtures properly. The other issue was that of the style of masonry that was adopted. Though the strength of the bridges and via-ducts appeared neat and robust from the outside, there were chances of half-baked work done unless the masonry process specifications had been strictly adhered to.

Photo from Wikipedia / Brereton’s book: Reminiscences of an Old English Civil Engineer

When these structures were opened to public traffic for the line up to Bhosawell; vibration from passing trains caused over a score of viaducts and bridges to crack and tumble, causing serious delays and expense in reconstruction, Brereton wrote.

The engineer had to prepare a schedule of works requiring reconstruction under a specified fund named the casualty fund.

The broken piers displayed the poor quality of construction arising from a compromise in the process. Besides, the perished state of the mortar revealed the lack of moisture during construction.

The contract system proved a failure and an enduring source of anxiety and worries to the company’s engineers and delayed the construction of the line until Jubbulpore.

Ahead of deadline

Brereton took over in July 1868 to finish the construction of the Bhosawell – Jubbulpore stretch of the North East line.

With the aid of carefully selected staff from GIPR, Brereton overcame language barriers, hot desiccating weather hindering masonry construction in those days, hostile terrain of the Deccan plateau, outbreak of cholera and famine, two near fatal attacks by Bheel tribesmen, besides rains hampering construction work for four months making roads of black soil of the Narmada valley impassable.

The junction with the East Indian line at Jubbulpore was completed on March 8, 1870, in a period of 19 months and ahead of its schedule by two months. During this period, the only break he and his team took was during the Christmas of 1869 at Bhosawell, Brereton penned.

The line was delivered on March 7, 1870 for inauguration on March 8, 1870.

The day after this, on March 9, the Duke of Edinburgh opened the Towa River viaduct and went to Bombay, Brereton concluded.

The Duke had named the newly opened structure after himself, The Alfred Viaduct.

End of Part One. 

Also read: Part II in the series – on the Alfred Viaduct
and Part III – on the Bagra Tawa line in the present

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About the Author: Raghavendra Rao

2 Comments

  1. A classic story of coast-to-coast linkup reminscent of the Canadian Pacific inauguration and the Central Pacific Promentory Point stories.

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