166 Years of IR: How the Seeds Were Sown in 1831

Today is 16th of April, and the railways in India complete 166 years of existence. But the idea of constructing railways in India is older and dates back to the year 1831. And if it weren’t for a stroke of bad luck, Kolkata, and not Mumbai, could well have been the city where history was made.

The earliest idea of building a railway line in India was conceived in 1831, says rail historian Nalinaksha Sanyal. The idea was to construct a line along the embankment of the river Cauvery (as Kaveri was then called).

This 150-mile-long rail line was to be built between Cauverypattam (now called Poompuhar) and Caroor (now Karur) at a cost of Rs 8,000 per mile. The proposal was put forth before the parliamentary select committee of the East India Company.

The scheme envisaged laying of flat parallel rails on the road with the carriages being hauled by animals. The said railway was to be used in haulage and traction for construction in the Government Tank Department, pens Sanyal.

However, this was not to be; and Cauverypattam (Poompuhar, the place where the river Kaveri meets the Bay of Bengal) still does not have a railway station of its own.

The nearest stations are the now defunct Tarangambadi (earlier called Tranquebar; the lone Danish colony in India) to the south and Vaitheeeswaran Kovil to its north west (still functioning station on the Villupuram-Mayiladithurai section of Southern Railway).

Meanwhile, Karur is a four-way junction, with trains towards Salem, Erode, Trichy and Dindigul.

Madras Presidency Proposal

Next was an 1836 proposal by Capt A P Cotton, a civil engineer of the Madras Presidency, to lay an 862-mile rail line between Madras and Bombay. His alignment traversed Wallajahnagore, Arcot, Vellore, Bangalore, Bellary and Poona.

It took over 25 years from the first proposal for the Madras Presidency to open its first rail line, Sanyal writes.

Calcutta Versus Bombay

Then came the proposal to construct railways in India, which was put forward by the promoters of a company headed by Sir Macdonald Stephenson in 1843-44, according to Horace Bell in his book ‘Railway Policy in India’.

In 1843, Sir Macdonald Stephenson went to Calcutta hoping to draw the attention of Government to the importance of constructing rail lines in India, writes British historian John Clark Marshman.

However, Lord Ellenborough, the then Governor General, is said to have pronounced the whole project to be ‘moonshine’. But Ellenborough’s successor, Wilberforce Bird, kept Stephenson’s hopes alive with an official communication. It said that the “Government was fully alive to the value of the proposal, and would recommend it to the Court of Directors.”

About the same time, one Mr.Chapman succeeded in securing the patronage of the Bombay Government. He wanted to lay the foundation of the Great India Peninsula Railway.

Two railway companies; East Indian Railway (EIR) and the Great Indian Peninsula Railway (GIPR), were formed as a result. The survey for the line on the East Indian Railway estimated an average cost of Rs 100,000 per mile for a distance of 450 miles from Calcutta to Mirzapore.

RailwayEast India Railway (EIR)Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR)
Date of IncorporationAugust 1, 1849August 1, 1849
Estimated Captal Requirements19 million pounds12 million pounds
Guaranteed Rate of Return5 per cent5 per cent
Authorised Equity Capital11.255 million pounds8 million pounds
Authorised Convertible Debentures (Debt)2.745 miilion pounds0.3333 million pounds
Objects of Fund RaisingConstruction and working of lines from Calcutta to Delhi and from Allahabad to Jubbulpore. Total Distance 1338 milesConstruction and working of lines from Bombay via Callian (Kalyan) to Jubbulore to meet the East Indian Line from Allahabad with branches to Mahim and Nagpore; and from Callian via Poonah and Sholapur to Moodgul in the Deccan to meet the line via Bellary from Madras. Total Distance 1266 miles

The Governor of Bombay, however, received two alignment proposals for railways originating from Bombay. G B Clarke, an English civil engineer proposed Thull Ghat and Bhore Ghat roads for the railway from Bombay.

Another proposal received from Messrs White Borret & Co proposed a single ascent of the Western Ghats at Malsej Ghat (situated between Thull Ghat and Bhore Ghat) with the lines bifurcating after ascending the hills rather than before.

The former proposal was implemented.

Eventually, the first railway line in India was inaugurated on April 16, 1853, between Boribunder and Tannah on the GIPR.

On the EIR, the first train ran between Howrah and Hooghly on August 15, 1854.

Calcutta is said to have lost the race to Bombay in inaugurating India’s first rail line as the ship carrying the loco sank at the sand heads before reaching Calcutta and another ship carrying the coaches somehow got re-routed to Australia.

And so, it is Bombay (now Mumbai) that rode the railways into history instead of Calcutta, now known as Kolkata.

Footnote: The first photo in this piece is often passed off as one of the first ever train to run in India. However, it is unlikely to be the one that ran on 16th April 1853.

There is only one locomotive to be seen in the photo, and not the now famous Sindh, Sahib and Sultan. Also, the creek over which you see the train passing was unlikely to have existe between Boribunder and Thane.

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About the Author: Raghavendra Rao

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