Indian Railways on 15th August 1947: Freedom Brought With It New Challenges

India won its independence from the British on August 15, 1947. So did the Indian Railways. But the newfound freedom also gave rise to a new set of challenges for Indian Railways (IR).

John Mathai, the First Railway Minister of Independent India

Those were the days of railway companies owned by the British or the native states in the sub-continent. Partition meant several issues that needed urgent attention of the then Railway Minister Dr John Mathai.

Mass Movement of Population During Partition

By November 1947 about two and half million refugees had already been moved from Pakistan to India and vice versa. These many passengers were usually carried by 800 passenger trains.

This mass migration was effected by IR at the cost of curtailing train services in other parts of the country by diverting a humungous amount of resources- railway staff and rolling stock for this purpose.

Goods traffic was severely hit as during the peak period of disturbances in the Punjab, about 7900 loaded wagons stood idle.

 During the same period, between four and five thousand empty wagons stood still in other parts of India such as the East Indian Railway, Great Indian Peninsula Railway and the Bombay, Baroda and Central Indian Railway.

Railwaymen battled all odds such as lack of manpower and resources, virtual breakdown of law and order,huge number of refugees who were poor, miserable and unmanageable along with heavy floods in the monsoon to top it.

Transfer of Railway Staff Between India and Pakistan

Railway services were significantly affected due to railwaymen choosing to come to India and go to Pakistan post partition.

According to the interim railway budget presented in November 1947, 1,26,000 lakh railwaymen opted to come from Pakistan to India. Of this, 1,06,400 had already arrived in November and 1,04,000 of who had arrived were given postings.

About 83,000 railwaymen opted to go to Pakistan post partition.

North East Rail Connectivity Severed

The Assam Railway was totally cut off from the rest of India post partition. Mathai immediately sanctioned the project to connect Assam with IR at an estimated cost of Rs 4.75 crore.

The task was to build a 156-km metre gauge line by converting 70 km of the Darjeeling Himalayan – extension railway from narrow gauge to metre gauge besides laying 86 km of a new railway line.

Assam and Bengal agreed on the alignment and survey started almost immediately.

Temporary Railway Operating Arrangements Between India and Pakistan

Operating arrangements were entered into with Pakistan to minimise traffic interruption.

Both India and Pakistan provided ‘running powers’ to each others’ trains as people had to move from one side of the border to another.

Because there were no facilities at the geographical borders of India and Pakistan for stabling trains, running rooms for staff besides arrangements for inspection of carriages and wagons at the borders, trains had to go beyond the border up to a station where these facilities were available.

Partition meant certain sections of a railway were totally isolated from their parent railway, hence both India and Pakistan provided ‘working powers’ to the other railway under agreed arrangements. It was common railway practice. In addition, through booking of wagons and coaches were allowed between both the countries to avoid trans-shipments.

A 1951 map from the National Geographic showing India, West and East Pakistan

Both agreed not to alter passenger fares and freight rates without notice to each other.

The Radcliffe line ensured that workshops which catered to one railway happened to fall outside their borders. Hence it was agreed by the both countries to allow the use of workshops as before.

This meant that the Moghulpura workshops of Lahore would cater to the Eastern Punjab Railway rolling stock running in India while the Kanchrapara workshop situated in India would take care of rolling stock of Pakistan Railways (East Pakistan, now Bangladesh). Similarly, the Saidpur workshop in East Pakistan was supposed to take care of rolling stock of Assam Railway.

However, this arrangement could not be sustained in the manner envisaged as mass migration of people resulted in sudden depletion in manpower.

These arrangements were inked for a two-year period, and in some cases, no time limits were fixed. Railways of both countries knew it would take time to restore normalcy.

Reorganization of the Railway System

Partition affected the working of five railways – Eastern Punjab, East Indian, Oudh &Tirhut, Indian portion of Bengal Assam Railway and the Assam Railway.

They had to be re-grouped to promote operational efficiency, administrative convenience besides economy in control and supervision.

As a result, the following steps were taken.

First, the Indian portion of the Eastern Punjab Railway was carved into a separate unit reporting directly to the Railway Board.

A senior railway officer was sent to study the issues related to re-grouping of railways in Assam and Bengal.

Division of Assets and Liabilities

Fixed assets such as tracks, buildings, bridges are usually easy to distribute physically based on geography.

However, it was not to be. Certain additional sections of the Pakistan Railway were ceded to India under the Boundary Commission’s award.

As a result, the running and working arrangements had to be re-worked. This took time. The additional sections of the Railways were handed over only by November 8, 1947- a delay of over two and a half months.

But there was little financial risk on the Eastern frontier as the collections from pre-paid traffic moving north of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and South of Assam using Pakistan Railways were enough and more to cover the payments due from their trains using IR.      

Distribution of movable assets such as rolling stock and engineering stores was done notionally. Disturbances in the Punjab delayed revision of the physical distribution of movable assets as per the Boundary Commission’s award on the Western Boundary.

Disputes over Assets and Liabilities

There was dispute over the distribution of capital liabilities and the case went to the Arbitral Tribunal for final decision.

According to India, the correct basis for distributing liabilities was the book value less depreciation of the share of assets both fixed and movable that had fallen to each side.

Pakistan contended that the earning capacity of the railway was the correct basis and not the book value.

Major portions of North Western Railway and the Bengal Assam Railway went to Pakistan. But they were among the least profitable and hence the capital liability that would have arisen would have been considerably less. In addition Pakistan suggested that India share the liability for some of the strategic lines which fell mainly in its territory.

India contended that the earning capacity principle could not be applied to railways as it was a public utility. As a result, its return on capital was fixed with reference to public interest rather than pure economic interests.

As per the Indian method of calculation, India’s liability was Rs 660 crore and Pakistan’s was about Rs 150 crore. As per the calculation done by Pakistan, India’s liability was Rs 757 crore and theirs was Rs 58 crore. Pakistan had 7,000 miles of rail lines post-partition.   

Indian Railways had to grapple with disruptions caused by violence, mass migration of the public and railway staff. It had to do all this while performing amputation surgery on itself.

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About the Author: Raghavendra Rao

1 Comment

  1. Fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the functioning of the railways. Really enjoy these posts.

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