India – History and Society – for those who wish to think and learn for themselves
One of the great legacies that the British Empire left behind in the Jewel in the Crown was the Indian Railways.
To many in India and abroad, the railways typify India. Large, slow, perplexing but effective, inexpensive, enthralling and entertaining. The rail lines criss-cross all nooks and corners of India bringing together families and communities. They move food grains, coal and timber. Without them the Indian economy would grind to a halt. Without them, most Indian families would be unable to visit their loved ones in other parts of the country.
The true reasons why the British built the railways were very selfish. After the First Indian War of Independence in 1857 (often called the First Indian Mutiny although there were plenty before), the British forces realised the importance of having a mechanism of moving military equipment and regiments across India in a prompt and effective manner. Regiments based in cantonments in the Central Provinces needed to be moved fast in case of any conflict or rebellion. The railways were the only feasible option in view of the absence of large central rivers and the difficulty in keeping hydrated any potential canal system. The British therefore invested heavily in laying new lines. Steam engines and rolling stock were imported from factories in Manchester and Glasgow. Interestingly, the first steam engines imported from Britain failed to meet the demands of the hot and dusty Indian environment. Modifications were made and classic steam engines such as the Mikados were born over the next century. The industrial houses of Glasgow, Dumbarton and Manchester thrived meeting the demands of India.
Indian maharajahs soon got into the act. Smaller networks of various rail gauges (broad gauge, narrow gauge, metre gauge) sprang up in different kingdoms and principalities. Many of these other networks existed till the dawn of the 21st century when finally investment into standardisation of gauge led to the vast majority of gauge conversion to broad gauge.
Over 150 years after the Indian mutiny, Monica Rajesh undertook a series of train journeys across India, exploring and discovering her roots. The results of her search lead to the book “Around India in 80 Trains.” It will be a fascinating read for any observer of India.
Please read the review in The Telegraph (London)