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Indian Railways:a Utility for the British Turned out to be a Boon for Independent India

Updated on November 22, 2015


The Indian railways are intractably twined with the Raj, euphuism for British rule in India. The Raj was administered by only about 100,000 Britishers, who covered an entire subcontinent with a population of about 275 million (At that time). These men administered India and also ushered in the first rail which ran from Bombay VT to Thane in 1861.

This was the beginning and the British laid out rail lines all over India with zeal making it the largest rail network in Asia, second in the world only to the USA.

Frontier Mail
Frontier Mail

Investment in Indian Rail

The British invested heavily in Indian Railways. The latest carriages and rolling stock like steam engines were imported from England. The rail infrastructure was rapidly built. The golden age of Indian rail commenced from about 1890 and lasted till 1930. During this period the British assumed they would remain in India for another 200 years and made plans accordingly. Many prominent British contractors and engineers shifted to India as Indian rail was made at par with the best in Europe.

Did the British Built Rail Network Benefit Indians

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Initial aim of the Rail System

The rail network was established from one corner of India to another. It covered distances of many thousand miles. They made India accessible, but their motives were not the betterment of India but to facilitate their rule and grip over the vast sub-continent, which Britain considered the brightest jewel in the Crown. Better communications meant the British could rush troops from one corner to another and the British civil servants and soldiers could travel across the country for a better grip over India.

Rail Accomodation During the Raj

Types of accomodation

The British ran trains all over India, but they were careful to keep a social divide in place, which emphasized as to the difference between the rulers and the ruled (Indians). For this purpose they introduced 4 classes for travel in the railways. These were

a) First class. These were opulent compartments with attached toilets. The best material was used in these compartments that had sleeper births. The compartments also had place for Ice slabs which had a fan blowing at the back that cooled the compartment in the summer heat. The First class compartments also had attendants, who were all Indian who attended to all needs of the British travellers. No Indians were allowed to travel by first class which was an exclusive British preserve.

b) Second Class. This was the next class. These compartments were also good, but were devoid of the luxury of the First Class. These compartments were meant for travel by Europeans and those Britishers who could not afford to travel by First class. No Indians were allowed to travel by these compartments also

c) The 3rd Class and 4th Class. These were basically for Indians and consisted of wooden benches and no toilets. The Indian passengers were to wait for a rail station halt to use toilet facilities. Sometimes a train would halt near a river bridge for the 3rd and 4th class compartment travellers to have a wash in the river water. The 4th class was the worst and there was no reservation and Indians just climbed in like cattle. The unreserved compartment in modern Indian rail is a hangover of the 4th class.

dining Car
dining Car
First Class
First Class

Utmost luxury for British

The Trains were basically meant for Europeans and the long distance Mail and express trains carried dining cars. These were mini restaurants that were tastefully decorated and supplied meals and drinks to the British travellers. No Indians were allowed in these dining cars which were opulently decorated with the best material. Burma Teak was lavishly used for the tables and padded chairs adorned the dining cars. Liveried waiters attended on the Britishers.

Many trains also had bars which served wines and whiskey to the Britishers.

As a rule Indians were not allowed in the dining cars.

Indians travelling
Indians travelling

An exclusive club for the Burra Sahib

The Railways were an exclusive British preserve. All the engine drivers were Anglo Indians and all important posts were held by Britishers or Anglo Indians. Menial jobs and station masters at small stations were only given to Indians. The railways also set up Railway clubs on line of the defense clubs, which catered to the exclusive Anglo Indian and British community with dances and get together. Indians were debarred from membership of these clubs.

Indians had the last laugh

From 1900 the British launched the long distance mail and express trains. These trains still run and are a reminder of the Raj. Famous trains like the Frontier Mail, the Howrah Mail and the Grand Trunk Express still run and were first started by the English. All mail trains travelled on time and were a link that covered the entire sub-continent. It was the first time in the history of India that trains linked one corner of India to another and one could travel without hassle all over India. This by itself is no mean feat and all credit for the British to have brought about what can only be termed a revolution.

Victoria terminus at bombay
Victoria terminus at bombay

The railways aided the freedom movement

One aspect that is overlooked is that the railways laid out by the English rulers were in fact of great use for the Indian freedom movement led by Gandhi. The Indian political leaders could traverse the length and breadth of India with ease and mobilise popular support. The English rulers could not debar the Indian political leaders and their supporters from travelling on these trains.

Gandhi in particular travelled by 3rd class and criss crossed the entire country. The railways were a great boon for him and right up to 1947, the Indian freedom movement leaders travelled from one corner of the country to another rousing the masses against English rule. The railway system was thus a double edge sword


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    • emge profile imageAUTHOR

      MG Singh 

      4 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you Promod. Yes, railways are the life blood of the nation. Let's say thank you to the " Goraji".

    • pramodgokhale profile image


      4 years ago from Pune( India)

      Indian railway is a lifeline of nation and it was built by empire. We have ready to use infrastructure to usher our progress after gaining independence. later it was utilized and expanded by our government. Indian railway is not just service provider but living history and institution. for generations.

      Indian Railway generated wealth and employment.


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