Facts, Folklores and Fables: The story of the Great Indian Railways

In part 3 of the series, we look at the private railways systems run by the Maharajas of princely states of India

Arup Chatterjee

India’s princely states ran their own railways in British India, which were at various points merged into small or large railway companies. About thirty such networks later became part of the Indian Railways. Some of these were, the Gaekwar’s Baroda State Railway, Agra-Gwalior Railway, Baria State Railway, Cutch State Railway, Bhavnagar State Railway, Bhavnagar-Gondal-Junagad-Porbandar Railway, Bhopal State Railway, Mysore State Railway, Assam Behar State Railway, Bina-Goona-Baran Railway, Biroor-Shimoga Railway and the Bodeli-Chhota Udaipur Railway. The first of these, which started in 1862, was the eight-mile track from Dabhoi to Miyagam, with trains hauled by oxen on the metre gauge railways, started by Sir Khanderao Gaekwad of the princely state of Baroda. The line came to be known as Gaekwar’s Baroda State Railway. 

The Maharajah of Gwalior had once asked his English tutor for a train. His present came by ship with two and a half miles of railway tracks. In 1899, the tracks were extended to serve the whole state, and thus became part of a railway system that still exists as the Gwalior Light Railway. Village chieftains, till today, take the train from the countryside and ride into the village, singing folklores in the praise of the Scindias. The railways were started by Maharaja Madhav Rao II, in 1895. Beginning with the Bhind and Shivpuri sections, the railways were extended to Jora, Sabalgarh, Birpur and Sheopur. Twenty-eight railway stations lie between Gwalior and Sheopur Kalan on the narrow gauge (2 ft.) tracks. Today, three passenger trains run daily, and the Gwalior Light Railways are managed by the North Central Railway, of the Indian Railways.

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It is almost unknown today that Indians had built an independent un-British railway, towards the end of the nineteenth-century. Known as the Bengal Provincial Railway, it ‘was a true example of Swadeshi capital and management.’ The railway was built by Anandaprasad, an engineer from the Thomson Engineering College at Roorkee, and Amritlal Roy, editor of the journal, Hope. The railroad was a part of a scheme approved by the Famine Commission of India (1881). It had its inaugural run on April 2, 1895, on a thirty-two-mile journey from Tarakeshwar to Mogra. It was later extended to Pandua and Tribeni. 

The dream of an independent railway in Bengal was as old as India’s first railway plans of the 1840s. The leading Bengali entrepreneur, Dwarkanauth Tagore, floated the Great Western of Bengal Railway, in 1845. Tagore died in 1846, and the Great Western of Bengal and the East Indian Railway Companies merged, in 1847. In August, 1849, Lord Dalhousie approved the Company’s plan of building a railroad from Calcutta to Burdwan—as had been originally proposed by Tagore.

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Meanwhile, the East Indian Railway would have run the first passenger train in India, supposedly from Howrah to Hooghly, which it did on August 15, 1854, nearly sixteen months after the Bombay-Thane passenger train run by the Great Indian Peninsular Railway. Bengal would have won in the race to the first railway, if an apocryphal account is to be believed. Apparently, the locomotive and coaches to be used by the East Indian Railway was shipped by mistake on the HMS Goodwin, to Australia, instead of Calcutta. While the locomotive was redirected to Calcutta, the coaches being shipped on another carriage, sank in the sea. New coaches were manufactured in Calcutta, which delayed the plans of the Company by another year, or so.

The legend ends with the French, who tried to disrupt the plans of a British-run railway passing through Chandernagore. Jules Verne wrote in The Steam House (1881), that the British had already anticipated the demands of the French Government and painstakingly skirted the railroad from Allahabad to Calcutta, without touching upon Chandernagore.

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In 1881, the Portuguese floated their own railway company, in Goa. What emerged as the West of India Portuguese Guaranteed Railway Company, in 1881, was built as a narrow gauge railway with the help of British engineering. It became operational in December, 1887, between Mormugao and Vasco da Gama, over a distance of twenty-eight miles. The reason why the British supported the railway in the first place was to appease the Portuguese government, after the Goa Treaty which the British had negotiated in Goa, thus assuming ‘monopoly on salt production in the Portuguese protectorate.’ Since this saved the British government an annual loss of £50,000-75,000, due to salt-smuggling into British India, it did not mind encouraging Portuguese links with South India. By 1902, the railway company was nearly bankrupt. It was leased out to the Southern Maharatta Railway Company, that ran the railway until 1955. Although after independence, the operations were handed over to the Indian Railways, the railroads within the Portuguese protectorate of Goa were operated by the Government of Portugal, making it the only colonial railway in independent India, until 1962.


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