A History of Indian Railways

A look at the beginning of the railways in India; the first stations, construction marvels and the technological innovations

By National Rail Museum

An old picture of one of the first locomotives in India, journeying across the Thane creek.Heritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Railway Networks

The history of Indian Railways dates back to over 160 years ago. On 16th April 1853, the first passenger train ran between Bori Bunder (Bombay) and Thane, a distance of 34 km. It was operated by three locomotives, named Sahib, Sultan and Sindh, and had thirteen carriages. The photo to the right, while capturing a scene from the early days of railways in India, features a train pulled by a single locomotive, and is widely - but incorrectly - believed to be that first service.

A view of a train passing through the Western Ghat rangesHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Just a couple of years after that first train, the engineers of the Indian Railway took up the colossal task of building a track over Bhore Ghat.

Built at an elevation of 2000 feet, to connect Bombay with Poona, with tunnels and reverse viaducts, the track was finally constructed over a period of nine years and at great human cost.

Native Workmen leaving Workshops after work - the Jamalpur Railway Workshops in 1897 by Subrata NathNational Rail Museum

1862: The Jamalpur Workshop

The first Railway Workshop was established at Jamalpur, near Munger, Bihar, in 1862. It gradually became one of the major industrial unit of India, with iron and steel foundries, rolling mills and more.

The Delhi junction, established in 1864.National Rail Museum

In 1864, the north got its first station - the Delhi Junction. The oldest one of the city, it was a major station and junction and remains so till date.

It was first established near Chandni Chowk in 1864 when trains from Howrah/Calcutta started operating up to Delhi. The current building was made operational in 1903.

Lucknow's Charbagh StationHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

The next important station in the north was Lucknow. It was the headquarters of the Oudh and Rohilkhand Railway (O&RR) whose first line from Lucknow to Kanpur was built in April 1867.

Now known as Lucknow Charbagh Station, it is part of Northern Railway.

In 1880, The Darjeeling Steam Tramway (later the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway) started its first section between Siliguri and Kurseong. The line was extended to Darjeeling in 1881.

The Line operated on Narrow Gauge, and was accorded World Heritage Status in 1999, the first Railway in Asia to get such a standing.

Kalka Shimla Railway (KSR) joins Kalka, the foothill town near Chandigarh to Shimla at an elevation of 2276 metres.

This Narrow Gauge Railway (2 feet 6 inches) of 96.54 km (59.99 mi) length opened for traffic on 9 November 1903. It was accorded World Heritage Status in 2008.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is among the first, and still outstanding, examples of a Hill Passenger Railway. Opened in 1899, it was extended upto Ooty in 1903. It was a bold and ingenious engineering initiative to establish a rail link across a mountainous terrain of great beauty.

The “engineering marvel” still stands, a testimony to the skills of Railway Engineering. It was accorded World Heritage Status in 2005.

Fairy Queen Heritage train Fairy Queen chugging away, on one it's journeys from Rewari to New Delhi.Rewari Steam Loco Centre

Advances in locomotive design

Shown here is one of the oldest working steam engines, not only in India but the world. Manufactured in 1855, EIR-22, better known as Fairy Queen is one of the earliest designs of steam locomotives - a simple, two cylinder, broad gauge, British design. 

It was built in England and was brought to India for use by the East Indian Railway (EIR) to haul light mail trains in West Bengal. It is powered by two cylinders and has an output of just 130 horsepower with a maximum speed of 40 km/hr.

The F-734: First Locomotive Made in IndiaNational Rail Museum

After four decades of importing ready-made British locomotive parts for assembly, in 1895 the first steam locomotive was manufactured completely in India at the Ajmer Workshop.

The locomotive, F-734, became part of the Rajputana Malwa Railways and served both passenger and goods trains along Central India.

This lightweight design, which remained in service for 63 years, was the beginning of locomotive manufacturing in the country.

AWE 22907, named ViratRewari Steam Loco Centre

Now better known as Virat, locomotive number AWE 22907 is a broad gauge steam locomotive, built in 1943 by Baldwin Locomotive Workshop, Philadelphia, USA. It was brought to India for use by the Great Indian Peninsular Railway.

AWE Stands for American War Design. This brand of locomotives entered the industry at the beginning of the world war, when British manufacturers were engaged in the war. This new design with a light bar frame and lighter wheels was faster, more efficient and easier to maintain and soon replaced it's bulkier predecessors.

The locomotive is now maintained in working state at Rewari Steam Centre, near Delhi.

The three position block instrumentNational Rail Museum

Railway technology

The railways became popular at an unprecedented speed. The frequency and the quantity of trains was increasing as more and more people become dependent on it's services. At the same time, there was a need to enhance the safety of the passengers and the number of trains on the track increased. Many instruments were thus developed for better management of railway sections. One of them was the three position block instrument, seen on the right. 

Neale's token instrumentRewari Steam Loco Centre

Shown here is a Neale's Ball token instrument, which is used this day to manage trains especially for single line track. A token is a physical object which a train driver is required to have or see before entering onto a particular section of single track.

Weighing machineRewari Steam Loco Centre

A luggage weighing machine used on the railway stations of the past. Manufactured by W.&T. Avery of Birmingham and could weigh upto 250 kilograms.

Pamban bridgeHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Railway Infrastructure

Pamban Bridge is the railway bridge which connects Rameswaram on Pamban Island to mainland India. Opened on 24 February 1914, it was India's first sea bridge. The rail bridge is, for the most part, a conventional bridge resting on concrete piers, but has a double-leaf bascule section midway, which can be raised to let ships and barges pass through.

Steel pylons at the iconic Chenab BridgeHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

One of the latest challenges undertaken by the Indian Railways is the building of the steel arch bridge over the Chenab in Jammu.

A view of the National Rail Museum in 1978National Rail Museum

National Rail Museum, 1977

National Rail Museum, the first rail museum in India, was established in 1977 at Chanakyapuri, New Delhi. The Indian Railways now have 33 Museums, Heritage Parks and Galleries spread all across the country.

A beautiful evening at National Rail Museum.

The outdoor exhibits are lit up after sunset to give a mesmerizing look of the museum.

The Miniature India Gallery at National Rail Museum.

A must-visit experience, this feature is on the top floor of the Indoor Gallery. It depicts modern India through working rail models.

The National Rail Museum in New Delhi has one of the most comprehensive collections on the history of Indian Railways.

From century-old locomotives, to models and informative panels and games, it's perfect for anyone looking to become acquainted India's railway history.

Train Operation in Pirpanjal Tunnel during winterHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

In the last 160 years of its existence, the Railways in India has grown and expanded by leaps and bounds, yet there are still unchartered territories to cover. Slowly but steadily the railways is connecting every part of India, which with the constant innovations in technology is much easier to do today than it was before.

Though the newer generation is more used to its air travel and automobiles, it is imperative that the railways continue to grow; because even with all the other options available, the experience of an Indian train ride will remain unparalleled and continue to enthrall people for generations to come.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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