Connecting and transforming India: Railways' impact on society

“Inevitably, the railways had social consequences. Without them, the three great cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras would have remained small colonial trading ports” - Mark Tully

A 19th century map of India's major railway linesHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

The beginning

India's love affair with the railways began in the summer of 1853.The British had brought the railways into India for their own benefit; and no one could have imagined that a transportation system would unite the states and bring them together to form a nation. They made railways an integral ingredient of the country's social fabric.

A view of present-day Howrah StationHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

The social impact of the railways emerged from the very beginning.  The railways made India mobile and opened up new vistas and opportunities for its people. It brought in new expertise and trades, new technology and above all, it gave the people a sense of freedom.

The front facadeChhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus

A time of transformation

As the railways grew, their role transformed from a mere provider of transport to something significantly larger. It influenced trade and business in a remarkable way and in the larger cities the major markets grew in and around the main railway stations. New settlements developed alongside the railway since railways symbolised progress and people wanted to be a part of it. This deep link between Indian society and its railways is nowhere more visible than in Mumbai, our supreme quintessential railway city. The thriving suburban system that emanates out of the two great termini, Churchgate and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Mumbai CST), constitutes the most fascinating and complex city railway in the world. The Mumbai suburban system, unlike other suburban systems, cuts through the heart of the city above the ground and not underground as with most Metro systems.

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is a city icon and a lifeline for Mumbaikars.
Take a virtual tour around the station and zoom into its masterful architecture.

The Heritage Gallery at Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus is a separate section inside the main building where one can find information about the history of railways, especially the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. It houses miniatures of the station, trains and engines as they evolved from steam, diesel to electric. The gallery tells the story of the development of the railways and the city of Mumbai itself.

A monsoon view of a train passing through the Western GhatsHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

An important train that had a huge effect on the society in Mumbai and its neighboring city was the Deccan Queen. Way back in 1928, the Great Indian Peninsula Railway started the Deccan Queen as an inter-city train between Bombay (now Mumbai) and Poona (now Pune). This is perhaps the most iconic train to be run by the Indian Railways. It continues till today, 87 years later.

The Deccan Queen is not a train but an institution. Generations of people from Pune have used it to travel to Mumbai to work and return in the evening.

Owing to the amount of time people spend in the train, friendships are forged, marriages are arranged and business deals sealed during the journey. Infact, such trains are more like social networks!

A view of Kurseong Railway StationHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

Another significant and vital social impact of the Indian Railways is witnessed in the hill railways.The most famous is the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which winds up from Siliguri at the foot of the Himalayas to Darjeeling.

Even 30 years ago, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was the predominant form of transport in the Darjeeling hills. More than 3 trains used to operate out of New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling and the same number back and at least two trains operated out of Kurseong towards Darjeeling.

The Kurseong station, of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), is the headquarters of the DHR. The station also houses a museum with original artifacts and exhibits of the DHR.

The locomotive shed of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway at Kurseong.

The Darjeeling Toy train passing through KurseongHeritage Directorate, Indian Railways

For the school children around Kurseong, this small train was a trusted friend that took them to the doorstep of their schools. The amazing steam locomotive made its way through the market of Kurseong. Though the first hill railway in India to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it now runs only as a tourist railway with scaled down operations.

Take a walk around the Darjeeling railway station, zoom in on the different locomotives, and the hill top view of the station.

The Divisonal Railway Manager's officeChhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus

Apart from influencing society in general, the Indian Railways brought in another social stratum into the country – the Railway Society.

In general, a society is divided into two parts, namely, civil and defence. In India, there is this third strata. Railways have their own housing, clubs, institutes, cinema halls, etc; even their own hospitals. The British built several railway towns in India based on railway towns in England. Many of these towns thrive to this day.

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

The introduction of railways have changed India in unprecedented ways. Way back on 16th April 1853, when three steam locomotives - Sahib, Sultan and Sindh hauled a 14 coach train from Bori Bunder station, Bombay to Thane, they ushered in the rail era in India, changing the country and its people forever. And even a century and a half later, the railways continue to be a strong unifying force in India.

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