By the end of 1880, railway tracks in India covered 9,000 miles.
The purpose behind the establishment of railways in India seems to have been three-fold—to exploit the country’s rich natural resources and expedite the industrial revolution in Great Britain; for political convenience; and to guard the country against possible military attack.
Interestingly, quite a few of the train services started during British times still exist, among them the Frontier Mail, the Kalka Mail, the Kalka-Shimla toy train service, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Service, the Nilgiri Blue Mountain Railway, the Deccan Queen, and the Grand Trunk Express.
The railways in British India was a privatised affair, and when Independence came, there were no fewer than forty-two separate railway systems, including thirty-two lines owned by Indian princely states. To complicate matters further, forty per cent of the tracks passed through land that had become Pakistan. New construction, therefore, had to be undertaken, and fresh tracks laid.
In 1951, the Indian government nationalised the railways, transforming it into a single unit. Today, with more than 1.6 million employees on its payroll, it is the world’s largest commercial or utility employer. It operates nearly fourteen-and-a-half thousand trains daily, and its network is the largest in Asia and one of the largest in the world.
What impact has the Indian Railways made on the national scene?
Racing through the mainland and reaching into deserts or chugging up hill-tops, it has united what is, on many counts, the world’s most diverse nation. A train running from one corner of the country to another, accommodating within itself a dozen different varieties of intermingling Indians belonging to different castes, creeds, religions and linguistic backgrounds is as perfect a picture of national cohesion as one will ever get.
By the same token, it has also been a vehicle of democratisation. Its doors are open to all, the poor and the middle-class and the rich, and if there is any mode of long-distance transportation that is truly of the people, it is the Indian Railways. On local routes, of course, buses are close, though not quite equal, competitors.
The Indian Railways not only owns a fleet of well over two lakh wagons, which tells its own story, but it has also given the people mobility and access to opportunities. In times of calamity, it has unfailingly lent itself to relief work.
Despite its long and distinguished past, its mascot is a young and energetic cartoon elephant named ‘Bholu’ who is dressed up elegantly in blue and white and, like a train guard, sports a flag in his hand.
Bholu symbolises solidity and strength, and the quality of being welcoming and loveable to one and all, and the spirit of cheerful dynamism with which the Indian Railways hopes to move forward to meet the challenges of the changing times. But its heritage will always remain the same—the striving for a united, democratic and prosperous India.