On the growth track

Print edition : August 27, 2004

The Howrah Station in Kolkata by night. - PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Eastern Railway, 150 years old now, continues to create history.

THE railways first came to eastern India in 1854 with the objective of "binding India by iron chains", to use the words of Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General of India from 1848 to 1856. In its 150th year now, Eastern Railway, the legacy of the British Raj once used also as an instrument of suppression, is today the pride of the nation.

On August 15, 1854, Joshua Greenbow drove the first train of Eastern Railway from Howrah to Hooghly, a stretch of 25 km. The train, with three first class carriages, two second class carriages, three trucks for those travelling third class and a brake van for the guard, had a capacity to carry 300 passengers. The event generated such excitement that more than 3,000 people had applied for tickets for the inaugural journey. The same day regular services were introduced in the mornings and evenings, with stops at Bally, Serampore and Chandannagar. The carriages were manufactured locally and the locomotive was from the United Kingdom.

The train was, in fact, supposed to have been operated from 1853, but the ship carrying the locomotive from the U.K. lost its way and ended up in Australia. By the time it found its way to India, a year had gone by. The man credited with bringing the railway system to eastern India was Rowland McDonald Stephenson, the first agent and managing director of the East Indian Railway Company. As early as 1844, Stephenson submitted the first traffic and engineering feasibility report to the East India Company for setting up a line from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Mirzapore. The following year, the East India Railway Company (EIR) was established.

But Stephenson was not the only one to conceptualise a railway network for the country. Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, grandfather of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, was so impressed with the railways during his travel in England and Scotland that on his return he envisioned the same `wonder' for his own country. He started the Great Western Bengal Railway and proposed a line from Calcutta northward along the Ganga to Rajmahal. However, financial setbacks and the lack of support from the U.K. resulted in his venture losing out to the EIR.

The Howrah station in 1928.-

On August 17, 1849, a contract was signed between the EIR and the East India Company to construct and operate an `experimental' 161-km line between Calcutta and Rajmahal, which would later be extended to Delhi via Mirzapore. So rapid was the development of the rail network, that a stretch of 1,017 miles (1,636 km) was covered by the year 1865, connecting Calcutta on the right bank of the Hooghly to Agra on the left bank of the Jamuna. In 1866, with the opening of the Jamuna Bridge in Delhi, the last link of the trunk line between Calcutta and Delhi was completed. All this was accomplished, incredibly, in just 12 years.

In June 1867, the Allahabad-Jubbulpore (now Jabalpur) line was opened, making it possible to travel directly from Calcutta to Bombay (now Mumbai). This route was opened officially in March 1870, in the presence of Viceroy Lord Mayo and the Duke of Edinburgh, the chief guest for the occasion. By 1866, Eastern Railway was already carrying four million passengers and 800,000 tonnes of freight annually.

Farlie Place, the headquarters of Eastern Railway in Kolkata.-

With the steady growth of traffic, it became necessary to construct an alternative shorter route. This new line, called the Grand Chord, was opened in December 1906 by Viceroy and Governor-General Lord Minto. The cost of constructing the 281-mile line was around Rs.4.15 crore and it reduced the distance between Kolkata and Mumbai and major north Indian stations by 50 miles (about 80 km). Between 1879 and 1929, the EIR was busy extending and consolidating its network throughout the eastern part of the country, mainly through branch lines and loops.

In 1925, the colonial government took over the management of the EIR. Initially, there were six divisions in the EIR - Howrah, Asansol and Dinapore (new Danapur), which were known as the lower divisions, and Allahabad, Lucknow and Moradabad, which were known as the upper divisions. In the early 1950s, the upper divisions were merged with Eastern Punjab Railway, Jodhpur Railway and Bikaner Railway to form the Northern Railway.

Electrification work on Eastern Railway began in 1953. Two years later, Eastern Railway was split to form the new South Eastern Railway. In 1956 the first fully air-conditioned train of Eastern Railway was introduced between Kolkata and New Delhi.

THE story of India's freedom struggle is inextricably linked with that of Eastern Railway. It was on March 29, 1857, three years after the establishment of the EIR, that Mangal Pandey fired the first shot in Barrackpore cantonment, 23 km away from Calcutta, to start the `Sepoy Mutiny', which is regarded by many historians as the first Indian War of Independence. The mutineers and their civilian supporters, realising how powerful the railways was in the hands of the rulers, targeted it and cut off the telegraph wires, destroyed bridges, burnt and plundered storehouses and workshops. The loss incurred by the EIR as a result of the mutiny was around 42,000, and the total loss owing to delays and escalation of costs was estimated at around 3 million.

The Route Relay Interlocking system, which is installed at large stations of Eastern Railway.-

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's escape from the country in January 1941 involved a train journey from Gomoh to Peshawar. He had reached Gomoh incognito by car from Calcutta.

Mahatma Gandhi often travelled in the Eastern Railway sector, whether it was to offer his support to the agitating indigo growers of Champaran or to comfort the people of Bihar after the devastating earthquake of 1934. While visiting the earthquake-affected areas, he had to rush back to Delhi on receiving an urgent message from Viceroy Lord Mountbatten. He turned down Mountbatten's offer of a private aircraft for his return. He would rather travel third class by train.

TODAY, Eastern Railway covers a total route of 2,384 km. With 1,445 trains, it caters to 69.27 crore passengers every year. It employs 1.4 lakh people directly and millions of others indirectly. Eastern Railway operates through four divisions - Howrah, Sealdah, Asansol and Malda - with the Divisional Railway Manager at the head of affairs, and has three modern workshops at Liluah, Jamalpur and Kanchrapara. The States that fall within its jurisdiction are West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand. Its two main stations are Howrah and Sealdah, both located in Kolkata. The Howrah station, which was just a mud hut with one platform at the time of its inauguration, was declared a `model' station in 1987 with excellent facilities and a 100-bed `Yatri Niwas' or guest house. The headquarters of the EIR is at Fairlie Place in Central Kolkata, from where its management has been operating since 1879.

When the railways were first introduced in Kolkata and Mumbai, even great patriots and scholars such as Romesh Chandra Dutt had opposed the railway system and preferred the construction of a network of irrigation systems instead. Their main objection was that the railways were private companies that have been guaranteed a minimum rate of return by the British government. For many years when the railways incurred losses, the poor Indian taxpayers had to bear the burden of the deficit. History, however, proved that Dutt's warning, though well meaning, was perhaps misconceived. Without the railway system, India would not have been able to modernise. In fact, railways proved to be one of the major tools for the "unconscious and unintended modernisation of India by the British" as foretold by Karl Marx more than a century ago.

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