A Short History of Indian Railways


Title: A Short History of Indian Railways
Author: Rajendra B Aklekar
Publisher: Rupa
Pages: 248
Price: INR 295
Headline: The Railways in India, On Time

A Short History of Indian Railways by Rajendra B Aklekar, weaves a delightfully engaging narrative of the history of railways in India. The author’s study of the beginnings of railways in the country is based on painstaking research of official and unofficial records. Further, the information of the numerous locomotive experiments along with their challenges and successes leading to the era of the Indian Railways are presented in detail. A fascinating account of the historical and architectural facets of Royapuram, India’s oldest functional railway station speaks of the author’s deep love and nostalgia for the railways in all its ‘glory’.

The book carefully traces the stories and anecdotes behind the foundation of rail tracks and steam power in India ‘in line with the developments in England and many other countries of the world’. Essentially rooted in ensuring easier transportation of cotton from India to England besides managing faster deployment of troops, establishment of the railways in the country was inevitable. Having said this, the challenges of the unfamiliar terrain and harsh weather conditions, rigid local customs and superstitions, and a complete lack of knowledge at the grassroots level presented several difficulties. However, the colonials were able to tide over the issues and set up the railways in India.

Ranging from names such as ‘aag boat’ to ‘agni rath, the first locomotive in action presented a cultural shock for the natives and the anecdotes surrounding this have been superbly shared in the chapter detailing the arrival of the railways. In fact, the spread of the steam engine posed a threat to the traditional modes of transportation in the country; by the 1880s, they had become an intrinsic part of the Indian topography, irrespective of the types of lines. These form the basis of many history books, travel diaries and autobiographies of the period.

Delving deeper in India’s history, we learn how the First War of India’s Independence, in 1857, witnessed strategic planning behind laying the railway web in the country. The author also educates us with a technical explanation behind the track gauge. In the same chapter, he shares fascinating anecdotes connected with the Matheran Hill Railway and the Barog tunnel, taking us back in time.

We also learn about the beginnings of consolidation and systemic improvement in the Indian Railways, in the form of a Railway Board, responsible for the complete management of the network in the country. A separate railway budget was another step in this direction with the aim of emancipation of the railways from the control of the Finance Department of the then Government of India. The discussions bring to the fore the careful thought and planning behind the management of railways in the country; railway electrification being one such visible manifestation. Aklekar’s thorough analysis makes us understand the history behind the railways as it exists today and its significance. Similar to our idiosyncrasies, the book elaborates on the peculiarities of train travel in the country, placing it within the perspective of the first half of the twentieth century. 

The story like narration of the steady rise of railways in India and its various facets constitutes the most distinguishing feature of the book. In the same tone, we’re introduced to the era of electric railways and the innumerable evolutionary and rather fascinating tales associated with the Indian railways. The book also explores the intrinsic relationship between the railways and India’s freedom movement, the Kakori train incident, Gandhiji’s critique of third class rail travel in the country, and also the trauma of Partition and its aftermath via the railways.

The final chapters detail the post Independence transition from the colonial railways to the present in terms of the consolidation of railways in the country in the form of regrouping of the railway zones, the curious link between politics and railways, the Metro, and stories around India’s first bullet train. The book is a marvelously well written historical romance of the railways and their bond with India.

Rajendra B. Aklekar

Anushree Tiwari Sharma

Rajendra B. Aklekar is a senior journalist who has authored numerous books on Indian Railways, including the best seller-Halt Station India, a dramatic tale of the nation`s first rail lines.

Anushree Tiwari Sharma

Anushree Tiwari Sharma is Assistant Managing Editor with a leading publishing house and an avid reader.