‘Indian Railways: The Weaving of a National Tapestry’ offers a rich anecdotal history of how IR was conceived and built

A book for aficionados of the state carrier

If you are someone who considers trains simply as a way to get from Point A to Point B, you’ll probably see no reason to read a book on the Indian Railways. Especially one that traces its history from the 1830s to Indian independence and stops right there.

But if you are an ardent fan of the Railways, warts and all, or a collector of historical facts about the British rule, then you may like to read Indian Railways: The Weaving of a National Tapestry by Bibek Debroy, Sanjay Chadha and Vidya Krishnamurthi (Penguin, ₹299). The book, culling information from hard-to-get sources, offers a rich anecdotal history of how the Railways was conceived and built.

The book demolishes many myths about the Railways. Obviously, the British did not build the enormously expensive railway network out of altruistic motives. In the 1840s, they mooted it as a commercial proposition to ferry minerals and cotton from resource-rich States in the interior to the ports and to further British trade. After the revolt of 1857, the Railways were seen as a swift means to convey British troops to quell any incipient mutiny.

But the surprising fact is that the British did not put any systematic planning into building the Railways. Which is why it ended up fulfilling neither its lofty commercial nor social objectives. By the 1900s the railways was a hodgepodge of as many as 10 different systems; some built and run by private firms with a government guarantee, some operated by the Government and others by the princely States as a me-too effort.

With many branch lines leading nowhere and most operations making no money, there was heated debate on whether freight should subsidise passengers, whether unviable lines must be shut, how railways could be made self-sustaining, and so on. That we are having identical debates today, tells us that many of these problems originate from the unplanned evolution of this behemoth and may not be easily resolved.

While interesting, the narrative does not flow smoothly, and often chugs off on a side track. Almost every chapter is interspersed with long-winding paragraphs that reproduce verbatim, letters penned by British officials to each other and citations from official notes which make for a laborious read. At times, keen to get on with the story of the railways, I found myself skipping pages.

These difficult-to-navigate parts of the book are relieved by the treasure trove of anecdotes and trivia that the authors have unearthed. For instance, proof that the first train service in India was not really the one from Bori Bunder to Thane in April 1853, but a freight service connecting Chintadripet to Little Mount in Chennai, in 1836. There’s the story of the Barog tunnel on the Kalka-Shimla route where Colonel Barog ordered tunnelling from two sides of a hill, only to be surprised when the tunnels didn’t meet. Barog shot himself and his dog, and supposedly took to haunting the tunnel.

Then, there’s Talgoria town where a railway track was impossible to lay and had to take a detour because it traversed a ‘suttee’ site! Such nuggets make the book a great acquisition for history lovers and Railway aficionados. (There are specialised IR fan forums, of which the largest irfca.org is cited in this book).

But if you don’t belong to this club and are concerned with more prosaic matters such as what the Railways can do to clean up its act on timeliness and amenities, you’ll have to read another tome by the same author – the June 2015 report on the restructuring of the railways by the Debroy committee.