Press Information Bureau
Government of India
Ministry of Railways
21-February-2007 17:9 IST
Indian Railways: Glorious History

The Union Railway Budget is to be presented on the 26th of February.  Let us take a look at the glorious history of Indian Railways.

Railways continue to be the principal mode of transport in India. Much more than that, it has become a part and parcel of the country’s socio-economic life, impacting not only its culture and socio-economic activities but also largely influencing our art, history and literature besides unifying the people. The Indians have developed an abiding romance with the railways.

Way back in 1853, wheels rolled on rails on 16th April, where the first ever railway train, carrying 400 people in 14 carriages, covered the 21-mile distance between Bombay and Thane in about 75 minutes. The train took off with a regal 21-gun salute to celebrate the occasion. Much water has since flowed down the Arabian Sea. What started as a system to serve the colonial interests of the foreign masters has developed into the main vehicle for socio-economic development of a welfare society.


The planned growth and development of the railway system started from 1951. The increase in terms of route kilometres and rolling stock was significant but not outstanding; while during the same period passenger traffic increased by 360 per cent and revenue-earning freight traffic by 550 per cent. These staggering figures will show how much conscious effort has been put in to improve the productivity of the assets and modernization of technology.

Looking back, some of the major achievements of the railways in the field of customer satisfaction and development are indeed noteworthy. The first and foremost among them is, of course, the introduction of the Rajdhani Express in 1969, the first train to travel at the speed of 130 kilometres per hour, revolutionizing the concept of train travel. This trend continued with the Shatabdi Express making its mark in 1988 with a high speed of 140 kilometres per hour. After a wait of over two decades, the 16.45 kilometres-long Metro underground railway in Kolkata was fully commissioned. Spanning from Dum Dum to Tollygunge, it provided an immense relief to thousands of daily commuters in the city.  The Konkan Railway Project, the 760-km broad-gauge railway line from Roha to Mangalore touching four States has been another landmark. With 1800 bridges and 88 tunnels, including a tunnel as long as 6.5 km—it has already been hailed as the project of the century and its completion in 1997 was a fitting tribute to the Golden Jubilee anniversary of the country’s Independence. The Project Unigauge was launched on April 1, 1992 to develop the backward regions and to connect important places with broad gauge network. So far over 13000 km of metre gauge and narrow gauge have been converted to broad gauge networks. This was a big leap forward to the mantra of "one country, one gauge". Another such unifying factor is the Computerized Reservation System, which at present covers 97 per cent of the reserved passenger population. At present, this facility is spread over 758 locations and it is even available where there is no rail link. Another milestone achieved is introduction of Garib Rath Express fully air-conditioned train connecting different destinations.


During the British era, there were just four classes in a train—First, Second, Inter and Third. After Independence, not only the Third Class was abolished but a number of new options were also provided—3 Tier, 2-Tier and Chair Cars, suiting everyone’s choice and pocket. The introduction of air-conditioned coaches brought about a new degree of comfort in travel during the summer and winter months. Even in 3-Tier sleepers, cushioned berths were provided and the days of wooden planks were over.

If we look at passenger coaches, the state of changes will be clear. Before 1950, we had only wooden coaches which were very expensive to maintain and which often got telescoped with each other during accidents, affecting the safety of the passengers. Moreover, those were only fit to travel at a maximum speed of 96 KMPH only. In 1949, the Integral Coach Factory was set up in collaboration with a Swedish concern to manufacture anti-telescopic metal-bodied coaches. Since then, more than 170 designs of coaches have been developed. The new coaches have drastically reduced causalities in train accidents and the speed potential has gone up from 96 KMPH to 140 KMPH. Now with the upcoming light weight high speed fire-retardent Linka Hoffmann Busch (LHB) coaches from Germany under manufacture at the Rail Coach Factory, Kapurthala, the Indian Railways’ speed with attendant comfort and safety is going up. We have also seen the introduction of high capacity power cars and Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs). Now coach interiors are being designed with improved fittings and features to enhance their crashworthiness and reduce the impact of accidents. On the wagon front, we largely inherited 4—wheelers with vacuum brakes. These have been steadily replaced with 8—wheelers with air brakes and improved track loading density.

At the time of Independence, the Indian Railways had only steam locomotives. We have seen the indigenisation of the imported diesel electric loco, achieving an indigenous content of more than 95 per cent. The high-speed passenger loco (WDP-1-2300 HP) and the high capacity diesel freight loco (WDG-2-3100 HP) were also designed and developed during this time. Push-Pull trains and Rail Buses, both running on diesel, were introduced for low density passenger traffic. Now, high speed 4000 horse power diesel locos under a technology tie-up with General Motors of the USA are manufactured indigenously. In the field of electric locomotives, the progress was revolutionary. After Independence, the railways had about 70 electric locos running only in Mumbai and Kolkata areas. The figure, at the end of 2001-2002, has gone up to 2810. In 1947, only 388 route kilometres were electrified. In March 2002, the figure stood at 14856 route kilometres, which is one fifth of our total track. Presently, over 65 per cent of freight traffic and 48 per cent of passenger traffic are hauled by electric traction. The Indian Railways is manufacturing three-phase 6000 high horsepower electric locos under a technological tie-up with a Swiss enterprise.


The advent of electrification has not only made the railways cleaner and more eco-friendly but also took a big leap towards energy conservation. With progressive replacement of steam traction by diesel and electric traction, the energy consumption for goods services has come down from 36.4 kg of coal equivalent per thousand Gross Tonne Kilo Metre (GTKM) in 1970 to 17.92 kg of coal equivalent in 2001. As the expenditure on fuel is about 25 per cent of the working expenditure of the Indian Railways, its control is vital for the financial health of the organization.

Electrification has also helped the railways provide some basic passenger amenities. Over the years we have seen the designing and development of different types of air-conditioned coaches which are extremely popular with the travelling public. In the sixties, the lighting system in the railways was 24 volt. It has since been replaced by 110 volt system. The difference in illumination is enormous. The earlier system also had some fire hazards which has since been removed by the new one. For shorter routes, the railways has introduced Mainline Electrical Multiple Units (MEMU). These new trains have become quite popular with the commuters for reducing journey time and increasing passenger capacity.


Much of the safety and comfort of a rail journey depends on the track and its maintenance. Beginning with the off track tampers for packing off the ballast under the sleepers in the late fifties, the railways has come a long way in the mechanized construction and maintenance of its permanent way. During this period, various types of track laying and maintenance machines have progressively been used. Responding to the ever-increasing passenger and freight traffic, the railways had to go for a heavier track structure to handle this challenge. The present track structure on the main routes of the Indian Railways compares with the best anywhere in the world regarding its traffic carrying capacities. This has been possible because of the use of state-of-the-art machines.

The welding of rail joints was hardly known in the pre-Independence era in the country. The replacement of ordinary fish-plated joints by welded joints has been one of the thrust areas in the last half a century. It has substantially contributed to safety, economy and riding comfort. These welded rails, known as Long Welded Rails (LWR), Continuous Welded Rails (CWR) and Short Welded Rails (SWR) have also saved fuel and electric consumption. The maintenance in terms of labour is also at least 15 per cent cheaper.

From the mid-1970s, the Railways has switched over to the production and use of concrete sleepers in a big way. Prior to that there was total dependence on wooden sleepers. However, to encourage the conservation of forests and to maintain ecological balance, this step was considered necessary. As a result, a production capacity of over 60 lakh concrete sleepers per year has been created. This has reduced the requirement of wooden sleepers by almost 88 per cent.


The railway signalling system is to be continuously modernized to cope with the rising traffic density and to meet better safety standards. At the time of Independence, the signalling equipment was of a rudimentary nature. Everything was imported from European rail companies and there was no domestic base for producing those equipment. Now the whole picture has changed. The equipment has been modernized and the up-to-date technology absorbed and indigenised. The Railways has three workshops exclusively to manufacture signalling equipment in Podanur, Gorakhpur and Methuguda. In addition, about twelve factories in the private sector are producing the equipment. As a result, there is a widespread use of semi-conductor and micro-processor-based safety and signalling equipment of higher reliability.

For efficient operations, the railways took a policy decision in the 1960s to build its own communication network. In the last thirty years, over 20,000 route kilometres have been equipped with analog microwave system. This is now being gradually replaced by state-of-the-art digital technology. The Optic Fibre Cable System is also being introduced to cover all important routes. Since Independence, the Railways has installed over one lakh electromechanical exchange lines which are now being converted to digital electronic exchanges. Optic Fibre Cable System is being installed, to begin with, along the high density routes to cover the four metros.

To optimize train operation and enhance levels of safety in the high-density track route sections, mobile train radio systems have been commissioned over 1700 route kilometres on Itarsi-Bhusaval, Itarsi-Nagpur, Durg-Nagpur and Delhi-Mughalsarai sections. This is for emergency communication between the driver and the guard in case of any major technical problem or emergency and also for communication between mobile trains to pre-warn any danger. In another major breakthrough in recent times, the railways has introduced satellite communication so that passengers can talk to any telephone subscriber anywhere in the country or abroad. The satellite phones are now available in all Zonal and Divisional Railways to meet emerging needs.


During the pre-Independence times, rail travel had a very limited scope. People travelled mainly on work or on business. It is only in the last few decades that the railways is getting involved with the tourism industry. The trend started with the Palace on Wheels pattern and a decision has been taken to launch eight such trains on popular tourist circuits. "Discover India" or INDRAIL passes valid from half-a-day to three months and Rail Holiday package tours are very much on. While such schemes are mostly for international tourists, for local tourists there is a 100 Budget Hotels Project which will add 10000 hotel rooms in the organized sector in the country. This would attract an investment of Rs. 10000 crore and generate direct employment to 30000 people and indirect employment to double that number of persons in related activities. This is in addition to building Rail Yatri Niwases for common passengers.

The introduction of economic liberalization in July 1991 threw a major challenge before the Indian Railways. As a result, it took several measures to modernize the rolling stock, tractions and coaches. Steam locos were phased out altogether. Besides, it entered into joint ventures with State Governments to give a fillip to various railway projects, both urban and non-urban. Special emphasis was laid on customer care and user-friendly services. A Customer Care Institute was also set up. Recently, the railways also launched the National Rail Vikas Yojana at a cost of Rs. 15000 crore outside the Railway Budget as a hallmark of public-private partnership for strengthening the golden quadrilateral routes to provide connectivity to major parts of the country and build four mega bridges in order to remove bottlenecks in this vital infrastructure over a period of next five years. In addition, the Indian Railways has been divided into 16 Zones and 67 Divisions to ensure efficiency and productivity of rail services through manageable, cohesive administrative units.


The Indian Railways has become a major instrument of social change. Now the trains criss-cross literally from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and the remote and inaccessible North-Eastern parts of the country are coming up on the railway map. The Indian Railways rededicate itself to the task of meeting the growing challenges of bulk transportation apart from meeting the strategic requirements of the nation.