‘Indian Railways-The Weaving of a National Tapestry’ recaptures the fascinating history of the country’s rail network

By: | Published: August 20, 2017 5:16 AM

Just consider these facts: the Indian Railways is the fourth-largest railway network in the world comprising 1,19,630 km of total track and 92,081 km of running track over a route of 66,687 km, with 7,216 stations at the end of 2015-16.

Indian Railways, National Tapestry, fascinating history, history of the country’s rail network, rail network, Indian railway networkIn 2015-16, the Indian Railways carried 8.107 billion passengers annually, or more than 22 million passengers a day, and 1.101 billion tons of freight annually. (Image: Reuters)

Just consider these facts: the Indian Railways is the fourth-largest railway network in the world comprising 1,19,630 km of total track and 92,081 km of running track over a route of 66,687 km, with 7,216 stations at the end of 2015-16. In 2015-16, the Indian Railways carried 8.107 billion passengers annually, or more than 22 million passengers a day, and 1.101 billion tons of freight annually. Well, no one can deny the importance of rail transport in one’s daily life. Today, the poorest of the poor are mobile because of the railways—train tickets are cheaper in the country than almost anywhere in the world. Its vast network has made travel and trade easier. What is even more significant is the role that the railways played in the making of the nation, especially in the decades leading up to India’s independence. Bibek Debroy, Sanjay Chadha and Vidya Krishnamurthi’s Indian Railways: The Weaving of a National Tapestry sets on a voyage to track this fascinating story. In doing so, the authors have liberally used facts and trivia that they accumulated as part of a committee that the Railway Board and the railway ministry had set up in 2014.

The result is an engaging and anecdotal account of the rail network in India, which is still considered a lifeline for the masses. Rather than categorising the book into themes, the authors have stuck to a chronological template. So you have timelines, like the inception of the railways in the 1830s (most of us would like to believe that the first train in India ran in 1853, but the authors clarify that the seeds of a rail network were sown as early as 1837 near Chintadripet in present-day Chennai) and its expansion in the 1850s and 1860s, to the government of India taking over its operations from private companies in the 1920s. Indian Railways is part of Penguin Random House’s unique multi-volume series called The Story of Indian Business.

The series, “as a whole, attempts to mine great ideas in business and economics that have shaped commerce in the bazaars and on the high seas of the Indian Ocean”, writes noted author-commentator Gurcharan Das in the book’s introduction. He also happens to be the series editor. This book will particularly delight readers looking for interesting trivia on the railways in India. For instance, in 1894, a train named UP Mail ran into an elephant trying to cross the tracks at Goikera in present-day Jharkhand. The elephant died, but one of its tusks can still be seen at the railway board office in London, while the other became the property of the engine driver. Then there is the story (although the authors question its veracity) of how toilets came into being on trains.

If you’re a regular user of social media, you would have surely come across an oft-quoted, and somewhat hilarious (because of the language used), letter written by a train passenger, Okhil Chandra Sen, to the divisional superintendent of Sahibganj in 1909 and which is widely said to have led to the introduction of toilets on trains. Besides history, the book also touches upon many contemporary issues facing the network. One of these is the oft-debated question of public versus private management of infrastructure. There is also the question of infrastructure financing. The authors dwell upon the crucial issue of revenues, and whether the railways actually make money.

This is particularly significant at a time when the Indian Railways is said to be heavily cash-strapped and has reported losses to the tune of `300 billion in the passenger segment. The railways is also said to be consistently losing market share to other modes of transport, both in freight and passengers. Books on the railways in India are not something new, but most of them are academic in nature. They tend to be boring, appealing to only some researchers at the most. On the other hand, you have coffee-table books—oversized, usually hardback, books whose sole purpose is to be displayed on a table or offer casual reading. This book will probably fall in between the two categories and, in that, it’s a winner.

Kunal Doley is a freelancer

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