Christian Wolmar makes it clear that the British built the Indian railway system for the benefit of Britain, to get British goods to the population and to better control the vast continent and its people rather than to benefit India and Indians. Whatever the initial intentions the railways became popular with the Indian population as they provided a convenient means of travelling. This book will please the student of railway history as it explores the economic and social impact of the Indian and Pakistani railways in the sub-continent.
The first half of the book deals with the growth of the various railway companies and details the financing and political aspects as they grew, merged and spanned the country. The author takes a dim view of the English investors who demanded guaranteed rates of return. These had to be made up by the Indian government if the companies could not make enough profit. This led to profligate spending by the companies as regardless of how much they spent the investors got their 5% return every year.
Wolmar’s descriptions of the early passenger services show the very clear class distinction from the very beginning all the way through to independence. Europeans and Eurasians enjoyed every luxury with private compartments, running water and soft beds. The other classes ranged from dog box compartments with wooden seats to third class where everyone stood and exits were locked to stop these passengers getting off the train. Much of the revenue was raised through third class passengers despite their fares being miniscule compared to first class.
Although we are told freight traffic was the backbone of the railways there is little description of what type of freight was carried or how it was moved. ‘Famine’ transport, which is exactly what it suggests, allowed food to be carried from areas of good seasons to the areas where a bad season led to famine. Of course, this was dependant on someone paying the bill to move vast quantities of relief.
Leading up to Indian independence, the railways were seen as vital to ensuring the new nation would prosper but first they had to endure ‘Partition’. The author goes into great detail about this period, a topic which could well be a book in its own right. The writing in this chapter is very much clearer and shows an enthusiasm not present in the rest of the book.
From this point on the subject matter becomes more statistical and ‘list-like’ as Wolmar describes the new growth in the system and the improvements made, particularly in the suburban systems of the major cities. Descriptions of rush hour trains in Mumbai provide insight into how utterly dependent India is on its railway system and perhaps also that railways have not moved on too far from the situation of third class passengers in the 1880s.
If you’re interested in Indian history or the impact of transportation on how a nation develops then this is a book you should read. It is not a light read and you really need to persevere through the first half of the book to get to the highlights and a more interesting read.
Reviewed by Robin Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 7
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: December 2017