Kalka Shimla Toy train

History of Indian Railways: A British Legacy, Still Chugging Along!

The Dawn of Indian Railways

When the British came down to rule India, they found the existing travel and communications modes quite basic and difficult too. They decided to lay the foundations of what promised to be one of the world’s largest railway networks. For the British, it was essential to connect the ports and major cities, to make administration easier, and also make the hill stations more accessible for their summer vacations. So, they zeroed down on those routes or destinations and got them connected.

Commencement of the journey

A passenger train travelling from Bombay to Tannah, 1855.

“14 carriages, 400 passengers and a 21-mile long journey that commenced with a 21-gun salute and a deafening applause from the crowd”.

We are not referring to a new toy train launch here; this is how the story of Indian Railways began 163 years ago.


History of Indian Railway – Indian Railway Information

Date: 16 Apr

Departure Time: 3:35 pm

Route: Mumbai – Thane

Distance – 34 Kms

This historic journey from Bombay’s Bori Bunder to Tannah (Thane), including a stop at Byculla (to fill water in its engines) took about 57 minutes to complete and was hauled by three locomotives – Sultan, Sahib and Sindh. All the guests were invited and none of them bought a ticket.

The day was also declared as a public holiday !!

What was started by the British, essentially to connect the major cities, the ports, to make trade and administration easier, and to reach the hill stations for their summer vacations, has today metamorphosed into the country’s lifeline as well a massive public sector giant. Though essentially a British legacy, Indian Railways came into its own after Independence and today are the fourth largest network in the world. With over 1.376 million employees, it is also the world’s seventh-largest commercial employer.

From a time when the locomotive was once considered as a “fire-spitting demon”, to building the world’s highest railway bridge at Chenab this year, Indian Railways has surely come a long way. Like with everything new, this too faced its share of scepticism and trepidation from the common folks.


How Indian Railways redefined social customs and beliefs

The first-ever run of a train in India was met with a lot of awe and fear, among Indians, of what the British had brought in.

Apprehensions ranged from was it some heavenly power that ran the engine or a devil vomiting fire? Some considered it as the “Satan” while others renamed it “Aag gadi” (carriage of fire). Propitiatory offerings of flowers and coconuts were brought to worship and appease this unearthly power. There was also a fear among the locals that by travelling at such great speed, to reach the destination earlier would also result in shortening of life span in proportion!!

The British had decided on the railways to ease trade and accessibility for themselves but curiously, the age-old and stringent Indian caste system underwent a huge change. The British had divided the train into 4 classes, with Indians being able to access only the third and fourth class.

Initially, there were a lot of reservations among upper caste people about travelling with the so-called lower strata of people. But at the same time, they were also able to do things they had never even imagined before, going to distant places for religious reasons and commerce. As people from different religions and social backgrounds came into closer contact in the third and fourth class compartment, the initial resistance paved for camaraderie, helping to break down barriers of religion and caste.

Railways proved to be a blessing in disguise that unified the large yet disconnected country.

Travel on the British Raj Trains

The Railways were a way of life during the Raj Era and the British India Railway’s defining feature was the cult status accorded to certain “important” trains, the elite and high ranking officials of the British Raj travelled on. It was said that the facilities available on trains in India in those days were better than even those in England !!

These prestigious trains of yore had four classes: First, Second, Third and Fourth.

First Class

First Class was defined by its incredible luxurious interiors, whose Burma teak wood-panelled walls, brass fittings, carpeting, electric lights, fans, royal-sized berths, fresh linen, showers, washbasin, servant quarters and the works. Each carriage or “cabin”, as it is called today, was a separate room or suite with its own doors opening on either side of the carriage right onto the platform. Needless to say, only the most distinguished Europeans could travel by first class.

The Other Classes

The second class was almost as luxurious as the first but had only sitting arrangements with cushioned seats. Indians usually travelled in the third and fourth classes. While the Third class consisted of plain carriages with wooden benches and without lights, fans, toilets or even bars on the windows, the Fourth class carriages were basically just empty box carriages without benches and with windows and were generally crammed with people.

Dining Car

Many trains had restaurants or dining cars which could put to shame any fine dining restaurant of today. Not only could you snack on the best European and Indian delicacies, but most trains also had bars aboard and you could even get chilled beer or whiskey on call!  Delicacies like The Railway Mutton curry is a popular remnant of that era and is a perfect mélange of British tastes and Indian flavours.

Dining Car during the British Raj

A Foodie’s Trail on Indian Railways

This is a far cry from the days of the refreshment rooms at important stations and Restaurant Cars with their silver service on important trains, which usually served vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals -all part of a forgotten era of the Indian Railways. These were excellent facilities which the present generation of Indians never knew ever existed for the convenience of rail travellers. Part of the joy of a long train journey in the days of the Raj was walking along the platform to the restaurant car at stations designated in the time table for lunch or dinner. Here the hygiene, cuisine and service was of the highest standard, and managed by a Dining Car Manager, who actually dressed with bow tie and tuxedo for the night time meal.  Like in an expensive restaurant, he made a point of enquiring of every diner if all was to their liking and saying ‘Enjoy your meal.’

 It was services like this that made an added joy to rail travel in the days of the Raj and completely lost to the present day traveller who is subjected to dubious food quality served from questionable hygiene standards prevalent in the pantry cars where it is prepared. The father of pop idol Sir Cliff Richard was once the manager of a restaurant car on the East Indian Railway similar to one shown in this photograph.

Till the mid-1970s, all long-distance trains had dining cars complete with tables for four covered with a table cover and were laid out with cutlery and crockery. Waiters with turban and cummerbund served the railway delicacies of those times: fish and chips with tartare sauce, vegetable cutlets, mutton cutlets,  chicken sandwiches, mutton stew, chicken soup, tomato and mulligatawny soups, roast chicken along with boiled vegetables, chicken or mutton curry with rice.

10 Interesting Facts about Indian Railways

The journey which began 168 years ago in India continues with aplomb to date. 

Certain legacies of the British, for instance, cricket and railways have grown or perhaps prospered, the former with religious fervour and the latter with vigour. It has even found a place for itself in the Guinness Book of records.

Here are 20 interesting facts about Indian Railways.

  • A tale of two states and one station
1 bench, 2 states: This seat at Navapur Railway Station platform is divided by the Maharashtra-Gujarat border

The Navapur railway station lies on the border of 2 states: one half of it falls under Gujarat and the other half in Maharashtra.

  • A tale of two stations and one place

Belapur and Srirampur are two different stations located on opposite sides of the same track in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district.

Located in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, Belapur and Srirampur are two different stations located on opposite sides of the same track. There are two separate Indian railway stations in the same place but on the opposite side of the same track. 

  • What’s in a name?
Venkata Narasimha Raju Vari Peta – The Railway Station with the longest name


This is world's smallest station name - Goats On Road


The railway station with the longest name is Venkatanarasimharajuvaripeta (station code: VKZ), in Andhra. The name contains 28 letters of the English alphabet. 

The railway station with the shortest name is Ib, in Jharsugda, Odisha and Od, on the Western railway network near Anand in Gujarat.


  • Old is Gold

 Manufactured in 1855, the Fairy Queen, which used to run between New Delhi and Alwar was certified in 1998 by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest working steam locomotive in regular operation. This 160-year-old historical train also has the second oldest functioning steam engine in the world. 

  • High & Mighty
Chenab Railway bridge

The soon to be completed Chenab railway bridge, built at a height of 359 metres above the Chenab river, in J&K, is expected to be one of the tallest rail bridges in the world when completed. It is designed to be 5 times higher than the Qutab Minar and even taller than the Eiffel tower! 

This engineering marvel would be the bridge with the longest span on the Indian broad gauge railway network and would connect India from Kashmir to Kanyakumari!

  • Slow & steady
Mettupalayam Ooty Nilgiri Passenger train - Weird Stories in Hindi

     The Metupalayam Ooty Nilgiri passenger train  is the slowest train in India. It runs at a speed of 10 km/hr and travels a distance of just 46 km in 4 hours and 50 minutes!

  • Busy Bee


    Apart from being the oldest railway station, Howrah Junction, in Kolkata,  is also the busiest station in India, handling almost 974 arrivals/departures per day.

  • Long and Short of it!

Vivek Express, which operates between Dibrugarh and Kanyakumari, travels a distance of 4273 km, from Dibrugarh to Kanyakumari, thus making it the longest run in terms of total time and distance on Indian Railways. The shortest run is between Nagpur and Ajni stations, situated at a distance of just 3km from each other.


  • Better late than never!

The record for being the most unreliable long-distance train on the Indian railway network goes to the Guwahati Thiruvananthapuram Express. It gets delayed by 10 – 12 hours, on average. 


  • Pride of Place

4 Indian Railways sites have been declared “World Heritage sites” by UNESCO:

  • Mumbai CST Building (2004)
  • Kalka-Shimla Railways (2008) 
Kalka Shimla Toy train
Credit: https://www.timesnownews.com/


The Kalka Shimla heritage toy train chugs on a route that has the steepest incline.  The route runs through forests of pine, maple, deodar, oak and fichus, over more than 800 bridges and through more than 100 tunnels. 


  • Darjeeling, Himalayan Railway (1999)
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway https://www.outlookindia.com/

Also known as the DHR or the Toy Train, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway has been quite often showcased in popular Bollywood movies. The first of the initial three mountain railways in India, DHR is a 2 ft narrow gauge railway that runs between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling in the state of West Bengal. 

  • Nilgiri Mountain Railways (2005)
The toy train at the Nilgiri Mountain railwayhttps://www.outlookindia.com/


A schematic map of the Indian Railway network. Including all major cities and all-important junction stations.

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