Tag: railway

Book review: Railways and The Raj by Christian Wolmar

railways_and_the_rajTwo interests combine with this book, Railways and The Raj by Christian Wolmar. I picked it up after a recommendation in Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera, which is about the British Empire from an Indian perspective but I’m also interested in railways. I have reviewed Wolmar’s Fire & Steam and The Subterranean Railway in the past. The Indian railway system has been sold as a benefit of colonialism, so I was interested to find out more.

Although the first railways in India were built as early as 1836, not long after those elsewhere, and for similar purposes: for shifting heavy loads short-distances at mines or similar, it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that railway building in earnest started. This followed two reports written by the Governor-General of India, Lord Dalhousie, in 1850 and 1853. In contrast to the chaotic growth of railways in Britain and elsewhere, Dalhousie’s plans, formulated a little after the first rush of railway building, presented a rational and coherent plan for the development of Indian railways.

The start to railway building was slow, with opposition from the East India Company in the first instance, furthermore physical conditions in India were challenging particularly the monsoon season which played havoc with railway bridges over rivers, and whose embankments disturbed the irrigation and drainage in surrounding areas. There were also serious mountain ranges to address.

The Indian railways were built very much for the benefit of the British, most of the rail companies were run from Britain, the levels of return on investment (made from Britain) were guaranteed by the Indian tax payer, most of the equipment (including rails and often sleepers) was sourced from Britain and the economic benefits of the freight transported by the railways were largely in Britain. Not only this, under the Raj, the senior positions in managing and running the railways were held by British people or Eurasians, and this extended to the train staff with drivers predominately British or Eurasian. The British travelling on the railways did so in luxurious first and second class carriages whereas the great majority of Indians travelled in a fairly grim third class.

Class, religious and gender differences were built into the fabric of the railway with various facilities provided separately for Muslim and Hindu passengers, and various castes. I struggle to decide how much this was a deliberate "divide and rule" policy of the British (which was later to have terrible consequences during Partition) or whether it was the right thing to do to respect local sensibilities (although it is fair to say "respecting local sensibilities" was not greatly in evidence during Britain’s colonial period).

There was some development of railways for famine relief – a recurring issue in Indian where millions died through famine in parts of the country. Beyond about 50 miles oxen, the main alternative for transporting food, consume more food than they can carry. The Victorian view was that the railway would carry food to be sold at the market rate from areas of surplus to those suffering famine, which did not greatly help the many poor unable to afford food.

There were lines built for military purposes, particularly in the north west in the direction of Afghanistan from where it was feared a Russian threat would come. More generally, as the railways developed the Indian Rebellion of 1857 was still fresh in the mind of the British and it was felt the railway could help move troops around to quell future rebellions – many early stations were built like fortresses. The railways were important during the two world wars but suffered in these periods from overuse and under-investment.

In a book with a number of shocks for white British sensibilities, I think I found the part on Partition most shocking most probably because it is not something I had thought about before: I knew India had gained independence after the Second World War and that Pakistan, and Bangladesh were part. I had not absorbed that it meant the displacement of between 10 and 20 million people, and the deaths of up to 2 million. 20 million people is a third the population of the United Kingdom and 2 million people is the population of Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham combined.

After Independence and Partition, the successful running of the railways was seen as an important symbol of the success of Independence. Despite the rather hasty British exit, and the lack of home-grown talent and supply chains the post-Independence Indian Railway was quickly much improved.

One recurring theme of the book is the enormous scale of Indian Railways, it employs currently 1.3 million people – globally ranking alongside various Chinese state bodies, McDonald’s, Walmart and the NHS. In the early days the Indian Railways set up company towns in part to service white British employees but also for Indian employees because the railway works were often in otherwise isolated areas. Even now Indian Railways owns huge amounts of property in which its employees live, and also hospitals and schools. It remains central to transport in Indian where the capacity of the airline routes is limited, and the road network is relatively under-developed.

I enjoyed this book as a story of the development of the railway in India, but also as a sketch of Indian history from the middle of the 19th century. To answer my original question, the railway did benefit India ultimately, after Independence, but under colonial rule it was largely a benefit to Britain.

Book review: The Subterranean Railway by Christian Wolmar

large-the-subterranean-railwayTo me the London underground is an almost magically teleportation system which brings order to the chaos of London. This is because I rarely visit London and know it only via Harry Beck’s circuit diagram map of the underground. To find out more about the teleporter, I have read The Subterranean Railway by Christian Wolmar.

London’s underground system was the first in the world, it predated any others by nearly 40 years. This had some drawbacks, for the first 30 years of its existence it ran exclusively using steam engines which are not good in an enclosed, underground environment. In fact travel in the early years of the Underground sounds really rather grim, despite its success.

The context for the foundation of the Underground was the burgeoning British rail network, it had started with one line between Manchester and Liverpool in 1830 by 1850 the country had a system spanning the country. The network did not penetrate to the heart of London, it had been stopped by a combination of landowner interests and expense. This exclusion was enshrined in the report of the 1846 Royal Commission on Metropolis Railway Termini. This left London with an ever-growing transport problem, now increased by the railway’s ability to get people to the perimeter of the city but no further.

The railways were the largest human endeavours since Roman times, as well as the engineering challenges there were significant financial challenges in raising capital and political challenges in getting approval. This despite the fact the the railway projectors were exempted from the restrictions on raising capital from groups of more than five people introduced after the South Seas Bubble.

The first underground line, the Metropolitan, opened in 1863 it ran from Paddington to Farringdon – it had been 20 years in the making, although construction only took 3 years. The tunnels were made by the cut-and-cover method, which works as described – a large trench is dug, the railway built in the bottom and then covered over. This meant the tunnels were relatively shallow, mainly followed the line of existing roads and involved immense disruption on the surface.

In 1868 the first section of the District line opened, this was always to be the Metropolitan’s poorer relative but would form part of the Circle line, finally completed in 1884 despite the animosity between James Staats Forbes and Edward Watkin – the heads of the respective companies at the time. It’s worth noting that it wasn’t until 1908 that the first London Underground maps were published; in its early days the underground “system” was the work of disparate private companies who were frequently at loggerheads and certainly not focussed on cooperating to the benefit of their passengers.

The underground railways rarely provided the returns their investors were looking for but they had an enormous social impact, for the first time poorer workers in the city could live out of town in relatively cheap areas and commute in, the railway companies positively encouraged this. The Metropolitan also invested in property in what are now the suburbs of London, areas such as Golders Green were open fields before the underground came. This also reflects the expansion of the underground into the surrounding country.

The first deep line, the City and South London was opened in 1890, it was also the first electric underground line. The deep lines were tunnelled beneath the city using the tunnelling shield developed by Marc Brunel, earlier in the 19th century. Following the first electrification the District and Metropolitan lines eventually electrified their lines, although it took some time (and a lot of money). The finance for the District line came via the American Charles Tyson Yerkes, who would generously be described as a colourful character, engaging in financial engineering which we likely imagine is a recent invention.

Following the First World War the underground was tending towards a private monopoly, government was looking to invest to make work and ultimately the underground was nationalised, at arms length, to form London Transport in 1933, led by the same men (Lord Ashfield and Frank Pick) who had run the private monopoly.

The London underground reached its zenith in the years leading up to the Second World War, gaining its identity (roundel, font and iconic map) and forming a coherent, widespread network. After the war it was starved of funds, declining – overtaken by the private car. Further lines were added such as the Victoria and Jubilee lines but activity was much reduced from the early years.

More recently it has seen something of a revival with the ill-fated Public-Private Partnership running into the ground, but not before huge amounts of money had been spent, substantially on improvements. As I write, the tunnelling machines are building Crossrail.

I felt the book could have done with a construction timeline, something like this on wikipedia (link), early on there seems to be a barrage of new line openings, sometimes not in strictly chronological order and to someone like me, unfamiliar with London it is all a bit puzzling. Despite this The Subterranean Railway is an enjoyable read.