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The Indian Railway System – Transporting over 8 billion people each year

There are railway systems and then there is the Indian railway system. In terms of track length, it only comes in 4th behind the USA, China and Russia, but the numbers that travel on the 65,000 km (40,000 miles) worth of route track is staggering. Every year more people travel on the Indian railway system than the total number on earth – almost 1 billion more to be exact. 

In March 2019, at the end of the fiscal year, the Indian Railway System had transported an astonishing 8.44 billion people over the previous 12 months, along with 1.23 billion tons of freight. Now, I know India is a big country, but every single day around 22 million people travel on the system at some point or another – which is slightly more than the entire population of Sri Lanka. 

As we’ll soon get to, these are not the only extraordinary numbers and statistics surrounding the Indian Railway. It is quite simply a mammoth operation quite unlike anywhere on earth.

British Rule

The British first arrived in India in 1608, landing at the port of Surat on the west coast. The British East India Company came to the subcontinent initially as traders, eager for a slice of the market in spices, silk, cotton, indigo dye, tea and opium. Their first factory in India was erected in 1613 and things grew from there. 

It would take me many videos to fully explain what came next, but suffice to say that these traders morphed into rulers over the next 150 years. The power of the British East India Company grew dramatically until it dominated vast swaths of the country, but the rebellion of 1857, a failed uprising against the colonial rule by the various provincial kingdoms, led to the disbandment of the company. Instead, the British placed India under direct rule, where it remained until 1947. 

The British certainly left their mark on India but perhaps none more so than with the early construction of the country’s railway system. The first line to open was between Sengundram (also called Red Hills) and Chintadripet Bridge, both close to Chennai, and opened in 1837. This was a small line that used a rotary steam locomotive to transport granite stones for road-building work in Madras. 

The first passenger service opened on 16th April 1853 and ran between Bori Bunder in Mumbai and Thane to the south, a total distance of 34 kilometres (21 mi). A year later, when the line was extended, India’s first railway bridges, the Thane viaducts, were built over the Thane Creek. 

Things gradually expanded from there. The first line in Eastern India opened on 15th August 1854 between Howrah, near Kolkata and Hoogly. In the 1870s, horse-drawn trams began appearing in India, first in Calcutta before spreading to other major population areas. But these were predominantly areas that the British had an interest in and it would be a long time until more remote areas got anywhere near a railway. Another notable date was 3rd February 1925, when the first electric passenger train in India ran between Victoria Terminus and Kurla (both in Mumbai).


Britain was a shattered nation after the end of World War II and was in absolutely no position to retain any resemblance of an Empire. 87,000 Indian men died fighting for the commonwealth during the war, a number that pales in comparison to European nations, but considering they were fighting for their colonial rulers there was little surprise when calls for Independence reached a crescendo after the war ended.   

This happened in 1947 but with one last poisonous sting in the tale. The partition of the nation into modern-day India and Pakistan no doubt came with decent enough intentions. Dividing the country roughly (and I mean very roughly) along religious lines led to one of the largest human migrations we’ve ever seen, with Muslims heading to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs travelling to India – it also led to horrific sectarian violence which claimed the lives of between 1 and 2 million people.

As the smoke cleared, a new nation, Pakistan appeared, while India regained its full independence for the first time in hundreds of years. In 1951, the Indian Railway System was divided into 18 regions and fans and lights were required on all trains and in classes, a major upgrade to the borderline cattle carts that had serviced the 3rd classes up to that point. 

The 20 Day Strike

On 8th May 1974, the largest recorded industrial action ever began, as 1.7 million railway employees commenced a strike that lasted 20 days and came with the quite wonderful slogan, ‘better jail than rail’. 

An improvement of working conditions and in particular an 8-hour working day was at the core of the strike. Under British rule, those working on the trains had been classified as continuous staff, which invariably meant days on end on the trains. Now that the nation had thrown off the colonial choke, many had assumed better conditions were just around the corner – but nothing changed. The workers felt betrayed and it’s difficult to argue with that point. Three years before, during the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, many railways employees had worked 24 hours a day for five days to ensure that the country’s military remained well-supplied at the Eastern and Western fronts. Many felt like they had done their part for the nation and had got little in return.  

I’d love to tell you that this strike led to the glorious emancipation of the Indian Railway employees, but it was more like the exact opposite. The strike was brutally suppressed by the Indian government with thousands ending up in jail and many more losing their jobs. India had been shown just how debilitating the loss of its railway system could be to the economy and it would do almost anything to keep it running smoothly.  

Into the Modern Era 

The first-ever computerised booking was taken in New Delhi in 1986 and fully air-conditioned coaches appeared in 1993. The system went entirely online in 2000 and in 2017, The Ministry of Railways announced that the entire system would be electrified by 2022 or 2023, and become a net-zero railway by 2030. 

It’s not immediately clear whether India will reach its electrification target, but it’s well on its way with just over 58% of the routes currently electrified, with much of the rest still running on diesel. But this is an area that the government seems determined and has ploughed $4.9 billion into the electrification project, which they hope will save $1.5 billion a year after completion. Full electrification of the entire service will require roughly 30 billion units of electricity each year – that’s 30 terawatt-hours, around 10% of the entire energy consumption across the UK.

The World’s Biggest Lockdown

On 22nd March 2020, the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown to tackle the emerging threat of Covid-19. Just like that, the most used transportation system in the world simply ground to a halt. In the space of a matter of days, the country went from nearly 12,000 passenger trains running every day to practically none. It was the first time in its history that the railway system had experienced such a shutdown, which eventually lasted 48 days.  

Freight trains continued to travel, but at a reduced rate, while the idling passenger trains were used as temporary isolation wards for covid patients. Roughly 20,000 coaches were used in this way, creating nearly 80,000 available beds. And when you think about it, trains are the ideal alternative as they can be easily mobilised and sent to rural locations with limited healthcare facilities.  

But as you would have it, this was not the first time that the Indian Railway system had ventured into the field of rail hospitals. The Lifeline Express, launched in 1991, continues to provide on-the-spot diagnostic, medical and advanced surgical treatment for adults and children in rural locations and has now treated well over 1 million people. 

The System Today

As I mentioned right at the start of the video, India has the fourth-longest amount of railway track in the world. Roughly 67,000 km (42,000 miles) is classed as ‘route’ track, but the total amount of usable track is nearly twice as much with 123,542 km (76,000 miles) – enough to circle the equator three times. The system includes 7,126 stations scattered over the length and breadth of this massive country. The Indian Railways System is currently the 8th largest employer in the world, with 1.4 million people on their payroll.

There are just too many wonderfully wacky facts to tell you regarding the Indian Railway System, but he’s just a few. Srirampur and Belapur are two separate stations in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra that both lie on the same line. Nothing strange there I hear you say, well, how about that both of these stations are located at exactly the same place but are on opposite sides of the track. Which station you emerge into depends on which side of the train you disembark.  

The Vivek Express is the longest continuous journey in India, travelling from Assam in the far north-east to Kanyakumari in the south, a trip of 4,286 km (2,663 miles), which takes 82 hours – I dread to think how long the non-express train takes. But spare a thought for those travelling on the Mettupalayam Ooty Nilgiri passenger train, which is the slowest train in India. Travelling at an excruciatingly slow 10 km/h (6.2 mph) – which is 16 times slower than the fastest train in India – the train takes 5 hours to travel just 46 km (28.5 miles). It’s probably only fair to point out that this is because of the hilly area it travels through and not down to a lack of enthusiasm from the drivers.   

The Chenab Bridge, which is still under construction in the Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir, is set to open shortly and will become the highest railway bridge in the world. Spanning 1.3km (0.8 miles) across the Chenab River, the bridge towers 359 metres (1,177 ft) above the water below, a height that is 35 metres (114 ft) higher than the Eiffel Tower. And while we’re on the subject of world records, how about Gorakhpur Railway Station in Uttar Pradesh, where the longest platform in the world is situated at a whopping 1.3 km (0.8 miles) in length. No doubt this brings a whole new difficulty to the phrase, ‘I’ll meet you on the platform’. 

But unfortunately, there is also quite a darkness to all this. Every year between 15,000 and 25,000 people die on the Indian railway system, with as many as 6,000 of those coming in the greater Mumbai area alone. The majority of these are from people either falling from or being hit by trains travelling through heavily populated areas. The number of train accidents has fallen dramatically in recent years and in 2019 there were no official deaths because of accidents (that doesn’t take into account people being hit or falling). Unquestionably they are becoming much safer, but when you trawl through the list of accidents that occurred in the 20th Century it paints a quite horrific picture.   

The Future

India is well on its way to modernising its ageing, creaking railway system. The problem is not simply down to cleaner travel, but also the need for more of it with faster trains. With the country expected to add roughly 270 million people to its population by 2050, the already crowded system faces enormous challenges.  

The most eye-catching of these improvements will be the new high-speed rail links that will use the famed Shinkansen trains from Japan. The first line set to open in 2022 will be the 508 km (315 miles) link between Mumbai and the western city of Ahmedabad, which will have a top speed of 320 km/h (200 mph). It’s not coming cheap, with each kilometre costing roughly $14 million, which is around 10-14 times more expensive than standard railway construction in India.  

But that’s just the start. There are a further seven proposed high-speed lines, with one that has already been approved and is now in the planning stage. Broadly speaking, the goal is to link the major cities in the north with one grouping and another linking the cities in the west and south.

And if that wasn’t futuristic enough. Ever heard of the Hyperloop? If not, we did a video all about it here on Megaprojects many moons ago. Essentially it is the future of overland travel through pressurized tubes capable of reaching speeds of well over 1,000 km/h (621 mph), sounds far fetched I know, but Hyperloop One, an American transportation company now at the cutting edge of this new technology, believes that they can have their proposed Mumbai to Pune Hyperloop ready by 2026.

Considering there isn’t a single fully operational Hyperloop yet and the technology hasn’t even been tested on humans, that might be a bit ambitious. But we like plenty of ambition on Megaprojects. There are two more proposed Hyperloops, one from Vijayawada to Amaravathi and the other from Bengaluru to Chennai. Both of which sound less certain than the already dubious Mumbai to Pune link, but India is certainly thinking ahead.    

The Indian Railway System

Anybody who has visited India and travelled on the rail system can attest to what an all-encompassing experience it really is. To be involved in the boarding of a train leaving from a major station is like revisiting the wildebeest scene in the Lion King. It is a chaotic experience, but also one of those wonderful travel stories you just can’t wait to tell people about back home.

The Indian Railway System is easily one of the most complex and certainly most used transportation systems anywhere in the world. The sheer number of people using it is difficult to fathom. A single country that moves a billion more people each year than every man, woman and child on planet earth.

Welcome to Indian Railway Passenger Reservation Enquiry

Indian Railways – Wikipedia

A History of Indian Railways – National Rail Museum — Google Arts & Culture

Timeline: 165 years of history on Indian Railways (railway-technology.com)

The complete story of Indian Railways (dnaindia.com)

20 Incredible Facts About Indian Railways That You Probably Did Not Know – The Better India

Fascinating Facts About The Indian Railway System (theculturetrip.com)

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