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7 facts about India’s railways

| Words by Rachel McCombie |

Find out something you didn’t know about one of the world’s largest passenger rail networks.

1. India’s first passenger trains were introduced with a 21-gun salute

India’s first passenger railway ran between Bombay and Thane. It opened with fourteen carriages carrying around 400 people on 16 April 1853, and it sounds quite an occasion. According to the Ministry of Railways, it departed - towed by not one but three locomotives - “amidst the loud applause of a vast multitude and to the salute of 21 guns.” After this auspicious occasion, the network kept growing and now covers the entire country, with a total track length of 64,460km (40,050 miles), extending into neighbouring Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

2. ...but there were experimental lines before that

Though it wasn’t until 1853 that the first passengers took a journey by rail in India, there had been plans afoot for a railway since 1832. Experimental lines started cropping up, the first in 1836 near Chintadripet Bridge in Chennai (previously known as Madras). Private railway companies started building tracks, encouraged by the East India Company and the British Government. In 1851, India’s first operational train carried not passengers but canal construction material.

3. Indian Railways has an almost complete monopoly

The majority of India’s rail network is run by Indian Railways. This is the name under which, in 1951, the 42 separate rail systems that had grown up in India were nationalised following India’s independence in 1947. Indian Railways calls itself the “lifeline to the nation” and now claims to operate around 11,000 trains a day.

India’s railway network was official founded in 1853 and today employs over 1.3 million people

4. Indian Railways has a mascot called Bholu the Guard Elephant

Indian Railways’ mascot was introduced in 2002 to mark “150 Glorious Years” of railways in India, and the decision was made to keep him on as a permanent mascot. Bholu the Guard Elephant is depicted in a guard’s uniform, carrying a green signal lamp to symbolise being able to move forward safely on a journey. An official Indian Government release described Bholu as an “ethical, responsible, sincere and cheerful icon”.

5. There are still old signal systems in use

For those nostalgic for the railway’s early days, some of the more remote stretches of India’s rail network still use old-fashioned disc-based signal systems and semaphores. The majority elsewhere have been replaced with lights.

India has retained much of the mechanical railway signalling practices left behind by the one-time British administration

6. India is home to the world’s oldest steam train in regular service

Most of India’s steam locomotives had been phased out by 1985, but one in particular endures. The Fairy Queen was built in Leeds, UK, in 1855, and started work in Kolkata (Calcutta) later that year. After a varied career ranging from mail to troop transportation, it was retired in 1909 and spent the next few decades on a plinth outside Howrah station. It was moved to a railway school in 1943 and again in 1972 to a museum in New Delhi, having been awarded heritage status. In 1997 it was restored to full working condition and it now operates between Alwar and Delhi, holding the Guinness World Record for the oldest steam locomotive in regular service.

India’s comprehensive rail network remains an interesting and cost-effective way to see the country, with sleeper trains on longer journeys

7. The train is still a great way to see India

India’s comprehensive rail network remains an interesting and cost-effective way to see the country, with sleeper trains on longer journeys. Seat 61 is a great resource for information about travelling by train in India, providing useful information on everything from timetables and example fares to seat class and itineraries.