‘I went to a restaurant the other day called Taste of the Raj. The waiter hit me with a stick and got me to build a complicated railway system.’ The comedian Harry Hill’s gag is an acerbic commentary on the British empire, but there can be no doubt that India’s modern history is intimately intertwined with its railways. They grew into a vast realm of their own within the sub-continent and embodied all the vagaries of imperial rule.
Who better to chronicle them than Christian Wolmar? He is a railway obsessive who has now produced his 11th book on rail and its history. This time round he has given himself one of the greatest train sets any boy ever had to play with.
The story he tells begins in the mid-19th century with a series of formidable engineering challenges. They came at a high human cost. Most notorious of all was the line through the Western Ghats, the mountains which run parallel to India’s west coast. Their traverse claimed 25,000 lives, the highest ever death toll for a railway project.
There were various motivations for building the network. Hauling off the spoils of colonialism came first. The ability to transport troops rapidly was important, especially following the Mutiny of 1857. Less obviously, famine relief was another driver, although, as Wolmar says, on occasion food was actually carried away from starving regions to be sold elsewhere, exacerbating the plight of locals.
Yet it is a mistake to be too cynical. As Wolmar writes, when the Victorians said they were building the railways as part of their mission to civilise India, they meant it. In practice, regrettably, rail benefitted the British considerably more than their subjects. Indians travelled mostly in third and fourth class, often in grotesquely overcrowded carriages where, as late as the second world war, toilets were frequently absent.