Indian Railways: Battle of the Gauges

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    The distance between the two inner faces of the railway track is called ‘gauge’, and for a century after the railway came to India, there was a raging debate over what that distance should be. Often, the politics of the day, hardcore economics and, sometimes, even the personal whims of Rajas and Maharajas, played out within that narrow margin, which ranged from 5 feet, 6 inches, to just 2 feet.

    The only constant during this century-long debate was the constant switching between tracks, figuratively and quite literally, till a uniform gauge was adopted – the broad gauge. This great debate began with Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General of India from 1848 to 1856. He was one of the strongest advocates of a railway system in India, one of the many reforms he introduced to consolidate British rule in the subcontinent.

    It was Dalhousie who convinced the authorities in Britain that India was ready for the railway and was at the helm in India when the first train chugged out of Bori Bunder station in Bombay in 1853. Dalhousie was determined to build an efficient rail network, and one that would use a uniform gauge. He hoped the subcontinent’s new railway would benefit from the lessons learnt from the use of different gauge systems in Britain.

    Dalhousie recorded the need for uniformity and consistency of gauge in his famous Railway Minute dated July 4, 1850. His primary concern was trade and commerce. Having different gauge systems in the same country would hamper interconnectivity, and this, in turn, would greatly compromise the movement of goods. The East India Company (EIC), you see, was a trading company and commerce and profits were top priority.

    One of the primary players in the business of railway development in India was the East Indian Railway Company (EIR), a private, London-based company, which later had its India headquarters in Calcutta. In 1847, the EIR’s directors sent a team out to India, to study the feasibility of setting up a railway network there. The directors of the East India Company too had sent their own consulting engineer to conduct his own investigation.

    It was believed that a wide gauge would be sturdier and could withstand the testing conditions of India’s tropical climate, which was blessed with a heavy monsoon, storms and extreme heat. When combined with a diverse, rugged and often unforgiving terrain, the challenges would only multiply.

    Dalhousie felt that a 6-foot gauge would be ideal for the subcontinent and couldn’t stress enough the need to have one single, uniform gauge system throughout the country. Even so, the EIC directors leaned towards the British standard gauge of 4’ 8.5”. Thoroughly dissatisfied, Dalhousie counter-proposed a 5’ 6” gauge, and the EIR directors agreed.

    This gauge, born of a compromise, would be referenced as ‘broad gauge’, and it remained the norm for all networks in this initial phase of railway development in India. This included the launch of the railway in India by the Great Indian Peninsula Railway (GIPR), which rolled out the first ‘fire-eating monster’, or a steam locomotive, on that epoch-making day in Bombay, on 16th April 1853.

    But successive Governors-General, Lord Canning (1858-62) and Lord Elgin (1862-63), wanted to build auxiliary transport networks in India, which included narrow gauge tram and light railways. These would cost less than broad gauge and meant that the rail network could also expand quickly.

    This enthusiasm – and urgency – stemmed not from a focus on passenger comfort or convenience (even though profits were derived from ticketed travel and haulage fees) but on maximising profits that would arise from the swift and efficient movement of goods, agricultural produce and mineral resources across long distances.

    A Piece of the Railway Pie

    The arrival of the railways in India had everyone agog and it wasn’t long before everyone – everyone – wanted a piece of this exciting pie. While the Calcutta-based EIR and Bombay-based GIPR remained key entities in this scenario, there were many other railway companies that sprung up. These were owned either by the colonial government, private entities or the Princely States, each one keen on viable solutions for cheap, yet durable, rail expansion to augment their respective systems. So the issue of gauge kept cropping up, the low-cost benefit of narrow gauge usually winning every argument.

    Sections of the Gaekwar of Baroda's State Railway were completed on a smaller 2' 6" gauge in 1863, and the EIR also experimented with a 4-foot gauge for smaller sections, but eventually, it stuck to broad gauge.

    Governor-General Sir John Lawrence (1864-69) was a prominent votary of the narrow gauge system, chiefly for its economic merits. In 1869, Lord Mayo was appointed Governor-General of India and in his Railway Minute dated 30th December 1870, he ardently championed a smaller gauge system, set at 3’3” – about one metre, or the ‘metre gauge’.

    Mayo was also an advocate of the metric system in general, and campaigned for its use not only in Indian railway gauges but also as the country’s universal standard unit for weights and measures. However, in 1870, the Secretary of State for India, the Duke of Argyle, had lobbied for an even smaller, 2’ 9” gauge, so it would appear that the metre gauge came about as fair compromise between his preferred gauge and the more universal broad gauge. By early 1871, the metre gauge was firmly embraced in India.

    Throughout his tenure, Mayo stayed a diehard fan of the metre gauge and advocated it exclusively for all new routes across subcontinental India. He was also hell bent on ripping up miles and miles of broad gauge tracks and replacing them with metre gauge. It also appeared inevitable that he might overhaul the entire system of weights and measures in favour of the Continental metric system. However, despite his crusade, the metric system was passed over for the time being, save for its application in the railways.

    Lord Mayo was assassinated in the Andaman Islands in 1872, by an inmate of the then penal colony maintained by the British. However, his death did not hinder the enthusiasm for the metre gauge, which swiftly spread across an expanding rail network. In fact, as an unintended ode to him, Mayo’s beloved metre gauge looked poised to eclipse broad gauge in total track mileage.

    It was pure economics that had decided the debate in favour of metre gauge: between the 1870s and 1880s, the total cost per new track was around £17,000 per mile for broad gauge versus £10,000 for metre gauge.

    But, as the railway network grew, the inconsistency in gauge began to pose a problem. Every time rolling stock – locomotives, carriages and wagons – had to be ordered or manufactured, the gauge became a matter of debate. It was the same every time a new railway line was proposed to be built.

    By 1889, this is what the mileage of each gauge looked like – broad gauge 8,000 miles and metre gauge 5,000 miles. In addition, there were around 250 miles of narrow gauge lines. These were smaller, less-important and less-trafficked subsidiary lines leading to the main railway systems. These light-rail systems fed into the main trunk networks (either broad or metre gauge) as demonstrated by the numerous regional, tributary lines of the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway (now the Western Railway), all built on a narrow gauge of 2’ 6”.

    Princely ‘Toys’

    At the end of the 19th century, the princely states were a driving force behind railway expansion, with their separate state-financed entities. These often incorporated narrower gauges, as with the Gaekwar’s Baroda State Railway (GBSR), first built as an inter-state artery on a narrow gauge of 2’ 6”, which was later expanded by the farsighted Maharaja Sayyajirao Gaekwad III.

    In Gwalior, Maharaja Madho Rao Scindia launched the Gwalior Light Railway in the 1890s, which initially operated as a private system within his palace complex. It was a diminutive 2’ 00” (2-foot) gauge and was classified as a ‘toy gauge’. Other ‘toy’ lines were placed on select gradient routes as the lighter rails were more conductive to the steep curvatures in mountainous regions.

    Some ‘toy lines’ have survived to this day and are now mainly tourist attractions, with some even getting UNESCO World Heritage status. For instance, the Darjeeling-Himalayan Railway and the Matheran Light Railway, each bear a 2-foot gauge, along with the Shimla-Kalka Railway and Kangra Valley Railway, each built on 2’ 6” gauge lines. After factoring in these smaller gauges, India had the distinction of claiming four major gauges with a smattering of others thrown in!

    The Nizam’s Guaranteed State Railway, which operated from 1879 to 1930, boasted one of the largest and most extensive networks of tracks. It comprised 467 miles on the broad gauge and 391 miles on the metre gauge. In stark contrast, in the much smaller princely state of Mohurbanj which required a mere 28-mile system, narrow gauge was practical and sufficient.

    But the Raja of Morvi in Gujarat didn’t have much luck. He laid down his state’s railway with a light rail line of 2’ 6” across 70 miles, from Rajkot to Wadhwan, while simultaneously placing a special order for locomotives and rolling stock.

    Despite government engineers giving the line the go-ahead, soon after the Morvi line opened for traffic in March 1886, defects began to appear, with rails bent and twisted in places. Often, the line’s curvature had to be re-laid with heavier rail, and there was even a question about whether an entire change of gauge was needed.

    Such a proposed conversion was deemed impossible “except at a ruinous sacrifice.” Furthermore, this rail line was deemed “an instructive example of the disastrous results following the adoption of crude suggestions without due consideration and competent professional advice”.

    For the more wealthy princely states, it was easy to circumvent disruptions encountered with breaks in gauge. For instance, the Maharajas of Mysore and Kolhapur had special saloons whose bodies could be lifted off the bogie by a crane and then refitted onto either a narrower or a wider bogie. Whereas when the Maharaja of Alwar in Rajasthan placed an order with the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway (now the Western Railway) workshop for a private saloon railcar, he simply bought two carriages – one broad gauge and the other metre gauge!

    Outside the princely realm, breaks in gauges were a huge problem, and involved considerable rerouting of passenger as well as goods trains. These interruptions resulted in the sluggish movement of essential agricultural goods and mineral supplies, chiefly coal, which was a crucial commodity.

    Uniformity, at Last

    Both the state lines of the Indus Valley State Railway and the Punjab Northern Railway embraced the metre gauge after 1869. Later, in 1885, with tensions escalating between Russia and Britain, the perceived threat of a Russian incursion on the Afghan border compelled the railways in India to convert select frontier routes into a uniform broad gauge, to allow for swift and seamless movement of troops to border areas. Thus, the government undertook this project “at an enormous cost of unprofitable nature.”

    Even so, down the road, the North Western State Railway (which absorbed most of the Punjab Northern Railway and Indus Valley State Railway) still considered a scheme that involved more than one gauge, when in 1902 three separate gauges were proposed for construction within one province, including: an extension of the proposed Amritsar -Tarn Taran Railway on the 5' 6" gauge; Tarn Taran to Put’ti Kasur on the 3' 6” gauge; and an extension of the proposed Jullundur-Hoshiarpore-Kapurthala Railway from Kapurthala to Sultanpur, on the 2’ 6" gauge.

    Around the same time, the growing need for uniformity among the various railway lines was acknowledged and the Indian Railway Conference Association (IRCA) was set up in 1902, to regulate uniformity among the independently owned railways in the subcontinent. But nothing moved for over three decades, until finally in 1930, the Central Standards Office prepared a proposal to enforce uniform designs, standards and specifications.

    In 1947, at the dawn of Indian Independence, the battle of the gauges was a priority concern because all privately owned and operated railway systems were poised to merge into a single, unified system. The battle on the ground was one of broad gauge versus metric gauge. And, in the early 1950s, this is how track mileage stacked up: Broad gauge: 26,000 miles; Metre gauge 18,000 miles; and Narrow/Toy gauge: 4,000 miles.

    Finally, in 1971, the Indian Railways launched Project Uni-Gauge. It decreed that all new lines built across the country’s ever-growing network would be constructed exclusively in broad gauge – which was adopted as the standard. It is dubbed ‘Indian Gauge’ and is used exclusively within India and remains the widest -scale railway gauge anywhere in the world. Not only that, all metre-gauge tracks would be converted to broad gauge.

    While it seemed as if a unified gauge system would finally take shape, progress was excruciatingly slow and expensive. So, halfway through the 1970s, it was decided that it was more feasible to upgrade and improve various metre gauge lines instead of full-fledged, broad-gauge conversion.

    Finally, in the early 1990s, the conversion debate was revisited and the transformation from metre gauge to broad gauge began. It was slow at first but there was a big push from 1992 to 2004. Some metric lines were simply dismantled as were most of the narrow gauges (2’ 6”), except for the handful of heritage lines. It was as recently as last year that a final push was made to switch any remaining metre-gauge tracks to broad gauge. But a fraction of them still await conversion.

    Incidentally, the Gwalior Light Railway remained the longest, fully operational 2-foot gauge railway in the world, until its closure in 2020. In Gujarat, various remnants of narrow-gauge lines that once formed part of the Gaekwar's Baroda State Railway are currently undergoing standardisation.

    It is ironic that while the metric system was officially adopted by India in 1956, the metre gauge itself has been all but phased out. So you could say that although the broad gauge won the battle of the gauges, the metric system finally reigns supreme!


    Cynthia Meera Frederick writes and lectures on a variety of subjects pertaining to Indian history. At present, she is focused on the country’s storied railways and wishes to acknowledge the contributors to the Indian Railway Fan Club (IRFCA) for their data. As she was raised in America with the imperial system of weights, she still struggles with metric usage.
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