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VOL. XXIV NO. 17, December 16-31, 2014
The Red Hills Railway
India's first railroad
Pages from History' by Dr. A. Raman Charles Sturt University Orange, New South Wales, Australia,

The Indian Railways history site says ‘railways were first introduced to India in the year 1853 from Bombay to Thane’. This site should read: the first passenger rail line was introduced in 1853. But gladly, and pleasantly surprisingly, the website ‘Transport in Chennai’ refers to the Red Hills Rail Road, about which I write here.

I read the details about the Red Hills Rail Road in a blog by Simon Darvill who emphatically indicates that Madras had the earliest rail road in India: the ‘Red Hills Rail Road’ (‘Red Hills Railway’), introduced in 1836. Darvill writes:

“Like many early railways it was built for the carriage of minerals, in this case granite for road building work in Madras. In all the references found to the line, there is no mention of the gauge of the line, but it can probably be concluded that given that railways themselves were in their infancy and the majority that had been built at that point were standard gauge (1435mm), the line was standard gauge. The line was always intended to be operated by animal power but... at least two but possibly three locomotives were used on the line on an experimental basis. Equally unknown is what was used as rolling stock, possibly road carts on rail wheels.”

This rail line did not transport humans, but minerals and rocks. The starting point was Chintadripet, which Darvill refers to quoting a news item in The Conservative, (May 6, 1836), which was requoted in the Asiatic Journal (November 1836). This effort, Darvill indicates, was an ‘experiment’ in Madras. To supplement this, he further quotes from the Madras Gazette (May 4, 1836):

“A small piece of railway has been laid down near the Chintadrapettah Bridge, which is worth the inspection of the good people of Madras who have not visited England since railways have been common. To show how little labour is required on a road of this description, a cart is placed upon the rails, loaded with stones, which is easily moved up a slightly inclined plane by one hand from where it returns by its own weight from the place it was first propelled.”

The line was built and opened by 1837. The Asiatic Journal (August 1837) reported:

“The temporary Red Hills Railroad has already been completed though for a time rendered useless in consequence of a portion of the embankment of the canal having given way where the railroad joins on it, requiring in consequence the former to be carried on somewhat further. The temporary railroad has cost the Government 50,000 rupees. It extends from the Red Hills to the canal, a distance of about three miles and a half, and is qualified only to bear a weight of about a ton and a half. To be made a permanent structure, that is by exchanging the wooden for iron-stone or laterite supports, it will cost 14 or 15 lakhs rupees more.”

Independent of Darvill’s annotations on the Red Hills Rail Road – the pioneering effort of railway in India – I found another notation in the Calcutta Monthly Journal & General Register of Occurrences (1837) identical to the above quoted remark.

S. Srinivasachari in his History of the City of Madras (1939) provides some additional details on this ignored information. The following has been paraphrased from Srinivasachari: On July 8, 1845, a Madras Railway Company was formed in London to construct a rail line from Madras to Arcot (technically Wallajahnagar, today referred to as Wallajahpet). This company succeeeded an older one of the same name established in 1749 but which never got down to business. It successfully ran its first train from Royapuram to Arcot on July 1, 1856. Major Thomas Pears had earlier surveyed the land and offered a proposal in 1851 for a trunk railway from Madras to Minnal, after which the course of the line was to be guided by the nature of the country. Pears suggested that the railway should be routed from Arcot and Vellore through Minnal and Sholinghur to Palmanair and then onwards via Bangalore to Bellary and Bombay, with a branch to Ambur and Vaniyambadi. It was decided that the line from Madras to Minnal was to be constructed as an experiment. The first sod was turned on June 9, 1853.

I wish that the Indian Railways immediately corrects the notation in its history page.

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In this issue

Are we waiting for their collapse?
Madras Landmarks - 50 years ago
Crowd-funding to support social causes?
Deja vu!
Sowing the seeds of freedom
Laurence Hope – A life of mystery
The Red Hills Railway
A 2500-year-old 'industrial estate'

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