The history of rail transport in India began in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1849, there was not a single kilometer of railway line in India. By 1929, there were 66,000 km (41,000 mi) of railway lines serving most of the districts in the country. At that point of time, the railways represented a capital value of some British
Sterling Pounds 687 million, and carried over 620 million passengers and approximately 90 million tons of goods a year. The railways in India were a group of privately owned companies. The military engineers of the East India Company, later of the British Indian Army, contributed to the birth and growth of the railways
which gradually became the responsibility of civilian technocrats and engineers. However, construction and operation of rail transportation in the North West Frontier Province and in foreign nations during war or for military purposes was the responsibility of the military engineers.
In 1845, along with Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Hon. Jaganath Shunkerseth(known as Nana Shankarsheth ) formed the Indian Railway Association. Eventually, the association was incorporated into the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, and Jeejeebhoy and Shankarsheth became the only two Indians among the ten directors of the GIP railways. As a director, Shankar sheth participated in the very first train journey in India between Bombay and Thane, which took approximately 45 minutes.
A British engineer, Robert Maitland Brereton, was responsible for the expansion of the railways from 1857 onwards. The Calcutta-Allahabad-Delhi line was completed by 1864. The Allahabad-Jabalpur branch line of the East Indian Railway opened in June 1867. Brereton was responsible for linking this with the
Great Indian Peninsula Railway, resulting in a combined network of 6,400 km (4,000 mi). Hence it became possible to travel directly from Bombay to Calcutta via Allahabad. This route was officially opened on 7 March 1870 and it was part of the inspiration for French writer Jules Verne's book Around the World in Eighty Days. At the opening ceremony, the Viceroy Lord Mayo concluded that “it was thought desirable that, if possible, at the earliest possible moment, the whole country should be covered with a network of lines in a uniform system”.
By 1875, about £95 million were invested by British companies in Indian guaranteed railways.
By 1880 the network route was about 14,500 km (9,000 mi), mostly radiating inward from the three major port cities of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. By 1895, India had started building its own locomotives and in 1896 sent engineers and locomotives to help build the Uganda Railways.
In 1900, the GIPR became a government owned company. The network spread to the modern day states of Assam, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh and soon various independent kingdoms began to have their own rail systems. In 1901, an early Railway Board was constituted, but the powers were formally invested under Lord Curzon. It served under the Department of Commerce and Industry and had a government railway official serving as chairman, and a railway manager from England and an agent of one of the company railways as the other two members. For the first time in its history, the Railways began to make a profit.
In 1907, almost all the rail companies were taken over by the government. The following year, the first electric locomotive made its appearance. With the arrival of World War I, the railways were used to meet the needs of the British outside India. With the end of the war, the railways were in a state of disrepair and collapse.
In 1920, with the network having expanded to 61,220 km, a need for central management was mooted by Sir William Acworth. Based on the East India Railway Committee chaired by Acworth, the government took over the management of the Railways and detached the finances of the Railways from other governmental revenues.
The period between 1920 and 1929 was a period of economic boom. Following the Great Depression, the company suffered economically for the next eight years. The Second World War severely crippled the railways. Trains were diverted to the Middle East, railway workshops were converted to ammunitions workshops and some tracks (such as Churchgate to Colaba in Bombay) were dismantled for use in war in other countries. By 1946 all rail systems had been taken over by the government.