India's First Railways

by Simon Darvill, December 2011

Ask a seasoned member of IRFCA the question “What was India's first railway?” and they will nod and give you the answer, “Well, it wasn't the first GIPR train that ran from Bombay to Thane on 16th April 1853 as commonly believed but an obscure railway used by the Bengal Public Works Department on the building of the Solani Aqueduct over the Ganges Canal near the town now known as Rurki in Uttarakhand”. They may well add “The same railway at Rurki was the first time a locomotive was used in India, 21st December 1851“.

However, the use of rail transport in India can be traced back a decade and half before this with two known systems being used. In addition to this, the first use of a locomotive in India was also some 15 years earlier. Even more intriguingly, this locomotive was designed and constructed in India, meaning the Indian locomotive building industry can trace its roots back to the dawn of railways, not just in India but in the world.

The Red Hill Railroad

India's first railway isn't actually as obscure as you would think. R R Bhandari mentions it in his book 2005 book Indian Railways Glorious 150 Years. If you search on Google, you will come up with dozens of pages quoting Bhandari but for some reason, it seems never to be mentioned when people discuss India's first railway. The railway in question was known as the Red Hill Rail Road (or in some references Railroad or even Railway. It is hereafter referred to as the RHRR) and was built in Madras in 1836.

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 as will discussed later, 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.

The genesis of the line is best described by this piece from The Conservative newspaper dated 6th May 1836 (and quoted in the November 1836 Asiatic Journal):

We have reason to know that the state of the rail-way question, as far as the Government are concerned, is as follows:- The attention of the Government was attracted to the large and unproductive expenditure upon the public roads of this presidency, and the board of revenue were, in consequence, desired to report whether a more economical and efficient system could not be introduced, and whether it might not be advisable in some instances to substitute rail-roads for common roads. The board referred the subject to Capt Cotton, who after inspection of the localities, expressed confident opinion, that by laying rails to the Red Hills, and to the Stone Quarries at the Little Mount, a saving of nearly one half, or about 28,000 rupees out of annual expenditure of about 60,000 might be affected in the conveyance of materials alone for the presidency roads, besides yielding a revenue by the conveyance of private trade. He recommended, therefore, that immediate measures should be taken for surveying the lines and framing detailed estimates. His proposal was approved, and orders issued accordingly, and also for laying down the experimental rail-way at Chintadrapet, as an experiment.

On the subject of the final sentence, the Madras Gazette of 4th May 1836 adds:

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.

Incidentally Bhandari suggests that this experimental line was India's first railway. Technically he is correct but I think that it and the RHRR are actually one in the same thing. There are a number of possibilities. The two lines may have been separate entities but if this were the case, the material used to build the experimental railway was almost definitely destined for eventual use on the RHRR. The word experimental suggests that the line at Chintadrapet may have been a practice run for the building of the RHRR - it is entirely possible that the people building, the Madras Corps of Engineers, had little or no experience in railway building. Another possibility is that the Chintadrapet section was built first as a demonstration but was destined to later become part of the system.

It is thought that the rail for the line was manufactured in India. The Standard newspaper reported on 23rd August 1836:

We have heard that the furnaces of the Porto Novo[1] iron company were in full play, having an order from the Government for six hundred cast iron gun carriages; as well as another for a large quantity of road-rails. The Herald of Saturday confirms this account, as far as the rails are concerned, intimating that the Government has made the necessary advances, and that operations are to commence at the Red Hills carried in a direct line to Cochrane's canal[2].

The line was built and opened by 1837. The August 1837 edition of the Asiatic Journal 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.

I think that the last sentence is referring to the sleepers used on the line but it may be referring to culverts on the line. These teething troubles were sorted by January 1838 to some extent, as the only report of the line actually working can be found in 16th January 1838 edition of the Madras Herald. Rather interestingly, given the line was for the carriage of stone, the account is of a passenger train and a rather unusual one at that.

We had another most gratifying sail [sic] on the Red Hill Railway last Monday afternoon. There was a modest breeze from the N by E, and as the road runs very nearly at right angles, or E by S and W by N, the wind was favourable going and returning. The carriage is a small conveyance fitted up with springs; it is large enough to carry four or five persons, and is furnished with a small lug sail. The wheels are low, and in some places the road has suffered much by the last monsoon, yet in spite of these obstacles, the carriage travelled at least twelve miles an hour; and when the wind freshened, it was necessary to ease off the sheet to prevent the vehicle going at a greater velocity than would be agreeable, or, in the present state of the rails, safe.

Locomotives on the Red Hill Railroad

Even though the line was planned to be worked by animal haulage, it is known that at least two locomotive and possibly three were trialled on the line. The information about them comes from a paper published in the Reports, correspondence and original papers on various professional subjects connected with the duties of the Corps of Engineers Madras Presidency, Volume 1. The paper was written by Capt J T Smith and entitled Notes of experiments made by Captain A Cotton on Mr Avery's Steam Engine.

The engine was a rotary steam engine patented by William Avery of Syracuse, New York, USA. It was an updated aeolipile or Hero's engine, a form of steam engine that has been in existence since at least the 1st century BCE and is named after Hero of Alexandria who wrote the first description of the engine. A brief description of the principles of the aeolipile and Avery's work can be found here. A number of these rotary engines had made their way to the Madras Corps of Engineers and were being trialed in various forms - at the Porto Novo iron works, in the making of cement, in road carriages and for powering locomotives for the RHRR. The report describe this locomotives as follows:

Another small engine was in progress at the Red Hills. It was originally constructed as a locomotive to run on the rails of the railway between that point and Madras, but its power was found insufficient for that purpose. The boiler was of a capacity sufficient to evaporate a cubic foot or foot and a half of water per hour, being cylindrical, and of 8 inches internal diameter, a 6 foot length, and having a large fire box and grate; and it was expected from statements made in the Mechanics Magazine and other publications, referring to experiments made in America, that this would given an available force of from 3 to 5lbs at the end of the arms. This however was discovered to be an over-statement, the pressure at the end of the arms being in no case equal to 1lb; but the individual experiments themselves cannot be exhibited in a form capable of comparison with other results, owing to anomalies they contain; and to the difficulty in so small a boiler maintaining a uniform rate of evaporation, or indeed keeping up an experiment for a sufficient length of time; no means having been provided for replenishing it as the water became low. Sufficient knowledge was however derived from the results obtained with this engine to show, that the evaporating power of a boiler capable of keeping up the required force at the end of the arms must be greater than the one tried; and it also seemed to be a fair conclusion from the whole of the trials made, that 8 to 10oz cubic foot of water evaporated per hour, was the utmost that could be safely calculated on.

A new locomotive engine was constructed from the above data; and it was considered that a force of 3lbs at the end of the arms would be amply sufficient for this purposes required, such a capacity was given to the boiler as to ensure an evaporating power of a bout 4 or 5 cubic feet per hour. This was completed in the latter end of August 1838 and after a few preliminary trials gave the following results.

The results will discussed in a moment but first the locomotive. It appears that the design of the locomotive was based on one built by Avery for the Newark Railroad in New Jersey, USA and used on an experimental basis between Newark and Hackensack. This locomotive was described in some detail in the September 1835 edition of The Mechanics' Magazine. It was said in this article that Avery's locomotive could cover the five miles between the two towns in just under 11 minutes. The locomotive was described as experimental and that Avery was working on a larger more powerful engine. It would seem from the above description though that the locomotive as described as being built by Avery in his workshop in America and the one built by the Madras Corps of Engineers yielded very different results

The experiments mentioned using the "improved" locomotive are recorded as being carried out on 28th August 1838 and 12th September 1838. The consists and weights of these trains were described as follows:

Train 1
Engine and carriage 2,800lbs
Three other carriages 3,000lbs
21 passengers 2,500lbs
Coal and water 500lbs

which gave a gross weight of 8,800lbs or 4 tons

Train 2
Engine, boiler, and carriage 3,000lbs
Tender and coals 1,600lbs
Carriage and 8 passengers 2,4000lbs

which gave a gross weight of 7,000lbs or 3.12 tons.

Despite these brief descriptions there is actually some detail of the locomotives that can be gleaned from them. The fact that the locomotive in Train 1 is described as Engine and carriage suggests that the locomotive was built using one of the RHRR's standard carriage under-frames with the Avery engine mounted upon it. As no tender is mentioned for Train 1, it can be assumed that the coal and the water were carried on the carried on the carriage frame. Train 2's consist includes a tender and coal, so it assumed that in the two weeks between the trains, Cotton and his colleagues decided that the locomotive would be better of operating with a tender rather than the coal and water being carried on the locomotive. I would suggest that a wheel arrangement for the locomotive based on Whyte notation, on its first run it would have been an 2-2-0VBT and for its second run would be a 2-2-0VB. Its description as on its first run depends on where its water tank was placed; if it had been placed under the frame it would have been a well tank. If this were the case it is very likely that it bore some resemblance to the locomotive NOVELTY, which had taken part in the Rainhill Trails. The other thing to bear in mind is that although it seems from the evidence that there were three locomotives constructed, there is an argument that can be made that the three locomotives were actually a single locomotive that was rebuilt twice. Certainly there is a very good argument that the two locomotives used on the two tests were the same locomotive in two different configurations.

The Demise of the Red Hill Railroad

It is unknown how long the RHRR was in use for. In an extensive article in The Foreign Quarterly Review, written in May 1845, about the prospect of building of a railway system in India, a footnote concerning the RHRR stated that

The Red Hill Railway was dependent on a canal and as that occasionally dried up, the railroad could not possibly answer; for when there was no water to float the barges, the trains which brought down granite to fill them could not of course be needed.

From the fact that the railway is referred to in the past tense, it can be inferred that it had closed prior to the article being written. It is known from the paper about the locomotives that experiments ceased abruptly after the second test as Capt Cotton had become ill and went to Tasmania on sick leave. It would be a good supposition that the railway's decline came after Cotton left Madras as he was the driving force behind the railway; it was certainly the reason for the cessation of experiments with locomotives. Whatever the reason, it was the end of railways and locomotive traction in India for the time being.

Godavari Dam Construction Railway

Captain Cotton eventually returned to India and the Madras Corps of Engineers and by the middle of 1844 had been given charge of irrigation works on the Godavari River. One of the parts of this work was the Dowlaisweram Anicut at Rajahmundry, which is now located in Andhra Pradesh. This was a dam was built over the Godavari River as part of the scheme to irrigate the Godavari delta, Cotton used his experience from RHRR on the project and used a railway to transport stone and other materials. Work on the project was started in 1845 and as far as can be ascertained the railway was in use from the start of the project. The railway was described in the 1848-49 administration report as follows:

This railroad leading from the Quarry Hill to the bank of the river was intended for permanent use of the district. The sum of Rs 5,410 was expended on it in this year. It consists of a continuous line of cut stone about 1ft thick, laid on broken stone, with a thin batten of teak tree nailed down to it, on which a flat iron bar about 2in by 1/2in is screwed. This road had regularly been worked from the Anicut and other works. About 120,000 tons have been conveyed along it in wagons weighing 4 to 5 tons gross; most of it has been worked by ponies or men at 3 to 4 miles an hour, but one end of it adjoining the incline plane on Quarry Hill was in the first year passed at a higher speed about 8 to 9 mph. It has stood the work very fairly. Five men can push a single wagon 10 miles per day and return with the empty wagon.

Cotton himself described the railways on the project in 1846 as follows:

The quarry has been greatly extended, and railways carried through most part of it, though the length of the rock laid open is still rather too confined for the number of stone-cutters employed. But, having now four cranes and about sixteen wagons at work, the further opening of the quarry will proceed rapidly. One double railway is completed from the quarry to the river, and has been in use for some time. The wagons run the whole way of themselves, the road having a good slope. At present they are discharged on the side of the road, and the stones carried into the boats, which come up close to the end of the rails, but a wharf will soon be completed to enable all the small stones to be discharged into the boats at once.

The other double railway is now within a short distance of the river, and materials for it are carried from the quarries by the wagons. Eighteen boats have been launched, and they answer very well. They are chiefly employed in carrying stone across the river, and it is at present deposited near the sites of the head sluices and locks, for which it will be first wanted. About one hundred and fifty tons a day are carried by water at present On both lines of railway about four hundred tons a day of stones and gravel are conveyed, and this quantity will rapidly increase. At least fifty thousand tons of rough stone have been quarried and thrown in heaps near the railways in the quarry, and about eight thousand tons have been conveyed to the line of the anicut. Cut stone to the extent of twenty-five thousand cubic yards has been prepared. Two kilns have been kept burning for about two months, yielding now about two hundred parahs of chunam a day each, and about four hundred garce are now in store. The cutting and embanking for the railway from the limestone quarry to the river has been nearly completed, and a considerable part of the rails laid. It is two miles in length.

The project was completed in 1852 and it is assumed that the railway was dismantled on completion. Incidentally, the project caused more health problems for Cotton and he again took sick leave in Australia. However he returned again to India and carried on his irrigation work. He finally retired in 1860 and received a knighthood for his work in India in 1861. There are two statues of Cotton, one in Pentapadu in West Godavari district and the other in Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh.

Railway at the Solani Aqueduct

Which brings us to the Solani Aqueduct and its railway. Whilst its claims to being the first railway in India or the first use of a locomotive in India do not stand up, it is still an important landmark in Indian railway history. It is a system shrouded in its own myths and as such it bears looking at to separate the fact from fiction.

The Ganges canal was a large-scale irrigation project that commenced in 1845. As part of this project an aqueduct was constructed to carry the Solani River across the Ganges canal at Roorkee. The first mention of a railway in use on the project is in the 1847-48 Bengal Public Works Department administration report when it was stated that 59 running feet of track had been laid and was being extended; it is unknown which site this was laid at. By the following year there was 4,916 running feet completed at Mahewar and 1,150 running feet at Roorkee with arrangements being made for extended operation. By the 1849-50 report the line was known as the Mahewar & Roorkee Railway. At Mahewar there was 8,615ft of double track railway (referred to as the Grand Trunk) and 1,000ft of single line and 2,500ft of branches and sidings in use. At Roorkee 2,649ft of Grand Trunk track, 930ft of single line and 2,454ft of branch line. This equates to about 5½ miles of single railway line. There were 102 ballast trucks in use which were hauled either by human or animal power. It was stated that the number of wagons in use needed to be tripled.

The sites using the railway in 1851-52 were stated to be Dhunnowree (2,912ft of single line completed with two bridges); Peerunkulleear (1,000ft of single line laid with 5,000ft in progress); Mahewar Main and branch lines (aggregated 32,848ft of single line railway completed with one wooden trussed bridge); Roorkee (11,570ft of single line). The total length of the railway in use was nearly 8½ miles. There were 162 wagons then running and it was hoped that would be doubled on the arrival of wheels, which had been ordered from Calcutta. By 1852-53 the total length of the line in use was 10½ miles. There were 148 earth and brick wagons in use. The last mention of the railway in the administration reports was in the 1853-54 report when it was stated that "sundry lines of rail at Dhunnowree, Peeran, Kulleear, Mahewar and Roorkee were constructed and kept in repair".

Given that the line was the one of the first to use a locomotive in India, little definite information is known about the identity of the locomotive. The only mentions in the administration reports are as follows. In the 1851-52 report it is stated that "a locomotive engine on its way from England, expected shortly". In the accounts for 1851-52 (which appeared in the 1852-53 report) there is an entry for the "expenses incurred in the wear and tear of certain articles received from the Allahabad Magazine for the conveyance of a locomotive steam engine for the Roorkee Railway". The 1852-53 report stated that the locomotive was "at work on the Muhewur line". The first report is significant as the accepted date that the locomotive first worked is 22/12/1851. The 1851-52 report was written in 4/1852 and it seems unlikely that had the locomotive started working during the year it would be described as still in transit from England.

The actual identity of the locomotive is unknown. It is described in a contemporary account as "a small but compact machine, with both engine and tender on one frame and to be able to draw 200 tons on the level at four miles per hour". Hughes in Indian Locomotives, Part 1 describes it as a "six wheeled tank engine, maker not stated but possibly an E B Wilson 2-2-2WT". It obviously came from England, possibly second hand. For some reason (which is unknown) it has been widely assumed that the locomotive was a Jenny Lind class locomotive (indeed a wooden replica Jenny Lind with a London, Dover & South Coast Railway crest has been constructed and put on display at Rurki). However no evidence can be found to support this theory. There are no Jenny Lind class locomotives or locomotives named Jenny Lind that were withdrawn from UK mainline railways that could have been exported around the correct time. In the absence of any other evidence, the Hughes theory is the most likely. The locomotive was named THOMASON after the Lieutenant Governor of the North West Provinces at the time.

The fate of the locomotive is similarly obscure. Hughes, quoting the Report on the Ganges Canal states the locomotive only worked for a few months before suffering an accident that destroyed the boiler that put it out of use and it was discarded. This time scale again seems unlikely given the evidence in the admin reports - if the locomotive only worked for a few months why would the admin report written in 4/1853 still describe it as at work? However according to another account after the boiler explosion the locomotive had it wheels removed and was used for driving machinery in the workshops at Roorkee.

In conclusion, the early history of railways in India go back much further than generally acknowledged and that the use of locomotives, and indeed locomotive building in India, is much earlier than once thought. It is safe to say that the first locomotive ran in India on 28th August 1838. However, this article should not be thought to be last word on the matter. It is very likely that were other railways system in use in India between 1836 and 1851 that are yet to come to light. If anyone can add anything to either the above or unearths evidence of other yet unknown systems, I would be pleased to hear from them - please contact me via the webmaster's address (webmaster@

  1. [1] Porto Novo was the Portuguese name for the town of Parangipettai in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu. The iron works there was one of the first industrial establishments in India, having been founded in 1828. It closed in the 1870s.

  2. [2] Cochrane's canal was first opened in 1806 having financed by Basil Cochrane. It ran 11 miles from Madras to Ennore and it was soon extended 25 miles to Pulicat. When it opened it was named Lord Clive's Canal but was always known colloquially known in Madras as Cochrane's Canal. It became the basis of the over 250 mile long East Coast Canal, which linked the Kistna and Godavari Rivers. This later became known as the Buckingham Canal. However, the section in Madras seems to have been known as Cochrane's canal for much of the 19th century.