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Railroads Asia - Up And Down India

( Originally Published 1927 )

IT was under the engineering supervision of Robert Stephenson that the first railroad in India was built by the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company, chartered to construct a line from Bombay to Kalyan, a distance of 34 miles. The gauge of this road was 5 feet 6 inches, the standard Indian broad gauge. Work was begun in February, 1852. The chief problem was the best method of laying the rails through the Bombay swamps, and this was solved by the expedient adopted by George Stephenson in building across Chat Moss on the Liverpool and Manchester road; mattresses were made from mangrove trees and spread upon the mud; then soil was placed on top to press the mattresses a certain depth; another mattress was superimposed and more soil placed, until a structure was obtained sufficient for a solid roadbed.

The road was opened for traffic in April, 1853, and the builders planned a more comprehensive system. From Kalyan two other roads were to branch; one to the northeast, the other to the southeast to serve the country around Madras. The obstacle on both these lines was the rampart of the Western Ghauts, where mountains rose almost vertically to a height of 2000 feet.

The driving of a road over these Western Ghauts was the crowning achievement of the engineers of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. The tracks had to turn and twist in order to take advantage of every possible foothold in the steep mountain slopes. Tunnels bored here and there, embankments and bridges crossed wide chasms, and the rails doubled back in various places so that they might win forward. The most famous bridge was the Ehegaon Viaduct, where the rails crossed 190 feet above the bottom of a gorge, the highest bridge in India. Once over the Ghauts construction was easier, the rails crossed hundreds of miles of sandy plains.

Meanwhile on the eastern side of India a pioneer road was being built out from Calcutta by the East Indian Railway Company. This was a comparatively simple matter of engineering, as the road, fol-lowing the Ganges River, ran through level country. Several wide bridges had to be built, one across the Hooghly, one across the Sone, others at Allahabad and Delhi. The construction of the Sone bridge was broken in upon by the Indian Mutiny, when the chief engineer and his assistants had to fight the natives until British troops came to their rescue. The damage done to the tracks and stations during the Mutiny is said to have cost the East Indian Railway Company not less than three million pounds.

The tracks of this company were begun in 1853, and two years later had reached to Raneegunge, 120 miles from Calcutta. From there it had been originally planned to continue to the south of the Ganges, but industrial centres of the river valley wanted rail-way connection with the great eastern seaport, so the builders laid their rails close to the Ganges, and in 1866 the first train from Calcutta entered Delhi.

India now has about 37,515 miles of railroad, or more than one-half of the total mileage of Asia. The most important terminals are the seaports of Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, and Kurachi, and the inland city of Delhi. Five railroad systems extend from Calcutta; the first runs northeast into Assam; the second north to Darjeeling, in the Himalayas; the third —which is the main line, known as the East Indian Railway—runs through the Ganges Valley by way of Allahabad to Delhi, where connection is made with a railroad travelling northwest to Peshawar, on the frontier of Afghanistan; the fourth rims west to Nagpore ; the fifth follows the coast to Madras and in junction with another line opens a route for traffic to the Gulf of Manaar, between India and Ceylon.

On the west coast Bombay is the starting-point for four systems; the Bombay and Baroda, running northeast to Delhi; the Great Indian Peninsula, which takes a course northeast to Busawal, from where one branch runs to Allahabad and a second to Nagpore; the Bombay-Jaipur, which connects with a road coming from Madras; and a railroad along the west coast to Panjun, a Portuguese seaport.

Madras is joined to Calicut on the opposite coast by a road that runs through Trichinopoli, and by another road with Bangalore. The Indus Valley Rail-way starts at Kurachi, follows the river to Shikarpore, from where it extends a branch line north to Quetta, in Baluchistan, and continues to Mooltan, which is the junction of roads to Lahore and Jhelam, on the Calcutta-Peshawar main line.

This is the network of railroads in India and they are important roads; that from Calcutta to Peshawar covers about 1600 miles, that from Calcutta to Bombay 1000 miles, and that from Calcutta to Tuticorin 1700 miles.

India was a densely populated country, with rich agricultural regions and a trade that was dependent on rivers and a few highways for transport until railroads were introduced. At first it was said that railroads would not pay, that the natives would not ride on them, that they would be too difficult to build. But the railroad has proved enormously profit-able in developing agriculture and trade; the natives like to ride on it instead of travelling on foot or in jolting carts and find it of inestimable help in times of famine ; the difficulties of construction have all been overcome by the genius of engineers. These difficulties were not slight; on the western side were the great steep Ghauts to be surmounted; in many places wide rivers had to be bridged ; and in the neighbor-hood of the rivers were swamps that necessitated the building of many miles of viaducts. In addition there were the jungles, filled with savage beasts and with fever; natives had to be employed because of the tropical heat and it was not easy to train the natives to do the work required. The track-layers worked under difficulties ; an English engineer declared that Indian railways should be hung on chains, in order to keep the passengers out of the reach of wild beasts !

In some parts of India political and military considerations have had much to do with the building of railroads. The Indus River flows near the frontier of Baluchistan, and the railroad runs northeast through the river valley from Kurachi, on the west coast, to Shikarpore; there the branch on the left reaches 133 1/4 miles north through Baluchistan to Sibi ; this branch was built in four months in 1879, when political difficulties arose on the Baluchistan frontier, and was a remarkable achievement, the railroad being constructed under the handicap of a lack of food, water, fuel, and shelter for the workers.

The Sibi Railway is notable. From Sibi the tracks run in two separate curves to Bostan Junction on the Bolan Pass, a distance of 112 miles, and climb to an altitude nearly 6000 feet higher than that at Sibi. One loop takes in Quetta, and on this line the general gradient is 1 in 67. To build these loops 30,000 men were employed on tunnels, embankments, bridges, and viaducts, and the work was done in feverbreeding heat and heavy rains, as trying to the natives as to the whites. The mountain passes through which the road wound are as high as those in the North American Rockies and the tracks turn and bend as frequently as do those of the Alpine country. From Bostan the railroad reaches on to Kandahar through the Khojak Tunnel, 2 1/2 miles long. The Sibi Railway thus protects the frontier of Afghanistan and makes Quetta in Baluchistan an invaluable stronghold for defense.

The railroad that climbs through the Himalayas from Silliguri to Darjeeling was built to supply the need of the tea-plantations for a rail-route to Calcutta and also to enable the English residents of India to escape from the heat of the low lands to the cool heights of the mountains. Silliguri, which is 250 miles from Calcutta, is the junction-point of the broad gauge East Indian Railway line and the 2-foot track that climbs 7500 feet in covering 50 miles of country. Here travellers to Darjeeling take small cars of light weight for the ascent, where the gradient in some places is 1 in 23. This is a remarkable climb, along a course that winds as sinuously as the track of a snake; the train crawls along narrow ledges; the motive power of the train is transferred from one end to the other as it zigzags upwards, so that the passengers are sometimes riding backwards, sometimes forwards ; different engines pull the train over each zigzag and sometimes two push or pull. The heat of the low country drops away, the air grows cooler, the slopes are covered with snow, another curve is rounded, and the train runs into Darjeeling, called the "Queen of the Himalayas"; a little more than a hundred miles away rises the peak of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world.

One other Indian railroad deserves mention, that which climbs through the Nilgiri Hills. This line starts at Mettapollium, a station of the Madras Rail-way in southern India, and ascends nearly 5000 feet to the plateau on the Nilgiri Hills, on which are located the towns of Ootacamund, the summer head-quarters of the Madras government, Coonoor, and Kotageri, the residences of planters and English officials. The railway is 16% miles long, of which 12 miles are worked on the rack principle. The line has 23 large and 113 small bridges, some of them 120 feet high. In one place the road passes for 1000 feet along the face of an almost vertical cliff 2000 feet high; in another place it crosses a bridge 150 feet long and immediately enters a tunnel that runs for 275 feet on the face of the cliff. To prevent landslips the slopes were planted with Guinea grass, which holds the earth together more securely than any other artificial device, and along parts of the cliffs great retaining walls were built. The line cost about £15,000 per mile to construct, but the expense has more than justified itself in simplifying communication between Madras and the plateau of the Nilgiri Hills.

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