The first public railway was opened between Stockton and Darlington in northern England in 1825 and railways became the fastest and most popular form of transport for both passengers and goods during the nineteenth century.
The growth of the railways was brought about by two interrelated factors. First, the stream engine was developed and applied not only to industry but also to transport. Secondly, the rapid rise of industry made it necessary to improve existing transport systems.
Indian Railways is the nation’s lifeline and the principal mode of transport in the country. From a modest beginning in April 1853, when the first railway train steamed off from Mumbai to Thane, a stretch of 34 kilometre, the Indian Railways, with about a route 5 kilometrage of 65,000 has now grown into Asia’s largest and the world’s fourth largest railway system. It is also the biggest public undertaking in the country.
The electrified route length has increased by more than 30 times since 1950-51. In other words, the story of Indian Railways is a story of continued success, advancement and achievement.
Railway travel is important in any country, but in a vast geographical landmass like India, it is a sine qua non of economic development.
In such a vast country where distances and immobility can prove to be major deterrents to economic growth, such growth hinges on the national transport network.
Indian subcontinent is a vast landmass it is aptly called an epitome of the world. Here people live with different religions, different languages and different cultures.
But when we look at the cultural history of India, we find that in spite of multifarious differences, there is a basic unity in the thinking, feeling and living of Indians.
Several times have the forces of disintegration threatened to shatter this unity but India’s spirit of oneness has always reasserted itself and has blended opposing tendencies and movements into a new harmonious culture.
To discover the spirit of India, one has to travel from north to south, from east to west. This is possible only by a journey by train.
The development of railways has had great effects on the mobility of people as well as goods. The availability of cheap transport greatly affects the mobility of labour. It allows far more people to work and trade in a town than actually live there.
The development of railway transport has also been the basis for development of a completely new industry tourism which relies on the ability of people to move rapidly and easily from place to place. The development of railways has played a very important part in the diffusion of ideas.
More people are thus able to take advantage of advances of science and knowledge, learn about the ways of life and ideas of other people and gain a far greater understanding of India their homeland-than was possible at any time in the past, which is applicable to tourist as well.
The political stability of India and its economy are greatly assisted by a good railway network. Brisk internal trade and links with overseas markets encourage the development of agriculture and industry.
A well developed railway system and communication is vital to the establishment of political control, national unity and an efficient central administration.
India is a rich country inhabitated by the poor people. Poor people need cheap transport. A railway provides cheap transport. For long journeys, a railway is still the best form of freight transport.
Apart from its importance as freight carrier, railways play a very important role in passenger transport. It is by far the. Most efficient form of transport for commuters who have to come into large cities each day, because they do not contribute to traffic jams on the roads.
Underground trains (we already have such trains in Kolkata) too, are ideal for city transport because they take up little valuable space on the surface and can carry huge numbers of people from place to place at regular time intervals.
Commuter trains are very important in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi. They carry thousands of people each day helping them to earn their livelihood.
The importance of railways also depends to a large extent on the availability of other forms of passenger transport. In India where roads are poor and proportion of people owning cars is small, rail transport is still vital for passenger transport. More people in our country travel by train than by any other means of transport.
Technology is a great agent of social change. Railways as an improved transport technology have brought revolutionary changes in Indian society. Every technological advance makes it possible for man to attain certain results with less effort or at less costs; at the same time it provides new opportunities and established new conditions of life. As a modern technology, railways have changed the way of life of a large number of people.
A railway is an agent for urbanisation. Urbanisation is a process of transforming rural into urban areas. This process has a tremendous effect on the economic composition and to a proportionate rise in the urban population.
It also develops new social attitudes and social institutions for the purposes of community living. The urban dweller supports itself mainly by manufacture and trade which flourish on specialisations.
As a result, the city has brought together people of different castes, religions and languages from different parts of the country. Cities like Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi have attracted the ambitious and energetic elements of all caste groups.
The urban life is highly competitive in nature. Hence the role of city dweller in social life is not deeply fixed. In the big cities the so-called ‘untouchables’ are permitted to engage in occupation above their degree.
The caste system is incompatible with the rationality, mobility, the educational system and the needs of a democratic society. Under the impact of railways and industrialisation, the caste system is weakening.
Urbanisation has also improved the social position of women. The city is becoming more and more a place of opportunity for women in outside activities.
The changing functions of the family which the city encourages have been of a peculiar significance to women, in her role as mother, wife, housekeeper and economic producer. Her tasks have been limited and she has been greatly liberated from the exclusiveness of domesticity.
If one endeavors to discover the economic side of the railways one will be simply charmed by its impressive performance.
Apart from the biggest employer in the country, railways provide the most important economic infrastructure of the national economy as it determines the qualitative character of economic development.
Infrastructure does not produce economic goods for direct consumption but is essential for meaningful economic development.
Cheap and easy transport as provided by the railways is the most important condition of economic growth in a big country like India.
In shuck a country where distances and mobility can prove to be major deterrents to economic growth, the rate of such growth hinges on the national transport network.
It is widely accepted that railways plays an important role in the smooth functioning of the economy. Without railways it would be virtually impossible for modern process of production and distribution to function.
Thus railway transport plays a crucial role in all developing economies, especially in a country like India, primarily for the extension of market, transportation of raw materials and finished goods, opening up of remote areas and bringing about the advantage of economic growth to the poor people of rural and other handicapped regions.
The role and significance of railway transport in the economy is exceedingly important on many considerations historical, economic, environment, social and political. The network has always monitored the trend of development:
(i) Historically, because railways have provided the foundation for communications, trade and commerce and national defense;
(ii) Economically, as the network plays a major role in opening up the hinterland and widening the markets;
(iii) Environmentally, by being largely instrumental in the relative levels of ecological and environmental pollution;
(iv) Socially, by determining the trends of urbanization, population shifts the levels of employment; and
(v) Politically, as railways are vital to national defense and social security.
Railways have done away with the evils of casteism, untouchability and superstition. The destruction of casteism and other social evils have also influenced changes in values changes in attitudes, beliefs, and habits.
The getting together of people from different places and exchanging ideas would tone up the social makeup of the people. Cheap and quick railway transport is of great importance for a vast country like India with heterogeneous people, long frontiers and large coast lines.
A railway helps people in their political integration. Even administrative homogeneity has become possible due to mobility of people made possible by transport facilities.
Defending the country during war and keeping vigil on its frontiers in peace require all types of transport in general and railways in particular.
Railways help in bringing different regions of the economy ‘close’ to one another. This helps in the process of social integration of these regions as well as national integration.
In the context of developing economies like that of India, this function of railways is very important.
It is a railway which has helped us to discover that we, Indians, are all members of one growing human family and must stand and fall together.
As John Donne has put it, no man is an island, and the link between man and man has been established and isolation removed by the railways. A railway helps us discover our identity, our ancient history and culture, our unity, our very soul.
The story of railways is really the story of modern India. The rails in India have no substitute. They are part and parcel of our existence.