The first railway line of India

The first railway line of India : The recent news that one more light railway line, this one near Calcutta, was closing down had me thinking of a question for quizzers: What was the first railway line in India? Most quizzers, I’m sure, would have said Bombay to Thane, a few might have said Madras (Royapuram) to Arcot. But both answers would have been wrong; both were passenger railway lines, the former the first, the latter the second. The first railway line to be laid in India was in 1837, near the Chintadripet bridge. But it seems to have been done more for exhibition purposes than for any kind of traffic.

The first line laid for any kind of use was based on a proposal by Capt. A.P. Cotton (or was it A.T. Cotton, later the great dam builder?) that had suggested a line from Red Hills to the stone quarries near Little Mount would result in considerable savings in transporting material from the quarries. This line was opened in December 1837 and must be considered the country’s first railway line. But depending as it did on wind power, regular service could not be assured and the Red Hills Railway called it a day.

Once regular railway services became operational in India, several light railways were established to become feeder services. The first in South India was the Kulasekarapatnam Light Railway (KLR) which was built to serve as a goods-cum-passenger service by Parry’s which had even earlier been thinking on a much bigger scale of a Cuddalore-Vriddachalam-Salem service. The KLR, inaugurated in 1915, ran 27 miles from Parry’s Kulasekarapatnam jaggery factory to Tiruchendur. The service ground to a halt in 1940 and its track was contributed as scrap to the war effort.

The wagons for the KLR were ordered from a German engineering company headquartered in Calcutta and represented in the South by Parry’s. In 1909, Parry’s had tried to get Orenstein and Koppel, light railway specialists, interested in its Cuddalore-Salem project, but if the German firm didn’t want to be a partner it was prepared to be a supplier. Unfortunately for O&K, the Great War led to it being sold as ‘enemy property’ and Parry’s acquired it. With the acquisition came the wagons Parry’s had ordered for the KLR and which were on the high seas. Parry’s eventually got the wagons, but made a small fortune meanwhile selling all that O&K had in stock. Parry’s then established a Railway Engineering Department to handle what at the time was a successful business, light railway construction. The Department after the War became Parry Engineering Ltd and long continued as a company that went through several ups and downs. O&K, resuscitated after the War, proved a formidable rival; on the other hand, the Cawnpore Railway Station was one of Parry’s triumphs. But all that’s another story.

The first railway line of India

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