Eastern Bengal Railway

Eastern Bengal Railway was planned in the early years of railway construction in British India about the middle of the 19th century. Railways, first introduced in England in the 1820s in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, quickly expanded not only in England but also in different parts of the world because of the speed, accommodation, industrial revolutions, cost minimisation and comfort presented by the railway. Initially, there were grave doubts amongst British capitalists as to the practicability of railways from the engineering point of view and also as to their commercial profitability in far-off British colonies like India. The government agreed to pay to the private sector investors a 5% guaranteed interest on the capital invested in railway construction. This worked as an incentive for British capital to steadily flow to India for building railways.

In India, the railways were established to serve administrative and military purposes of the government, the interests of British commerce and of the local people. The Eastern Bengal Railway Company was formed in London in 1857. Almost at the same time, two other railway companies, the East Indian Railway Company and the Great Indian Peninsular Company, signed contract with the east india company for construction of experimental lines from Howrah to Raniganj and from Bombay to Kalyan.

On 30 July 1858, the Eastern Bengal Railway Company and the East India Company signed a new contract for the construction of a railway line between calcutta on the eastern bank of the hughli and kushtia opposite pabna, with the ganges and one of its tributaries, gorai, intervening between the two places. The length of the proposed line was 110 miles and the cost was estimated about one million pound sterling. The railway line was opened for the entire length in November l862. A short branch line, two and a half mile in length, from a point near Kushtia to a river port on Garai, was constructed by 1864. In 1865, the decision was taken to extend the line from the terminus at Kushtia to Goalondo, a distance of forty-five miles at the confluence of the Ganges and the brahmaputra. This necessitated the construction of a bridge over the river Garai. Viceroy Lord Mayo opened the line on the last day of 1870. By 1902, it was extended along the north bank of the river Brahmaputra to go as far as Dhubri in Eastern Assam. This railway was purchased partially by the government in 1884, and in 1942, it was amalgamated with the assam bengal railway that extended from the port of chittagong into the interior of Eastern Bengal and Assam.

The Eastern Bengal Railway was originally designed to provide railway services to districts lying to the north and east of Calcutta. These densely populated districts were rich in agricultural produce such as indigo, sugar, oilseeds, rice and other crops. The large traffic proceeding along the Ganges downward towards Calcutta was expected to be intercepted by this railway at Kushtia, its original terminus near that river, and its branch, the river Garai. The railway enabled the merchants of Calcutta to send their goods to northern areas. The extension to Goalondo was expected to serve the purpose better. This railway could better provide the areas on the northeast of the subcontinent. A factor in its extension to Dhubri in Assam in 1902 was the pressure of the Indian Tea Association, which wanted an easy outlet for Assam tea to Calcutta. Subsequently, Eastern Bengal Railway was connected with other railways and the road network in other parts of the subcontinent. There was also an extension of steamboat services along the rivers. The idea was to provide for a junction at one central terminus in Calcutta of the three railways, the East Bengal Railway, the East India Railway operating from Howrah to Delhi, and the South Eastern Railway operating from Calcutta to Port Canning in the south. Of these three, the East Indian Railway had its branch lines to serve the coalfield areas in Bengal and Bihar. An integration of the communication network was facilitated by the construction of a bridge over the river Hughli by the East Bengal Railway in 1885, introduction of steamer services by the company with authority conferred by an Act of Parliament in 1886, and development of feeder roads.

About this time, Eastern Bengal had an extensive commerce, both inter-district and foreign, the greater part of the latter being carried through the port of Calcutta. The traditional trade route to the port of Calcutta in the pre-railway age was the river Ganges flowing from the northwest and joined by the Brahmaputra at Goalondo, and by the Meghna at Chandpur. Road transport being in a precarious state, traders would hardly opt for it. Even in 1830, there was not a single road worth the name in British India as a whole. River journey, usually in country boats of very low speed and poor tonnage, was hazardous, expensive and lengthy. Trade with the northwest along the Ganges and with the northeast along the Brahmaputra and the Meghna had their main centres at Goalondo and Chandpur. But the cargo vessels along this route had to go to Calcutta via the sundarbans, although the rivers were at times over-flooded and dangerous to navigate. The Eastern Bengal Railway was a cheaper, expeditious, and comfortable mode of transport and was expected to absorb this river traffic and give an impetus to the trade of the area.

As a commercial undertaking, the Eastern Bengal Railway proved its worth from the very beginning. Extending from Calcutta and through the populous and rich districts along the Hughli, the Railway's traffic increased at a fast rate. By 1865, the source of financing the entire maintenance of this railway shifted from a charge against capital to its revenue. The railway had used Burdwan coal from the very beginning. The supply of coal significantly improved upon completion of the bridges at Naihati and Howrah, which also contributed to reduction in fuel costs.

But even after expansion of the railway network, inter-district trade along rivers in country boats remained as dominant as before and river routes remained crucial in providing supplies to Calcutta. The Calcutta canals that connected the Sundarbans, Bakerganj (Barisal), the areas alongside the Meghna, and parts of Bihar continued to register the most important traffic of Bengal. [Hena Mukherjee]