Red Hill Railroad

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The Red Hills Railway (Railroad) was constructed in 1836 and opened 1837 for the conveying of Ironstone to be used as road-building material within the city of Madras.

The Red Hills outcrop some 13.5 miles (22Km) north-west of Fort George was the source of this material, which was carried by this Railway (also described as a Railroad) and linked to a canal which became named ‘Captain Cotton’s Canal’. This canal gave connection to the existing ‘Cochrane’s Canal ‘ (later renamed the ‘Buckingham Canal’) that had been constructed in 1806 [1].

The Red Hills Railway (Railroad) was therefore the first railway in India.


The Government of Madras requested the Madras Engineers to produce a report on the communications within the Presidency. From this it was decided to construct a temporary railroad which, if it proved a success, would be made permanent and would start a gradual expansion of a rail network. [2]

In 1836 Captain Arthur Thomas Cotton, of the Madras Engineers, advocated the construction of a railroad in India [3] [4].

In May 1836 news had leaked out about this which had caused speculation as to the cost. Letters for and against the scheme were sent to the press and published in the Madras Gazette, there was a call for the full details to be released. As a demonstration an experimental piece of track was laid near the Chintadrapettah bridge [5].

In September 1836 the Military Board passed the project and forwarded acceptance to the Governor and the Local Government. Captain A T Cotton was appointed to start the project with Lieutenant Johnstone as his assistant [6].

Captain A T Cotton’s sketch of proposed railway and canal

The construction involved a 3⅜ miles railway from the entrance of Red Hills quarry linking to a 1½ miles canal, across the Retteri Tank (Lake) with an embankment dividing the lake. The total distance was therefore about 5 miles(8km). The outflow of the Veysarpadi Tank (known as the Veysarpadi Cut) would be deepened to form what became known as ‘Captain Cottons Canal’ that joined ‘Cochrane’s Canal’. This avoided expensive bridges and would reach the yards in Madras where materials could be delivered close to where they would be needed. Landing stages were built at Blacktown, St Mary’s and Government Gardens [7].

The whole project was estimated at a cost of Rs 24,500. [8]. The motive power was to be horse drawn and these were to be supplied by the Commissariat Department. [9].

Plan of Madras and its environs, 1854 – showing Railway

Despite a few troubles, the line became operational in 1837 with over 1,250 tons (10,000 paras) of ironstone being transported in the first three months Mar-May [10]

With the experimental track in place and work nearing completion Captain Cotton went south with Captain J Smith to Cooloron River, Annicut where a steam hammer, driven by an Avery Steam Engine, was being used to break stone. Then to the Port Novo Iron Works. In both places, he experimented with the steam engines and tried modifications to get more power out of them. At the quarry a model of Avery’s Steam engine was being built so it was ready for his return in early June 1837, the first engine built at the Red Hills was supposed to run on track to and from Veysarpadi but the power was not sufficient. The engine was modified and in 12 September1837 with a boiler pressure of 50psi achieved a speed of 4.5 mph pulling effectively 3.5 tons [11]

Further improvements were thought achievable but were stopped by the Government, most of the development cost had been provided by private finance [12].

A proposal was made by Captain Cotton to utilise the railway for passenger traffic. This proposal was turned down [13].

Without this finance Captain Cotton experimented with wind power and it was reported in the 16th January 1838 edition of the Madras Herald. “We had another most gratifying sail 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” [14].

There were continuing problems with the railway, over expenditure and the collapse of the quay at the canal bridgehead and lack of water during a particularly dry time with all the canals being unable to work. Lieutenant Ludlow was appointed to oversee a solution to this along with his other duties. [15].

By 1841 the final dispatch arrived stating the too much had been spent and that due to problems and the low costs of cart transit and an investigation as to why the cart road was unusable. It was found that a few “gentlemen” as stated were the cause of the problem. The rails were lifted and returned to the stores. No traffic ran on the railway after the end of 1841, [16]

Both the 'Red Hills Railway (Railroad)' and the ‘Captain Cotton’s Canal’ are clearly seen on the 1854 map despite the fact that the railway had been abandoned before this date.

Further Information

See Early Railway Experiments and Proposals for more information and background.


  1. “Imperial Gazetteer of India”, v. 9, p. 32.; Retrieved 23 Dec 2016
  2. British Library IOR/F/4/1867/79385 ((includes, on pp 38-108, Cotton's report of 6 May 1836), “Further proceedings regarding the Red Hills-Madras Railroad and Canal, Vol 1 - repairs and alterations - Captain Arthur Cotton's scheme for working the railroad by means of steam locomotion etc.”
  3. Wikipedia "Transport in Chennai"; Retrieved 23 Dec 2016
  4. "Indian Railways: A Chronology" by Jacqueline Banerjee, Ph.D., Associate Editor, The Victorian Web; Retrieved 23 Dec 2016
  5. “Madras Gazette” of 4 May 1836; Reproduced by IRFCA ‘Red Hills Railway Para. 4; Retrieved 23 Dec 2016
  6. British Library, IOR/F/4/1867/79385 “Further proceedings regarding the Red Hills-Madras Railroad and Canal”, Vol 1 p 261 and p138
  7. British Library, IOR/F/4/1867/79385 “Further proceedings regarding the Red Hills-Madras Railroad and Canal”, Vol 1 p 8 and 172
  8. British Library IOR/E/4/951 “Dispatch Fort George Public Department 19th September 1838” p 579
  9. IOR/F/4/1867/79385 Further proceedings regarding the Red Hills-Madras Railroad and Canal, Vol 1 p 343
  10. British Library IOR/F/4/1867/79385 “Further proceedings regarding the Red Hills-Madras Railroad and Canal”, Vol 1 p 278
  11. Madras Presidency “Reports, correspondence and original papers on various professional subjects connected with the duties of the Corps of Engineers”,, arranged by Capt. J. T. Smith. (Vol. 4 by Major J. H. Bell.) Madras 1859 P 95 reproduced by Google Books.; Retrieved 23 Dec 2016
  12. British Library IOR/F/4/1867/79385 “Further proceedings regarding the Red Hills - Madras Railroad and Canal”, Vol 1 p 197
  13. British Library IOR/ Z/E/4/45/C1048; “Cotton, Capt. Arthur Thomas, Scheme for passenger traffic on Red Hill railroad referred to”; 1838-1842
  14. “Madras Herald” of 16 January 1838; Reproduced by IRFCA ‘Red Hills Railway Para. 10; Retrieved 23 Dec 2016
  15. British Library “IOR/F/4/1867/79385 Further proceedings regarding the Red Hills-Madras Railroad and Canal”, Vol 1 p 249
  16. British Library IOR/E/4/959 “Reply to letter dated 26th March 1842 7th June 1842 and 16th”