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General map of railways in India as of 1909

The railways in India were subject to constant changes of ownership, amalgamations and adjustments over the years. The categorisation below is intended to be comprehensive but not exhaustive.

  • For details of individual railways, tramways, railway constructions known to have operated in British India - click Railways index, 1845-1947
  • For information on notable railway people who made significant contributions in the development of the Railways in British India - click Railway People

British India

The early railway companies were UK companies operating in India. Later the British Government of India (GOI) owned the majority and either managed them directly or leased them back to private management. From circa 1925 the GOI began to call in the leases, operating the services directly. By 1945, most railways were both owned and managed by the GOI.

  • Guaranteed Railways included those railway companies, formed by 1859, to which the East India Company, later the GOI, guaranteed a fixed return on capital.
  • Private Railways (those built without a guarantee) were few in number - only two were formed in the period 1850-1866 and both these were re-constituted by 1870.
  • State Railways were those either built and run directly by the GOI, or those where the GOI exercised its right to assume ownership (which it did gradually with all the original guaranteed railways from 1879 until 1907), or those whose promoters chose to surrender the workings to the GOI (and, in the case of the guaranteed companies, received their capital back). From 1907, the word State was usually dropped from the name of railways in GOI ownership.
  • Assisted Railways were those whose construction was assisted by the GOI, either by guaranteed return or subsidy or in some other material way.
  • Indian States Railways were those built or promoted, often on similar terms to those above, by the various Princely States.
  • Foreign Railways. Three small railways were built to serve foreign enclaves. These were managed by British companies but ownership of the lines could never vest in the GOI.

For a full list of railways known to have operated in British India, follow the link below.


In 1947, the year of Independence, there were 42 operational railway systems in what had been British India but the most immediate practical consideration of partition was the division of several systems to form what then became Indian Railways and Pakistan Railways; later still, the latter was to suffer further upheaval on the formation of Bangladesh Railway.

Records and employment

It is important to bear in mind that railway staff records created in India before 1947 remain in India, as do the records of railways built, owned or operated by the Indian Princely States. The records that survive today in the collections held at the British Library (and elsewhere) do so because they were originally created in the UK.

Europeans employed on State Railways were usually on the strength of the Public Works Department See L/F/10 Records of Service 1702-1928

Railway occupations

Collections of railway records are generally by railway company so it is a good idea to know which railway company an ancestor worked for. In addition, very few collections of railway records are indexed so it is also a good idea to know the trade or employment followed on the railway as occupations were often grouped together when published in staff lists and registers. Even in Thacker's, this will be found to be the case in the individual railway company entries. More information about railway occupations can be found in Fibiwiki article railway worker.


Anglo-Indians became closely identified with the running of the railways. By 1905, forming less than ½% of India's total population, they provided 2% of railway employees. Eventually more than 50% of all Anglo-Indian families came to be supported by railway employment either directly or as a dependant of a railway employee.

FIBIS resources

Available to FIBIS members only

  • Recorded FIBIS Lectures available to members in FIBIS Social Network
    • The Railways of India by Hugh Wilding. 2009 (Presentation notes included)
    • Difficult Engineering and Determined Engineers' by Ian Kerr 2014. This describes the context and construction of the Bhor Ghat Railway incline, Western India c.1856 - c.1863.
    • The Railways of Burma – Their Development and their Personnel” by Dr. Mike Charney 2015

Recommended Reading

  • Hugh Wilding, Research sources for Indian Railways, 1845-1947, FIBIS Fact File No 4 (London: FIBIS, 2009). ISBN 978-0-9547-116-5-8. This title can be ordered directly from the FIBIS Shop
  • J N Westwood, Railways of India (Newton Abbot: David & Charles Ltd, 1974) [out of print; a general history of the railways of India from pre 1840 to the 1970s].
  • Ian J Kerr, Building the Railways of the Raj 1850-1900 (Delhi; Oxford: OUP, 1995) [out of print; a detailed, academic examination with full bibliography].
  • Laura Bear, Lines of the Nation (New York: Columbia, 2007) [essential but uncomfortable reading for Anglo-Indians with railway roots]. A review by Robyn Andrews[1]

External Links

Historical photographs online

Historical books online

Also see the Fibiwiki page Annual Administration Reports for Railways for additional years.
Railway Department History of Indian Railways 1951. Archive.org version, mirror from Digital Library of India. Title as catalogued, appears to be a similar report to that immediately above. Poor quality digital file.
  • Universal Directory of Railway Officials and Year Book 1939-1940 has a section on India, commencing digital page 67, including names of the senior officials of the various railways. Archive.org version.
  • Railways in Modern India by Ian Kerr 1957. Archive.org version, mirror from Digital Library of India.
  • A History of Indian Railways by G.S. Khosla 1988. Archive.org. Published by Ministry of Railways (Railway Board), Government of India.


Imperial Gazetteer of India Vol 26 Atlas 1909


  1. A review by Robyn Andrews The International Journal of Anglo-Indian Studies Volume 11, Number 1, 2011.