History of Railways in the British Empire

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See also Railway history, and History of Railways in Britain

British Empire

Canada

In Canada, the national government strongly supported railway construction for political goals. First it wanted to knit the far-flung provinces together, and second, it wanted to maximize trade inside Canada and minimize trade with the United States, to avoid becoming an economic satellite. The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada linked Toronto and Montreal in 1853, then opened a line to Portland, Maine (which was ice-free), and lines to Michigan and Chicago. By 1870 it was the longest railway in the world. The Intercolonial line, finished in 1876, linked the Maritimes to Quebec and Ontario, tying them to the new Confederation.

Anglo-entrepreneurs in Montreal sought direct lines into the U.S. and shunned connections with the Maritimes, with a goal of competing with American railroad lines heading west to the Pacific. Joseph Howe, Charles Tupper, and other Nova Scotia leaders used the rhetoric of a "civilizing mission" centered on their British heritage, because Atlantic-centered railway projects promised to make Halifax the eastern terminus of an intercolonial railway system tied to London. Leonard Tilley, New Brunswick's most ardent railway promoter, championed the cause of "economic progress," stressing that Atlantic Canadians needed to pursue the most cost-effective transportation connections possible if they wanted to expand their influence beyond local markets. Advocating an intercolonial connection to Canada, and a western extension into larger American markets in Maine and beyond, New Brunswick entrepreneurs promoted ties to the United States first, connections with Halifax second, and routes into central Canada last. Thus metropolitan rivalries between Montreal, Halifax, and Saint John led Canada to build more railway lines per capita than any other industrializing nation, even though it lacked capital resources, and had too little freight and passenger traffic to allow the systems to turn a profit.[1]

Den Otter (1997) challenges popular assumptions that Canada built transcontinental railways because it feared the annexationist schemes of aggressive Americans. Instead Canada overbuilt railroads because it hoped to compete with, even overtake Americans in the race for continental riches. It downplayed the more realistic Maritimes-based London-oriented connections and turned to utopian prospects for the farmlands and minerals of the west. The result was closer ties between north and south, symbolized by the Grand Trunk's expansion into the American Midwest. These economic links promoted trade, commerce, and the flow of ideas between the two countries, integrating Canada into a North American economy and culture by 1880. About 700,000 Canadians migrated to the U.S. in the late 19th century.[2] The Canadian Pacific Railway, paralleling the American border, opened a vital link to British Canada, and stimulated settlement of the Prairies. The CPR opened even more connections to the South. The connections were two-way, as thousands of American moved to the Prairies after their own frontier had closed.

Two additional transcontinental lines were built to the west coast--three in all--but that was far more than the traffic would bear, making the system simply too expensive. One after another, the federal government was forced to take over the lines and cover their deficits. In 1923 the government merged the Grand Trunk, Grand Trunk Pacific, Canadian Northern and National Transcontinental lines into the new the Canadian National Railways system.

Since most of the equipment was imported from Britain or the U.S., and most of the products carried were from farms, mines or forests, there was little stimulation to domestic manufacturing. On the other hand, the railways were essential to the growth of the wheat regions in the Prairies, and to the expansion of coal mining, lumbering, and paper making. Improvements to the St. Lawrence waterway system continued apace, and many short lines were built to river ports.

India

India provides an example of the British Empire pouring its money and expertise into a very well built system designed for military reasons (after the Mutiny of 1857), and with the hope that it would stimulate industry. The system was overbuilt and much too elaborate and expensive for the small amount of freight traffic it carried. However, it did capture the imagination of the Indians, who saw their railways as the symbol of an industrial modernity—but one that was not realized until a century or so later.

The British built a superb system in India. However, Christensen (1996) looks at of colonial purpose, local needs, capital, service, and private-versus-public interests. He concludes that making the railways a creature of the state hindered success because railway expenses had to go through the same time-consuming and political budgeting process as did all other state expenses. Railway costs could therefore not be tailored to the timely needs of the railways or their passengers.

By the 1940s, India had the fourth longest railway network in the world. Yet the country's industrialization was delayed until after independence in 1947 by British colonial policy. Until the 1930s, both the Indian government and the private railway companies hired only European supervisors, civil engineers, and even operating personnel, such as locomotive drivers (engineers). The government's "Stores Policy" required that bids on railway matériel be presented to the India Office in London, making it almost impossible for enterprises based in India to compete for orders. Likewise, the railway companies purchased most of their matériel in Britain, rather than in India. Although the railway maintenance workshops in India could have manufactured and repaired locomotives, the railways imported a majority of them from Britain, and the others from Germany, Belgium, and the United States. The Tata company built a steel mill in India before World War I but could not obtain orders for rails until the 1920s and 1930s.

East Africa

In East Africa, the ostensible reason for the construction of the Uganda Railway was the suppression of the slave trade, but it also served other interests. After the 1914—18 war, the British administration of Tanganyika took over a railway that had been built by the German government, and developed it.
  1. den Otter (1997)
  2. Den Otten (1997); Bill Waiser, Saskatchewan: A New History (2005) p. 63