A journey back on Bengal Nagpur Railway

Santanu Sanyal | Updated on August 26, 2019

Title : Bengal Nagpur Railway — A Legacy Publisher : South Eastern Railway Price : ₹1,200

The book traces the growth of this iconic railway that linked many far-flung areas and had many firsts to its credit

BNR (Bengal Nagpur Railway) and Legacy are two words GK Mohanty, a retired Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS) officer, is fond of. Mohanty has authored two books, Freight Legacy of BNR in 2013 and Bengal Nagpur Railway — A Legacy in 2019. His preferences thus are all too clear.

Mohanty says, “To me and many others like me, BNR is not simply a word but a concept, a legacy and a way of life which cannot be described easily in words. Through birth and rebirth, trifurcation and modification, BNR and its subsequent avatar South Eastern Railway have pushed growth in one of the most bountiful regions of the subcontinent.”

Meet the Author
  • GK Mohanty is a former Indian Railway Traffic Service officer. He retired as the Chief Operations Manager of South Eastern Railway (formerly Bengal Nagpur Railway).

In 1863, Sir Richard Temple, the then Chief Commissioner of Central Provinces (subsequently Madhya Pradesh and now both MP and Chhattisgarh and also parts of Maharashtra), in a report, emphasised the need for constructing a light railway network from Nagpur to Rajnandgaon to facilitate transportation of foodgrains to fight famine in the area. The proposal was sanctioned in 1878 and the Chhattisgarh State Railway, a metre-gauge network covering a distance of 149 miles (232.65 km), was commissioned in 1882.

Soon it was realised that such a small railway network was not enough. Thus, the plan to connect Nagpur to Kolkata (then Calcutta) via Asansol was finalised in 1884 and, accordingly, land acquisition was completed by 1886 but the work on the project could not be started immediately as the resources had to be transferred to fund the North West Frontier war.

The government was persuaded to allow private companies to execute the project but without any guaranteed return on capital. As expected, no private investor could be located at this term. So a modified guarantee scheme was introduced to attract investment and the scheme presupposed an assured return of four per cent to the investor with government getting three-fourths of the surplus after paying interest charges and all lines would be the property of the government.

Registered in London

On February 23, 1887, BNR was registered as a company with registered office at 132 Gresham House, Old Broad Street, London. TR Wynne was appointed the Chief Engineer and Robert Miller the Chairman. In March 1887, BNR entered into an agreement with the then Secretary of State, Government of India, to take over the Chhattisgarh State Railway, convert the 149-mile long Nagpur-Rajnandgaon stretch into a broad gauge (BG) network, lay a new 480-mile long BG network from Rajnandgaon to Asansol located on East Indian Railway (EIR) network and another 161-mile long network from Bilaspur to Umaria to connect Katni-Umaria Railway.

BNR was formally inaugurated on March 3,1891, by the then Viceroy Lord Lansdowne.

The connectivity to Cuttack along the east coast became possible only after the construction of five bridges on the rivers surrounding Cuttack. The Cuttack-Vijaywada section, constructed by Madras Railway, was merged with BNR following a historic agreement on July 23, 1902. Several new routes were also added.

Thus by 1905, that is, within 18 years of its formation, BNR laid as much as 1,966 miles of railway track.

With Calcutta steadily gaining importance as the capital of British India, BNR’s head office shifted from Nagpur to Calcutta. In 1907, the agent’s office and headquarters were shifted to a magnificent building constructed on the bank of the Hooghly river in the city’s Garden Reach area.

BNR had a workshop in Nagpur, a small one, but with growth, the need for a bigger workshop was felt. Thus the Indian Railways’ first integrated workshop under BNR was started in Kharagpur in 1904. Spread over 150 hectares, the workshop also produced artillery shells and other items with special steel produced by Tata Iron and Steel for the British army in two World Wars.

Engineering marvel

Apart from being the largest freight-loading railway, BNR has other firsts to its credit. The Kottavalsa-Kirandul line, famously known as KK Line, an engineering marvel on a treacherous hilly terrain, was completed in 1968 to facilitate the transportation of iron ore from Chhattisgarh mines to Vizag port.

SER also takes pride in pioneering the 25KV system of electrification between Rajkharswan and Dongoposi of the Chrakradharpur division in 1960-61, for the first time in Indian Railways. It is the only zonal railway which owned and operated two luxury hotels, one at Ranchi (1916) and the other at Puri (1925), offering top class hospitality services to its “valued clientèle”. But that is part of history now.

BNR was brought under the control of the Indian Government in 1944. At the time of Independence, there were as many as 42 different railway companies of varying network sizes, from five miles to 1,396 miles, and 32 of them belonged to princely states. Gopalaswamy Ayyangar , the then Minister for Railways, regrouped them into six zones, each headed by a general manager. Eastern Railway (ER) was formed in April 1952 by amalgamating the eastern divisions of the former EIR, BNR and Bengal Assam Railway.

But soon it was realised that such an arrangement was unsustainable, operationally as also from the development point of view. SER came into being from August 1, 1955, by carving out of ER the areas covered by the erstwhile BNR. Bengal Assam Railway became North Frontier Railway with headquarters at Maligaon (Guwahati).

The Second Five Year Plan’s emphasis on the country’s industrial growth helped SER achieve tremendous growth as it covered seven States (all mineral rich), steel plants like Tisco, IISCO, Rourkela, Bhilai and Bokaro, at least three ports (Vizag, Paradip and Haldia), and scores of industries (particularly cement and aluminium).

In the early 1960s, the Indian Railways introduced division system under each zonal railway in place of the earlier district system and, by 1990, SER had as many as eight divisions under it. In fact, for 47 years, SER recorded phenomenal traffic growth, from around 20 million tonnes in 1956-57 to more than 200 mt in 2002-03, accounting for an estimated 40 per cent of the Indian Railways’ total traffic throughput. It used to be said that any knowledge of Indian Railways’ freight loading would remain incomplete till one knew how SER functioned. SER was indeed a blue-chip railway.

Turning point

Every good thing at some point comes to an end. In one stroke, the then Railway Minister Nitish Kumar split several zonal railways to increase their number from nine to 16 with effect from April 1, 2003. ER was bifurcated and, as a result, Kumar’s own State got a new zonal railway, East Central Railway (ECR), with headquarters at Hajipur near Patna.

SER was worst hit. It was trifurcated. Two new zonal railways, East Coast Railway with headquarters in Bhubaneswar and South East Central Railway (Bilaspur), were created by carving out areas earlier served by SER. SER which at one time had eight divisions under it was left with four divisions. No wonder, the traffic throughput substantially dropped.


The railways, it is said, and perhaps rightly so, once unified India. Today, the same railways is being used to divide the country on provincial lines to concede to local demands. Mohanty and his ilk must be an unhappy lot now.

The writer is a senior journalist

Published on August 26, 2019

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