Today it is estimated that 2.2 billion people use the railway lines of Mumbai. The roots of this network lie 7,187 km away however, the Great Indian Peninsular Railway was incorporated by the British Parliament on 1st August 1849. It was to be the first railway in India to operate a commercial passenger service. On the 16th April 1853 the first train departed Mumbai (then Bombay); travelling to Thane some 20 miles away. Despite the swampy nature of the land, construction was completed within a year. A greater challenge was linking Bombay to further afield: to achieve this it was necessary to cross the Western Ghats, a natural ridge rising 2,500 feet above sea level. Two routes were chosen, one to the North East via Thull Ghat, and one to the South East via Bhore Ghat (now Bhor Ghat). A collection of images showing the construction of the Bhore Ghat railway is held by the IMechE archive, of which a selection appears here.
The spread of the Indian railway system was rapid: the first part of the East Indian Railway opened in 1854: by 1880 there were 9,000 miles of line open; and by 1935 43,000 miles. The lines were designed by British engineers but built by Indian manual labour. The work could be difficult, the Great Indian Peninsula Railway lost nearly a third of its workforce through disease or accident during the eight years spent constructing the line from Bombay to Poona.
Solomon Tredwell was appointed as the contractor for the Bhore Ghat line. He soon became one of the line’s victims, dying from cholera (or dysentery) 15 days after arriving in India having visited the site. Tredwell had travelled to India with his wife, Alice Tredwell. Newly widowed, Alice took over responsibility for the line. She appointed new engineers, Swainson Adamson and George Louis Clowser, and oversaw construction through to the railway’s completion in 1863. She returned to England once these appointments were made.
Construction proved particularly challenging: 16 miles in length, the line has to rise 1821 feet, with a maximum gradient of 1 in 37: 25 tunnels, with a combined length of 3985 yards had to be built, along with 1330 yards of viaduct; and a reversing station for changing the position of the engines prior to descent. Besides the physical difficulties presented by the terrain other difficulties arose for example, in the rainy season of 1859-1860 a cholera epidemic broke out and killed approximately 30% of the original workforce. This amounted to approximately 12,000 men losing their lives. Many of the remaining workers panicked and left; construction came to a temporary standstill.
The line was completed and opened to traffic on 14th May 1863. Apart from a realignment to remove the reversing station, it remains today much as it was when constructed – although improvements and alterations have of course been made. Along with Thal Ghat, it is one of only two major hill sections in India which carry heavy main line traffic. In the 1890’s it was observed that passengers passing up and down the Ghat inclines:
“quietly seated in comfortable railway carriages (would not have realised) the extraordinary nature of the obstacles (overcome by) the great skill and daring of all those engaged…..in shaping and carving out of the rocky mountain sides (along which those passengers travelled)”