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OFF TOPIC Indian Railway

Robert Grauman

New member
I apologize in advance for this off-topic post, but just I had to share this engraving. It is from the August 15, 1885, issue of the Scientific American. The article originally appeared in the French magazine, L'Ilustration. The Bolan Pass is in what is now Pakistan. One has to wonder how much "artistic license" has been exercised in the engraving, but it appears the fact remains that a complete railway, including locomotives, was transported on the backs of elephants in this case.



"The English army has succeeded in establishing a portable railway on several points of the Bolan Pass. This railroad is of the Decauville system, formed in sections of small steel rails, which can be put down or taken up very quickly. This ingenious railway - which has been used considerably for work on the Panama Canal and for the transportation of sugar cane in Australia and Java - has become the indispensable means of transport in all wars. It is at present being used in Tonquin and Madagascar by the French army, and is also being used on the Red Sea by the Italian army. When the Russian government commenced the war in Turkestan, in 1882, it bought one hundred versts, or about 66 miles, of the Decauville railroad, which Gen. Skobeleff used with great success for the transportation of potable water and for all the provisions for his army. This railroad was taken up as the army marched forward, and when the Russians advanced recently, in Afghanistan, the little railway appeared at the advance posts, and was described to the English army by the officers who watched the operations for the Afghans. An order for a similar apparatus was given by the English government to M. Decauville, directions being given that the road should be of the same type as that furnished to the Russians. The object of this was, probably, that any sections of road which might be captured from the Russians during the war could be used by the English. In this last order there was one problem which was very difficult to solve; all the material had to be carried by elephants, and they wanted a locomotive. M. Decauville had the locomotive made in two parts, the larger of which weighed on 3,978 pounds, the greatest weight that an elephant can carry."

"This episode of the Anglo-Russian conflict, illustrated in the annexed cut, is a great conquest for our national industry, for the works of M. Decauville are at Petit-Bourg, that is, in France, and only an hour from Paris. They cover about 20 acres on the bank of the Seine, and adjoin the P.L.M. [Paris-Lyon-Marsailles Railway - rjg] The great hall is 525 feet long by 525 feet deep. The material is brought in at both ends (at one end the rails and steel for the road, and at the other end the sheet metal and iron for the cars), and the manufactured products are taken out at the middle, loaded in the cars of the P.L.M Co. In July, 1884, the works of Petit-Bourg attained their greatest development, with a thousand workmen, and 350 machines, which do the work of 3,000 men. Among others, there are four painting machines, which do the work of 60 painters. Three thousand cars and 93 miles of road are produced each month."
[SIZE=-2]- L'Ilustration[/SIZE]

If I recall correctly, Decauville system railways were used extensively at the fronts in World War I.

Robert Grauman


Active member
An excellent engraving full of interesting and amusing details. These details suggest a high degree of accuracy, but I don’t suppose all those activities were going on at the same time. Convincing details include: the trestle supporting the rails in the foreground, the fact that the taller soldiers are at the ‘higher’ end of the rope, and the elephants' truncated tusks. The artist has had a bit of trouble with scale, the gauge being overstated in the foreground, and the elephant has had to stretched to accommodate it! The upper part of the loco on the elephant could be straight out of a childrens’ book, but I don’t suppose any of those present found much to smile about.

Nowadays it is probably not possible to praise the achievements of those who performed such feats of civil engineering, without someone chipping in with tales of exploitation. I suppose it would be regarded as non-PC to praise their work, but I did read an excellent book called ‘Couplings to the Khyber’ by P S A Berridge, who was a bridge engineer for the North West Railway of India. He describes the remarkable achievements of building railways in barren, mountainous, inhospitable country, where there may be next to no rain in a year, or 5 inches falling in an hour, washing away months of work.


Thank you Robert - a very interesting engraving!

The Indian Railways seem to have accessed some unlikely places - see photo below. Sorry, I cannot remember where this photo came from - off the internet I think, but I have no details of the location, except that it was in India.

The comment in the Scientific American article that the same Decauville portable railway was used for sugar cane transport in the Australian sugar industry is correct, and was still used extensively when I started working in sugar mills fifty five years ago. Quite a lot of the original 1880s-rolled Decauville portable rail sections had survived to that period, and had been supplemented by large quantities of locally produced rail. On the military portable railways in WW1 Simplex petrol locomotives were used for motive power, and some survivors of these, together with later versions, were still in common use in sugar mills in the fifties and later for shunting work.

The Decauville Portable Railway System: The rail sections were 24" gauge and 5 1/2 yards long, i.e. 320 sections to the mile. The rail was 15 pounds/yard, so the sections weighed very close to 200 pounds with their steel ties and riveted fish plates. Curve sections were supplied in four lengths - full curves with the outside rail the full 5 1/2 yards long, three quarter curves, half curves and quarter curves. Two full curves and a half curve gave a 90º bend. Each section could be handled by two men, one each end, standing inside the rails.

In the sugar mill systems, rails were transported from the main line to the required location on 2' gauge wooden trolleys fitted with hardwood bearings - no great precision here! In later years tractor trailers fitted with shortened tracks from Bren Gun Carriers were often used.

As an aside, the rails were very popular with the locals as a source of steel for constructing sheds, farm machinery etc. Since they were often stacked in out of the way places for long periods they could easily be obtained at no cost by those so inclined. I remember carrying out an audit of the portable rail stocks at a large sugar mill in the 1950s, the first actual physical count since the end of WW2. We were 19 MILES short of the book stock!



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Why would this be off topic? Is not a steam railway an example of antique machinery?
I love it! That World War One-era portable military railway materiel was in use at Camp Dix (Now Fort Dix) in the USA.


New member
That looks a bit like the Darjeeing Rwy.
I recently completed transcribing (for a book) the accounts of an old mate who fought with the 'Forgotten Army' in Burma. After recieving a bit of Japanese mortar in his his ankle he was sent on R&R to a rest camp in Darjeeling. These are a some of the photos c1944.



WW1 was mentioned earlier, this is a pic of some serious trestle building.

One of the soldiers is a family member but have yet to identify him.



Active member
It would seem to me that one would want a continuous line of rail from major ports/factories/etc to the front. So modular rail that is easy to transport and lay down makes perfect sense. But why transport it by elephant? Why not just carry it to the end of the main rail, and then build a branch with it? (Which it sounds like is what the sugar plantations did - no? Portable rails connected various plots to the main line as needed in various seasons, right?)

Why would the Russians take it up behind them? Or was it meant that as the army advanced, permanent rail was laid behind it, and they kept moving the modular rail forward?


(Which it sounds like is what the sugar plantations did - no? Portable rails connected various plots to the main line as needed in various seasons, right?)

More of less. Most Australian sugar mills were (and still are) supplied by individual cane farmers - big mill owned plantations were rare. For convenience they were grouped together in groups of three or four farms for harvesting purposes. Farmers took it in turns to cut, and each farmer usually cut four or five times a season. This entailed much shifting of portable track from farm to farm during the season, since there was only enough portable track to accommodate the farmers actually cutting at any one time. There was a set of points in the main line adjacent to many farms, to which the portable track would be connected when needed.

Old Biker,

Your first photo seems to be the same location as the one I posted, but taken at a different time. I imagine it must have been a favorite spot for photographers! In your second photo there are two open cars on the train in the siding. These look very similar to the 1895 Decauville one which has been preserved and is still used occasionally at a North Queensland mill - see photo below. This one survived because it was used by the gang who moved the portable track from farm to farm during the season. It was originally a First Class carriage on a passenger train run by the mill when there were few roads locally and the mill railway was the only access to some areas.

It is in original condition except that the original canvas blinds for wet weather protection are long gone, and the seats were altered in the 1950s. Originally the nicely shaped seats had swing-over backs so the passengers could always face forward. When the original seat mechanism finally wore out it was not replaced, because the rail gang did not need the comfort afforded to the original paying passengers (!) and the present backless benches were fitted in their place. A fairly faithful replica - also in the photo - was built in the 1960s to provide extra capacity when the coaches were needed for special occasions.



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