Government on Rails: The Evolution of Railways, Foreign Influence, and State Power

Featured Image: Chinese High-Speed Train (Source: Unsplash / 终有 那天)

By Nick McGowan

On April 16th, 1853, a train of three engines and fourteen carriages left Bombay (now Mumbai) for Tanna (Thane). It was the first passenger train to run in the British Raj, and the day was exalted in the Times of India’s inaugural report as “one of the most memorable days, if not the most, in the annals of British India.” British officials occupying India heralded the railway as a major leap forward for the region’s development, with one official at the inaugural function saying that this “was not the triumph of nation over nation, of race over race, of man over his fellow man. It was the triumph of mind over matter, of patience and perseverance.” Yet, looking back at their origin, railways were more than just a means to transport goods and passengers: railways were extensions of British political and military control over the Indian subcontinent and represent a greater trend of governments using transportation infrastructure to expand their power and reach.

A train running on India’s first railway line between Bombay and Thane (Photo: Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library).

When railways first came to India, locals were shocked by the foreign machinery: tens of thousands of pounds worth of steel, moving twenty to thirty times faster than walking speed or the typical mule and cart along gleaming new rails. Horse-drawn railways and tramways were built on smaller scales before by the British, but these unlocked a whole new realm of possibilities for development, connecting people and goods across vast distances in a way never before seen on the Indian subcontinent. However, with newfound speed and efficiency came Westernization and stronger British control over the hinterlands. In an interview with The Yale Globalist, British railway historian and journalist Christian Wolmar explained that after the 1857 Rebellion in India, the British built more railways than barracks as a cost-effective way to move troops in times of rebellion and conflict. The British continued to build railways for nearly eighty years after then in pursuit of political and military control rather than for the economic and developmental needs of the Raj.

If the British were building railways to encourage India’s development and industrial growth, the British should have encouraged efforts to create local industries and to build their own railway facilities and infrastructure. One example of this development was Japan’s efforts to build the first Japanese railway from Tokyo to Yokohama with British and European technical advisors and contractors. In this case, foreign experts were contracted specifically to educate Japanese workers so that Japan could build a self-sufficient industry. While the British-Japanese relationship was very different than the relationship between Britain and the British Raj, any opportunities for Indian economic development around the railroad were created purely around British interests, in contrast to the Japanese model of railway-driven economic development. Wolmar said that “in India, they were not allowed to use the railways as a […] form of economic development. In other words, you have a railway, and then the supply industry becomes a great economic generator towards that, and none of that happened.” Instead, he said, the British exported all rolling stock, stations, and materials, removing any opportunity for India to build self-sustaining industries. 

Around this time, the United States was one step ahead with a flourishing domestic railway industry, and grand plans to build a transcontinental railroad linking East with West. By the 1860s, most Native American tribes had, knowingly or not, signed away the rights to their land in treaties with the federal government. In efforts to populate these newly acquired Western lands, the Homestead Act of 1862 gave 160 acres of surveyed government land to any adult citizen in exchange for a $18 filing fee. As people rushed to take up this opportunity, the market for the transcontinental railway was created, and the battleground was set for conflict between white and native populations.

From 1863 to 1869, railroads and affiliated industries acquired millions of acres of land through the Pacific Railroad Act and legislative loopholes. This land was then sold to white settlers at inflated prices after construction on the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. During construction, the U.S. military occupied Native communities throughout the Western United States to remove any opposition to construction, through razing towns, destroying food sources, and executing political leaders. The disappearance of wild game and the disruption to Native trade routes led to immense cultural and economic losses, which were only exacerbated by altercations with white settlers. In the end, the Transcontinental Railway was an effective mechanism for securing control of Native American land while encouraging white immigration to the West, strengthening the American government’s hold over the Wild West.

Since then, railways have been an economic driver throughout the world, with varied social consequences. In areas such as Japan and Europe, national and international high-speed rail networks have connected people, cultures, and places, making it easier to work, trade, and explore. But, historically colonialist trends from India and the U.S. utilizing infrastructure to expand state power and influence continue today under various guises.

One of today’s largest global infrastructure initiatives is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), started in 2013 under Chinese President Xi Jinping. The BRI includes projects in 152 countries around the world, covering areas such as energy infrastructure, transportation, cybersecurity, and more. Yale Professor Denise Ho told The Globalist that the BRI can be seen from two perspectives, both rooted in modern Chinese history. One is that it is a “soft power move,” a repeat of China’s work during the Socialist period in which Chinese officials and workers went to different countries in Africa and Asia and worked to promote the “socialist brotherhood” and technology transfer. One example of this was the TAZARA Railway in Tanzania, built by China, Tanzania, and Zambia to reduce Zambia’s economic reliance on white-ruled Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa in the spirit of Pan-African socialism. At the time, China was using soft power to gain support in its fight against the Soviet Union and the United States, and the railway project did succeed in bringing the attention of the West to both China’s influence-building and its potential to help foreign infrastructure development. A second perspective is that after ten to twenty years of huge investments into urban renewal and economic growth, China is looking to export its excess industrial capacity and infrastructure spending overseas while helping other countries. Professor David Lampton, from the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the current Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, brought up a third perspective: the BRI is China’s way of making itself the hub of the Asian economic system, which will not only promote economic growth but also security and friendlier relations with its neighbors.

Chinese High-Speed Train (Photo: 终有 那天 / Unsplash)

The BRI’s largest project in Southeast Asia is a new railway line from Kunming in China to Singapore, a dream first hatched by the British and French in 1900. It was later attempted by the Japanese, then by the French again, but efforts failed as other infrastructure and internal political issues were prioritized. Now, China is leading the efforts to construct a 2,400 mile-long high-speed rail route, crossing through Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia before ending in Singapore. If the entire project is constructed, this railway would complete a dream for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — which has pushed for this since the early 1990s as a way to connect ASEAN states and integrate the region into the global economy — and would change Southeast Asia forever.

The first stage of the railway from the Chinese border to Vientiane, Laos is under construction and scheduled to open in 2021. However, the financial and social terms of the project are controversial. According to a study by the Center for Global Development, Laos will need to pay $1.8 billion US dollars out of the $6 billion project cost, and has only allocated $715 million for the project so far. The over $1 billion remaining balance will be covered mostly by Chinese loans, in addition to the $465 million already borrowed from China. The human cost is also evident: with most local government structures considering the project a federal-level deal and taking a hands-off approach, the Laotian government has relocated over 4,000 families, evicting them before compensation and only paying them a fraction of the actual price of their land.

Lampton, who recently finished research for his upcoming book on high-speed railways from Kunming to Singapore, said that the picture isn’t all bleak. Planners in Vientiane, he said, made an intentional decision to join the project because, as a landlocked country, Laos needs to connect somewhere to develop, and that somewhere is China and Southeast Asia. The country faced a stark choice: it could “revel…in [its] sovereignty and non-dependence” and be left out of a “transient opportunity” that could transform its economy, or it could accept economic development on China’s terms. Studies done on the Kunming-Vientiane railway, however, show that the larger Southeast Asia region and China will benefit more directly than Laos from the completion of this project, but Lampton said that Laos has “made the judgment that [they] can manage this, and that its the only way out [of poverty].” The exclusive reliance on China for funding, construction, and support in the project will inevitably tie Laos and the broader region closer to China, but according to Lampton, this is exactly what Laos wants. China is likely getting a better deal while helping Laos achieve its goals of development, but in Laos, the project is merely seen as the best possible option.

Kenya’s new rail line between Nairobi and Mombasa (Photo: Mwangi Kirubi).

China’s efforts reach beyond Southeast Asia: Kenya’s shiny new Madaraka Express provided a much-needed infrastructure update, but at a potentially catastrophic cost. The new railroad between Kenya’s capital Nairobi and the main port city of Mombasa cut rail travel time between the two cities from 24 hours to just over four, and has made the journey much more affordable and pleasant for Kenyans. However, the $3.6 billion USD price tag, 90% of which was financed by loans from Chinese banks, has made people wonder if Kenya bit off more than it could chew. Not only is Kenya’s budgetary health on the line, but also its sovereignty: The Daily Nation newspaper reported that the Kenyan government put up the Mombasa Port as collateral. Gaining the port would give China a new base in East Africa while depriving Kenya of control over its main seaport — a catastrophe for Kenya both symbolically and financially.

Similar to British railway development in the late 19th century, China exports its own rolling stock, tracks, workers, and construction materials for rail projects, and has done little to help develop a local railway industry in Kenya, further tying Kenya to China for infrastructure assistance. Many recent reports say that Chinese drivers on the railroad continue to outnumber Kenyan drivers, and most management positions are filled by Chinese employees. Ho said that the contrast between the socialist brotherhood method of development between China and Africa in the 1960s and the current export-all style of Chinese infrastructure projects could result in miscommunication and animosity between Chinese workers and local populations. Wolmar agrees, and drew a parallel between the Madaraka Express project and the development of British Railways in the British Raj: the lack of communication and of local industry development, along with the debt situations could lead to the same anti-imperialist sentiments and political ramifications that developed over one hundred and fifty years ago in India.

The potential for cultural conflict and politics come into play with smaller rail systems, too. In Jerusalem, controversy began from the moment tracks were laid down in 2002 for the city’s light rail system. Today, the Red Line runs from Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, through Palestinian neighborhoods, downtown Jerusalem, and to the West. The line is a gleaming symbol of a united Jerusalem, but for some, that’s where the problem inherently lies. The UN Human Rights Council in 2010 passed a resolution expressing “grave concern” for the “Israeli decision to establish and operate a tramway between West Jerusalem and the Israeli settlement of Pisgat Zeev, which is in clear violation of international law and relevant United Nations resolutions.” Critics of the project have argued that the line makes it easier for Israel to give legitimacy to its settlements in the West Bank and to show that Jerusalem is the united capital city of the Israeli state. The rail project continues to be a target of vandalism and protests, and it is not uncommon to find stones thrown at trams in protest, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in repair costs for the city to foot.

At the same time, the light rail has been used as a way to connect cultures and cross borders. According to an NPR article, transit officials in Jerusalem describe passengers as a “mosaic” of “Jews and Arabs, men and women, tourists and more.” Keshia Badalge, a freelance journalist, wrote in CityLab about a light-rail-based tour initiative called Dissolving Boundaries, which uses the light rail to bring “participants in Jerusalem to places they didn’t know existed” and exposes people to the perspective of “boundary dissolvers”: people whose backgrounds don’t fall neatly into the strict Israel-Palestine dichotomy that dominates people’s perspective of Jerusalem and the larger conflicts at hand. In the article, Palestinian activist Riman Barakat said these cultural and open dialogue initiatives in the larger scheme of things showed that “Jerusalem could be the blueprint for how to negotiate boundaries in the future.”

Jerusalem Light Rail (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Bahnfrend)

So, why does this matter? Are these gigantic infrastructure projects inherently tools for control and power? The answer is more complex than it seems. In the past, the British and French built railroads and infrastructure to control their colonial subjects under the guise of “civilizing” their colonial lands, or, as Wolmar says, the Victorian concept of “altruism.” Nowadays, the main powers in infrastructure project funding — China, the European Union, Japan, and the United States — are looking for more subtle, soft power ways to exercise influence, spread their political messages, and promote their economic interests. While in the past, railway infrastructure was used to tear down borders by force, today’s railways are built to connect people across borders, encourage cultural and economic exchange, and spread political messages and power. With improvements in speed and connectivity, the world seems a smaller place, but with a global push for development, countries must be wary about what they may be giving up in the quest for economic growth.


Nick McGowan is a first-year in Pauli Murray College. He can be contacted at nick.mcgowan@yale.edu.