The imperative that drove the development of railways in India was different from the reasons for building railways in much of the rest of the British Empire. In Africa, Canada and Australasia, the railways opened up wilderness to colonization. India, by contrast, was heavily populated and already had a substantial, if pre-industrial, economy before British acquisition. Backed by government guarantees, private companies – and local princes – had laid over 16,000 miles (25,000 km) of track by 1880. The network promoted exports of commodities, such as cotton, jute, tea and sugar, but steel and textiles also became prominent with growing industrialization. Before India developed its own mills, imported textiles, easily transported by rail, had devastated the traditional home weavers. The opening up of India by rail had negative side effects too. By enabling the trade of agricultural surpluses, and a move to cash crops, India’s rural hinterland became highly susceptible to famine: millions would die in 1876–78 and 1896–97.
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