Dave Donaldson’s “Railroads of the Raj”


Another paper applying trade theory to India’s intranational trade? You bet! It’s Dave Donaldson’s “Railroads of the Raj: Estimating the Impact of Transportation Infrastructure.” The model is a multi-industry version of Eaton & Kortum (2002), and the data come courtesy of the British Empire’s meticulous recordkeeping:

How large are the benefits of transportation infrastructure projects, and what explains these benefits? To shed new light on these questions, I collect archival data from colonial India and use it to estimate the impact of India’s vast railroad network. Guided by six predictions from a general equilibrium trade model, I find that railroads: (1) decreased trade costs and interregional price gaps; (2) increased interregional and international trade; (3) eliminated the responsiveness of local prices to local productivity shocks (but increased the transmission of these shocks between regions); (4) increased the level of real income (but harmed neighboring regions without railroad access); (5) decreased the volatility of real income; and (6), a sufficient statistic for the effect of railroads on welfare in the model accounts for virtually all of the observed reduced-form impact of railroads on real income. I find similar results from an instrumental variable specification, no spurious effects from over 40,000 km of lines that were approved but never built, and tight bounds on the estimated impact of railroads. These results suggest that transportation infrastructure projects can improve welfare significantly, and do so because they allow regions to exploit gains from trade.