Ellatuvalapil Sreedharan is from Karukaputhoor in Palakkad district of Kerala. The surname Ellatuvalapil belongs to the famous Tharavad in this part of Kerala. He was a classmate of T. N. Seshan, the former Chief Election Commissioner of India in school. He later studied at the Victoria College in Palghat and then graduated as an engineer from the Government Engineering College, Kakinada (now JNTU). After a short tenure as a lecturer in Civil engineering at the Kerala Polytechnic in Kozhikode and a year at the Bombay Port Trust as an apprentice, he joined the Indian Railways in its Service of Engineers. This was through a nation-wide selection procedure and his first assignment was in the Southern Railway as a Probationary Assistant Engineer in December 1954.
In 1963, a huge tidal wave washed away parts of Pamban bridge that connected Rameshwaram to mainland Tamil Nadu. The Railways set a target of six months for the bridge to be repaired while Sreedharan's boss, under whose jurisdiction the bridge came, reduced it to three months. Sreedharan was put in-charge of the execution and he restored the bridge in 46 days. The Railway minister's Award was given to him in recognition of this achievement. In 1970, as the deputy chief engineer, he was put in charge for implementation, planning and design of Calcutta metro, the first ever metro in India. Cochin Shipyard launched Rani Padmini, the first ship it built, when he was its Chairman and Managing Director (CMD). He retired from Indian Railways in 1990.
Though he retired, the Government needed his services and he was appointed the CMD of Konkan Railway on contract in 1990. Under his stewardship, the company executed its mandate in seven years. The project was unique in many respects. It was the first major project in India to be undertaken on a BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) basis; the organisation structure was different from that of a typical Indian Railway set-up; the project had 93 tunnels along a length of 82 km and involved tunneling through soft soil. The total project covered 760 km and had over 150 bridges. That a public sector project could be completed without significant cost and time overruns was considered an achievement by many.
He was made the managing director of Delhi Metro and by mid-2005, all the scheduled sections were completed by their target date or before and within their respective budgets. Sreedharan was given the sobriquet of Metro Man by the media. In 2005, he was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honour) by the government of France. He had announced that he would retire by the end of 2005, but his tenure has been extended by another three years to oversee the completion of the second phase of Delhi Metro. Recently he was called in Pakistan for development of the Lahore Metro plan.