Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Stealth in Steel: Kandahar State Railway

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The lonely spot where the IVSR swung southeast to reach Sukkur was headed for fame. Barely months after the first train chugged through the forested spot of Ruk, the Second Afghan War broke out and suddenly the primary imperative for the government of India was to make a fast connection between Karachi and Quetta, and beyond. The answer was the Kandahar State Railway (KSR).

The order for selection of officers to work on this line went out on the autumnal equinox of 1879. Within ten days work commenced and in keeping with the urgency of the times, the first two hundred and thirteen kilometres of KSR from Ruk to Sibi was laid in a mere one hundred and one days! Completed on 14 January 1880, this feat has no parallel in the history of railway engineering in the subcontinent and remains a record to this day.

This extraordinary achievement was across a vast, flat alluvial plain, criss-crossed by a dozen rivers all of which lose their waters in the thirsty soil. Other than the raising of the line bed and several bridges, no major earthworks or civil engineering were required. Beyond Sibi, sitting at the foot of Bolan Pass, was a range of very rugged mountains. There were steep slopes and sharp turns to be negotiated.

By early 1880, the survey of the Bolan Pass and a reconnaissance of the possible route as far as Kandahar were completed. The Broad Gauge that had reached Sibi, it was learned, could not go up the steep gradients and and sharp curves of the pass. A new route north from Sibi through Harnai and Khost was deemed suitable. Work would have proceeded anew with the onset of winter, but early in 1880, the troops protecting the engineering party were withdrawn to join the war in Afghanistan. Work on KSR was suspended.

Three years went by, the war in Afghanistan ended and Sibi remained the only railhead in Balochistan. Then word came of the annexation of Merv (Turkmenistan) by the Russians. Paranoia ran high and KSR, designated a secret operation, was renamed The Harnai Road Improvement Scheme. The pretence of building a road instead of a railway, kept progress slow and with the war in Afghanistan having run its course and KSR went low priority once again. The only progress was redesignating it the Sind Peshin State Railway.

The first ten kilometres north of Sibi was trouble free engineering. Then they hit the gorge of the savagely beautiful Nari River. Muddy brown when it rained in the hills, otherwise blue, it teemed with fish and crocodiles as it snaked through the narrow gorge. The meandering course of the Nari warranted bridge after bridge and in the ninety-three kilometres from Sibi, to Harnai there are ten major steel spans – six of them telescoped in one stretch of eleven kilometres.

Glowing tribute was the lot of the men who came to work on this line: ‘the sterling qualities of the Pathan, the Sikh and the Punjabi peasant, their powers of endurance, their unlimited patience, their mechanical skill and their versatility’ were attributes to celebrate. And for good reason for this was a country of blistering summers of forty-eight degrees Celsius in the shade and frosty winters when the ponds in the flood plain froze solid. That was not all. Baloch tribesmen harried the workers, killing and plundering. Further up the route, in Kakar country, it was hardly any better.

Neither was the administration of fifteen thousand workers an easy task in such a remote and desolate region. Scurvy, malaria and fever were common. In November 1884 and again six months later, cholera broke out taking a toll of two thousand lives from the workforce. It was only after line reached Nakus and its orchards, 1025 metres above the sea, that some respite from the terrible heat became possible. Beyond lay the Chhappar Rift, the reason this route was chosen for the railway.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 09:22,


At 28 March 2013 at 21:52, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Rail has been one of my childhood fantasies that have been swept away

At 23 April 2013 at 13:08, Anonymous Anonymous said...

upload these and other small szied images in large size

At 23 April 2013 at 13:10, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haven't you travelled by Khyber STeam Safari ... if yes share it also

At 24 April 2013 at 10:54, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I travelled by the Khyber Pass train several times in 1977-78 and again when it was a tourist train in 1994. The images in my book Prisoner on a Bus are from 35 mm transparencies which are not in digital format.

At 24 April 2013 at 12:11, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...


Thanks for stopping by and pointing out. Click images and see high resolution and larger images now.

At 25 April 2013 at 08:51, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...


Have a look at this - a 1994 story:


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days