Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Stitch in the Crack: Chhappar Rift Line

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From the summer of 1942 until 2007 Khost was the northern terminus on the line north from Sibi. But back in March 1887, when Kandahar State Railway aka The Harnai Road Improvement Scheme aka Sind Peshin State Railway was completed and the first train steamed into Quetta, it had gone this way, and not by the Bolan Pass which was deemed too steep for the Broad Gauge trains of the day.
Out here, west of Khost, a huge Swiss Roll-shaped hill lay athwart of the axis of the railway line. This hill was no barrier for the line, however. Cracked open through and through by some prehistoric earthquake, the Chhappar Rift, as it is known, provided to the enterprising railway engineer the ideal crossing place from lowland Khost onto the Balochistan plateau.

As the line progressed upward from Khost, past the coal mines of Zardalu, it entered an open area with the huge tear across the elongated hill gaping to the north. Here the line was led in a semi-circle hugging the hills to the lower side of the valley. Then up over a bridge, it entered a tunnel gaining height through its length of eight hundred metres. As it emerged from the tunnel, the line passed onto a bridge of eight spans. Of these, the longest of forty-seven metres stitched the gigantic crack wrought by the ancient earthquake. Named after Louise Margaret, the Duchess of Connaught, this bridge remained a showpiece of railway engineering for fifty years after its completion in 1887.

If the laying of this spectacular bridge was the highpoint of the line, the route ahead was one of great difficulties. The mountain was prone to rock slips and, farther on, a hill composed largely of loose clay turned into copious mud flows in every fall of rain. The latter, now only a forlorn tunnel in the dusty hillside, once had a station called Mud Gorge. Over time with their patience wearing thin with the periodic mud falls, the place was nicknamed Mad Gorge in railway parlance. Half a century later, when the station building became a barracks for the Balochistan Levies, the name transmogrified into Mudguard!

During the night of 11 July 1942 heavy rain fell in this area. Now, it was routine on this section between the Rift and Mud Gorge for gang men to patrol regularly looking for breaches in the line. And on the morning following the rainstorm, they found a washout in the Rift. The line arched limply in mid air across a gap nearly thirty metres wide. The matter was wired to Quetta and Sibi and train traffic halted on this line.

Meanwhile, even as twice-a-week up and down trains were chugging through the Rift connecting Quetta with the rest of the subcontinent, railway engineers had successfully forced a line through the Bolan Gorge. This, at one time unattainable, feat was completed in 1895, eight years after the Chhappar Rift line was commissioned.

The Second World War was on in distant Europe and steel was in short supply. Maintenance in the Chhappar Rift was a headache, and, in any case, the connection via the Bolan was fully functional. The breach of July 1942 precipitated in the decision that the line through the Rift be dismantled and the steel put to use in other places. And so the most magnificent piece of railway engineering in this part of the country came to its end fifty-five years after it was opened amid great fanfare.

For the next sixty-five years, passenger trains coming up from Sibi ran only as far as Khost. In the spring of 2007, this line was finally laid to rest. This time it was local miscreants who bombed four of the several Nari bridges. Completely destroying two of them, the very people who could one day have flaunted this bit of railway heritage to visiting tourists, put paid to the most dramatic line in all Pakistan.

The tale of the dismantling of Louise Margaret appears to have been a favourite yarn around the hearth in this area. With time a myth centring on a Sikh railway engineer became current. When it came time to dismantle the bridge, so it was said, the greatest minds were in a quandary about the method to go about it. Offering his services, the Sikh filled up a rake with rocks and steamed it up to the bridge. Tying the ends of the bridge to the train and with the rocks acting as ballast, he let it roll down the slope, bridge and all.

Fearing that the man might duplicate his trick elsewhere, the British decided he had to be punished. And so, in a typical Oriental ending, the authorities amputated both his hands – as if he thought with his hands and not his head.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 08:30,


At 14 September 2013 at 22:32, Blogger Unknown said...

What a wonderful story...thank u for enlightening us about such wonderful anecdotes of our history. Best of luck always.

At 15 September 2013 at 09:39, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you Memoona. the original story is part of my book Prisoner on a Bus.


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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

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