Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Wheels of Empire

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It all began in 1831 with Alexander Burnes who explored the Indus River and its tributaries all the way to Lahore. Twelve years later, in 1843, the army led by Charles Napier annexed Sindh under the rule of the East India Company and within months the first steamboat of the Indus Steam Flotilla, precursor of the railway, was plying the river between Karachi and Lahore.

But the Indus was and still is a fickle river. In winter it shrank to a channel no wider than a couple of hundred metres with a sandy flood plain of several kilometres on either side. In summer, because it has no hard banks in the plains, the river spread as much as thirty kilometres. Even though the route was known, navigation was difficult because of shoals and sandbanks and travel possible only during the day. Progress was therefore never faster than thirty kilometres per day.

The thirty metre-long steamer with its train of three barges was an impressive sight on the river, but journey by it was tedious: it was slow and the accidental running aground on unseen shoals in the murky waters was common and even if the boat did not sink, freeing it was time consuming. A faster system of transportation was needed. The example to follow was the lines in peninsular India and West Bengal that were fast becoming a network.

The story of the great network that was, first, the North West Railway, then Pakistan Western Railway and finally, post 1971, Pakistan Railway began in Karachi in 1853. That year in December Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General of India approved the laying of the railway line from this port city to Kotri near Hyderabad. In May 1861, the railway opened under the name of Scinde Railway.

The Indus Steam Flotilla met its demise in 1878 when the line was extended through Sehwan and Larkana to Sukkur. This, the Indus Valley State Railway (IVSR), was to link up with the network slowly inching across the Punjab plains. Once complete, Scinde Punjab and Delhi Railway (SPDR), as it was then called, drastically cut the travel time between the port of Karachi and Lahore or Delhi in the north. However, because the Lansdowne Bridge between Sukkur and Rohri was not built until 1889, there was the little snag of crossing by ferry, eight railway coaches at a time, between Sukkur and Rohri.

The Mutiny or the First War of Independence of 1857 had been and gone. The subcontinent was firmly in the hands of the British crown and the imperial rivalry of Victorian Britain and Czarist Russia was at its highest. It was necessary that the army stationed on the frontier with Afghanistan had a fast connection with the rest of the dominion. The answer was the Punjab Northern State Railway (PNSR) connecting Gujrat with Lahore in December 1875.

When the Second Afghan War broke out in November 1879, there followed a frenzy of engineering to take the line to the Indus River at Attock. By 1883, the river was spanned and the railhead had reached Peshawar treading on the Khyber Pass.

Meanwhile, down south, IVSR was making way for the Kandahar State Railway (KSR) which, as the name suggests, was to connect the subcontinent with Afghanistan. As it headed northwest from the obscure little station of Ruk, it underwent changes of name in keeping with the ebb and flow of paranoia in view of Russian activity in Afghanistan and beyond.

In 1886, the network in what is now Pakistan was amalgamated and redesignated North Western Railway (NWR). One thing was clear: the network that eventually became Pakistan Railway was laid not for any altruistic purpose to serve the travelling public of the subcontinent. It was pure and simple a matter of strategy to supply, first the army of the East India Company, and then the forces of British India.

There was another purpose too. The authorities looked upon a through railway connection from Kolkata to Victoria station in London through Turkey and Europe as an attractive alternate to the long and debilitating sea voyage. But this was never to be. Indeed, it is still a dream that railway enthusiasts around the world continue to dream fervently: to board at the terminus in Kolkata or Haora and disembark in London.

It has been said that the story of the network that became Pakistan Railway ‘concerns the development of the science of bridging great and treacherous rivers.’ It is also the story of unparalleled and assiduous commitment and hard work in extreme weather conditions by the men who struggled on it. In no less measure, this is also a story of engineering aesthetics and beauty.

Note: The British had various spellings for place names which also changed with the passage of time. When referring to old railway networks, spelling is retained as it is in the record. Otherwise all place names are as they are now spelled.
Note 2: Twelve Stories published in Wheels of Empire - a Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL) book of days for 2012 will appear here. PPL is publishing innovative book of days every year since 2009.

Related: Wheels of Empire

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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