Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Steaming up the Khyber

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They Khyber Pass! How the name rings of romance and high adventure. It brings to mind the likes of Kipling's King -- of the Khyber Rifles. And men like Ajab Khan, the true blue Afridi, who had stolen his way into the house of an English officer and made off with his young daughter only to return her some days later: unmolested and in the glow of health. That was the age of chivalry. And it brings to mind the fierce struggle of the Afridi tribesmen before they finally, albeit unwillingly, submitted to the power of the Raj.

Before them the pass had been the conduit for traders, migrants and brigands drawn by the riches of the Indian sub continent. It had been the way for the outward spread of Buddhism, and a millennium later saints and mystics in the service of Islam wound their way down its dusty contours to illuminate the hearts of Vedic India not at the point of the sword but through the true spirit of the new faith. And of course this was the same way that Krateros led one phalanx of Alexander's army to the conquest of wondrous Pushkalavati near modern day Charsadda.

Babur came this way to establish the Moghuls in India and when after two hundred glorious years the empire faded this was the passage for the plundering Durrani hordes as indeed it had been for the Ghaznavides in the 10th and 11th centuries. Surely if there is a pass that has seen the unfolding of history it is the Khyber. In the late seventies stationed at Peshawar I had made my way up to Landi Kotal several times. Then I was just another traveller, illiterate in history, drawn there by the awesome topography of the gorge.

Quartered barely a mile from the railway station lying in bed in the quiet of night I would hear the wheezing of steam engines like the laboured breathing of an asthmatic geriatric. Even at that time, when there were a number of steam trains doing regular service in the country, this was a sound full of romance and nostalgia and every time I heard it I promised myself I would be on the next train up the pass.

But that never came to be. Not long afterwards the Russians seized Afghanistan and late in 1980 service on this line was discontinued. In fact, as things stood, the railway may even have felt relieved at this closure: The once a week service to Landi Kotal and back was sheer drain on the railways for the tribals who rode it never even considered the "foolish" idea of paying fare. The facility was there and it was their right and privilege to use it free. In the following years, every time I was at Peshawar, I made inquiries but it seemed the Khyber Railway had met its irrevocable end. Then, entirely to my good luck, early in 1994 Pakistan Railways came up with the idea of running special trains on request.

The chance, therefore, of organising a Khyber Pass Special was the fulfillment of an abiding dream. And so a motley crowd, about one hundred and forty strong, gathered at the Peshawar Railway Station to be part of this great adventure. Since this is perhaps the only railway line in the world that crosses a runway, and since we are so concerned with airport security, we were to join the train at Jamrud for which we rode out on three rickety busses.

In the golden sunshine of a lovely December morning our train -- two carriages with a steam engine and a water tank at each end -- looked glorious against the backdrop of the brown Suleman hills. Having ridden nearly all the surviving steam train services in the country I had not expected such prim locomotives: glistening black offset by the bright red of the lamps and the stripes on the sides. In the front the dull silver sheen of the crescent and star seemed as if it had only recently been sand blasted.

These locomotives of the 2-8-0 HG/S class were the work horses of the pre diesel days hauling long distance trains across the plains of the sub continent. But as steam locomotives go ours were young. They were, nonetheless, both millionaires. The one that had started service in August 1946 had clocked over eleven million kilometres while the other having been commissioned in December 1948 was a veteran of more than thirteen million kilometres.

For most of us the steam engine may be nothing more than a useless piece of antiquated machinery good only to be turned into girders or steel fencing but for a lot of people in the West they are the epitomes of engineering of a bygone age. To a little boy, especially, a train is a train only when it is worked by a wheezing, smoking steam locomotive. This became evident as we got off at Jamrud. After the initial scream of delight the shine in the eyes riveted on the machine and the smile frozen in that moment of ecstasy told it all. Suddenly the effort that had gone into organising this adventure was worthwhile.

With a loud "Wheee!" and a belch we rolled out of Jamrud straight towards the misty hills. Not long afterwards we were chugging up their brown treeless contours; in the distance a great mound rose stark against the sky and seemed to be standing athwart of the railway line. We steamed into our first tunnel: the darkness grew until it was like pitch with only the red lamps of the video cameras glowing. The "whoof-chug, whoof-chug" of the locomotive bounced off the tunnel walls and, magnifying manifold, swamped the sounds of conversation and the air became heavy with the oily smoke from the locomotive. Occasionally, electric sparks from the undercarriage leapt up to tear the darkness with their eerie blue flashes.

Then it was light again and then another tunnel. At the third tunnel the attendants remembered they had lights in the carriages which were turned on and the children took to imitating the train's whistle. By the time we had gone through half of the thirty four tunnels on the section most of us were accustomed to the din. The engineers who first surveyed the line and saw it through the planning and building stages surely could never have imagined it would be reduced to a mere excursion train. So far as they were concerned this railway was to play a major part in shaping the Asia of the 20th century.

It was in the mid 1860s that the court of Imperial Russia posted on its eastern borders one of the most brilliant military minds of the century -- General Konstantin Kaufmann. In 1865 he added Tashkent to Russian control. Three years later Samarkand fell and within the year the Amir of Bokhara was routed. The frontiers of Russia were suddenly treading on British interests in Afghanistan. In a state of alarm Sher Ali, the man who had replaced the redoubtable Dost Mohammed as Amir of Afghanistan, signed a treaty with the Russians. But in November 1878 when a thirty five thousand strong British force entered Afghanistan and the Amir sought Kaufmann's help he found none forthcoming. Barred from crossing the frontier for an audience with Kaufmann the man died in misery in the bleak setting of Balkh in mid winter.

Yakub Khan, his son, became Amir; the Treaty of Gandamak was signed with the British and Sir Louis Cavagnari became the Resident in Kabul in July 1879. It took less than three months for unrest to foment and almost like a replay of the events of that disastrous winter of 1841, the Afghans erupted in arms. The Residency was stormed and though the Indian troops led by their British officers fought bravely, they were completely wiped out. That was the beginning of the Second Afghan War. And that was the raison d'etre for the Khyber Railway.

Even so, however, actual work on survey and planning did not begin until 1890 with the plan of pushing a metre or narrow gauge line through the pass and on to Landi Kotal. However, by 1901 the broad gauge line had reached Jamrud and in 1905 it began to inch towards the dusty hills of the pass. But if it was the situation in Afghanistan to prompt its building, it was the circumstances in far away Europe that put a stop to the plans: the growing power of Germany produced an alliance between Russian and England and the Khyber Railway was abandoned in 1909.

The Third Afghan War erupted in 1919 and within a few months survey for a broad gauge line was completed to the top of the pass. Work began the following year and the first train pulled into Landi Kotal on November 3, 1925. Exactly five months later the line was extended to Landi Khana treading on the Afghan frontier. Even so the line had come a trifle late. The last round of the Great Game had been played; the Russian flag now flew over Samarkand, Bokhara and as far east as Alma Ata. The sun was about to set on the British Empire, and the railway that had hoped to cart armies to Kabul was relegated to the status of a conduit for smugglers and gun runners. The Khyber Railway had just missed the full blaze of glory.

In December 1932 the last seven kilometres between Landi Kotal and Landi Khana were closed but until cessation of service in 1980 the once a week train ran only up to Landi Kotal. That it continued so long was remarkable since the line made no revenue whatsoever from passenger traffic.

Outside, the brown hills had engulfed our train and we crawled to halt at the first of the reversing stations. For the first time I saw what P. S. A. Berridge had meant in his book Couplings to the Khyber when he wrote that the alignment selected by Colonel Gordon Hearn is a "classic example of brilliant surveying". Quoting Sir Clement Hindley, the Chief Commissioner of Railways of the time, he says that, "from the engineering point of view the work had no superior in the world". It was this fact that drew my father here in 1941 when he was a probationary Assistant Engineer with North Western Railways.

Since a hill stood athwart of the line and tunnelling through it would have entailed far greater expense the reversing station was designed: the train winds around and up the contours to a point from which it can go no further. Then it reverses, gaining height as it goes. The process is repeated until the obstructing hill is cleared; and this is precisely the reason these trains have always run with one locomotive at each end. In all, the section has four reversing stations that recall the unshakable determination of the men who had set their minds on taking the line up to Landi Kotal at the top of the pass.

The 34 km from Jamrud to Landi Kotal were made in about three hours in which distance we had climbed 610 metres (2000 ft) making the gradient a stiff 1 in 33. The return journey, Mohammed Saleem the Divisional Transportation Officer, said would take just two hours since we would be speeding downhill. Speed we did and in order to get a better understanding of the reversing stations I rode in the locomotive. At one point I leaned over to speak to the driver but Shamsher Ali who had introduced himself as the loco shed foreman stopped me, "We are going down a 1 in 33 slope; you distract him and we could end up in a very bad way."

It turned out that the catch sidings which take care of runaway trains were not operative on this section and as we hurtled downhill our driver had only good brakes to rely on. There being no catch sidings I asked Shamsher what would happen if the brakes also gave. "We'd go past Jamrud so fast they'd think its a jet fighter from Peshawar Air Base." he said with a laugh. But we crawled into Jamrud under control and I wondered how many of us sent up a prayer for the men who look after these aged behemoths. Especially for the man who repairs the brakes [The story was written in 1994].

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 25 April 2013 at 11:44, Anonymous Aghader Ami said...

From Facebook: But what has happened to that famous Safari? It is no more running buy why is it in the shape as you have shown in this image.

At 25 April 2013 at 11:46, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

@Aghader Ami

The safari was closed down finally about the year 2002. Because of the threat of kidnapping, all railway staff was withdrawn from the line. Without maintenance, it was only natural for the line to fall into disrepair during the rains. There is little hope for this region to come out of its uncertainty within the next few decades. By then the line will be completely gone. Another great heritage piece that this country failed to save.

At 26 April 2013 at 15:31, Anonymous Ramla said...

When was this photo taken? Why haven't this 'iron' gone into any foundry? LOL

At 26 April 2013 at 16:08, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

This photo was taken in the last week of March 2010, eight years after the last train ran this line. Like you, Ramla, I too am flummoxed by the presence of the iron still in place. I would seriously like to know why it has not been stolen.

At 7 December 2014 at 15:33, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an exciting and unique train for those reversing stations and the downhill journey, respect for those who engineered the entire route. Such a shame the Safari was closed down.

At 8 December 2014 at 13:27, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Pakistan wins pride of place for shutting down most of the remote train routes inherited at Partition. This was just another of those.


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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

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Riders on the Wind

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