Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Riding the ‘Kandahar State Railway’

Bookmark and Share

In late October the chill air of early morning in Quetta made me shiver. The railway station at just after seven in the morning was already bustling: a Sialkoti beggar woman in a heated altercation with a bearded Pathan threatening to get his legs smashed. Nearby an aged cripple shuffled along in a squatting position rolling a large round jute bag in front of him. From the windows of the train women and children peered while men waited outside scratching in their crotches and spitting all over the place. The tea kiosks were crowded but the book stall had just two men looking disinterestedly at some cheap pulp magazines – which, besides a couple of local papers, was all on offer. The Q-487 Passenger train to Chaman on the Afghan frontier was not yet ready to leave.

I was travelling in style in the Assistant Officers’ Saloon courtesy friends in high places in the Railways and Salim Jehangir, a jovial grey-haired Lahori and veteran of thirty years on the Railways, was keeping me company. This was just as well for he knew just about everything that was worth knowing about the railway in Balochistan. And what he did not know, his little note book listed in an immaculate hand. ‘This is a journey into history,’ he said with a twinkle in his eye as we rolled out of Quetta Railway Station one hour behind schedule. Earlier he had taken me on a tour of the train pointing out the sorry state of repair the carriages were in. It was used by smugglers, he said, to transport contraband from Chaman to Quetta, and the best place to hide the goods was in the water tanks feeding the toilets. The round plates held in place on the bottom of the tanks by bolts were nearly all missing. These, he said, were appropriated by the smugglers.

‘They stuff whole bolts of material in the tanks and screw on the plates,’ Jehangir explained, ‘Over a period of time the least careful do not even bother to replace the plates. When the plates are lost and their merchandise in danger of discovery, they start tearing up the compartment walls concealing the contraband and nailing them on again.’ There were ample signs to support whatever he was saying.

The year was 1857 – the year of what we call the ‘War of Independence’ and what the British called the ‘Mutiny’. The First Afghan War had already been fought and lost by the British at a terrible cost to human life. Sindh and Punjab had been annexed and Westminster was getting to do more and more with the affairs of the East India Company. This was the year that William Andrew, ‘Chairman of the Scinde, Punjab and Delhi Railway’ mooted the idea of taking a line up to Kandahar in Afghanistan.

The epic struggle that was euphemistically called The Great Game between Russia and Britain for the control of Central Asia was at its height and Britain was very nearly going crazy with fear of the Russians marching into India through Afghanistan. The railway to Kandahar was, therefore, not merely going to be an expression of the power of the English crown; it was a grave necessity. Nevertheless it was not until twenty-two years later, in October 1879, that work actually began on the project.

At that time the Indus had not yet been bridged and the line running from Karachi through Kotri, Dadu and Larkana passed through Ruk on its way to the terminus at Sukkur. The Kandahar State Railway (KSR) was to take off from Ruk and head for the Balochistan Plateau on the other end of the tortuous Bolan Pass and cross the frontier into Afghanistan near the border town of Chaman. Sixteen hundred men in a great feat of railway engineering completed the two hundred and fourteen kilometres across the desert to Sibi in a record time of one hundred and one days.

This was time to pause and take stock before attacking the defiles of the Bolan and to wait out the furnace heat of Sibi. But far away, on the dusty open plain to the west of Kandahar, a British garrison was about to face what has been termed ‘one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the British in Asia.’ If Kandahar was not wrested from British hands it was for the high price paid in terms of human life. This setback and a new pacifist government in London put the Kandahar State Railway on the back burner.

In 1883 came the news that the Russians had taken Merv in Central Asia and the pacifist government in a fit of frenzy ordered the resumption of work on the railway. However, it was a Top Secret affair under the ridiculous name of ‘The Harnai Road Improvement Scheme.’ But this is another story. In the event, however, the first train pulled into Quetta in August 1886.

We passed through the choking early morning smog of Quetta, briefly paused to collect more Pathan families at the stations of Sheikh Manda, Baleli and Kuchlak before arriving in a cloud of dust at Bostan. The name is a misnomer if I’ve ever heard one – it was like being in a desert. There was nothing to liken Bostan to a garden. But several days later my father, who was the Divisional Engineer at Quetta in 1947, told me that Bostan was at that time truly a sprawling garden. Then the karez that watered its orchards forsook the town and it turned into the desert it is now.

I rode in the locomotive and as we cleared Bostan the sun glinted off a machine gun barrel high up on a hill to the left. It was only then I realised how many bunkers peppered the barren contours around us. It was a grim reminder that things had not changed very much since the time the line was laid over a hundred years ago. Two men on a motorcycle waited at an unmanned level crossing and just when there was no time for them to cross, their machine lurched forward only to stop short of the track. With a sharp intake of breath I hit an imaginary brake. The motorcyclist laughed as we went past and Waqar, the engine driver, looked straight ahead, unperturbed by the macabre Pathan sense of humour.

We clattered through a landscape of brown hills and across bone-dry streams. The aging diesel (American design produced in Australia) pounded away for all it was worth and we lurched crazily around the bends. It must have been doing all of sixty kilometres an hour when at one point we seemed heading to ram at top speed into a round hill. Only, just in time, we made a loop around it.

We stopped at stations with evocative names: Yaru, Saranan, Gulistan and Kila Abdullah heading for Khojak Pass that straddles Khwaja Amran, an elongated spur of the Toba Kakar Mountains. Beyond the platform of Shelabagh station was the dark opening to the longest railway tunnel in the subcontinent – the Khojak Tunnel. At 1945 metres (6380 ft) above the sea this was also the highest point on this line.

‘We are about to enter a five rupee note.’ Jehangir said as we stood in the middle of the tracks comparing the picture on the reverse of the note with what lay in front. I could not help wondering if its builders had ever thought their tunnel would one day adorn a currency note.

The dark semi-circle of the tunnel was flanked by massive towers and above ran a loop-holed parapet – reminders perhaps of the uncertain time when it was built. ‘1888 Khojak Tunnel 1890’ said the dado in the middle. Beyond lay the cone of rock that we were to travel through for the next 3.92 kilometres – the result of the unremitting struggle of ‘an army of workmen’ comprising of Pathans, Makranis, Punjabis, Kashmiris, Tibetans and even some Zanzibaries besides a few Persian Gulf Arabs. Since the tunnel was to bore through water bearing rock it required extensive timbering for which sixty-five Welsh miners were imported. Perhaps a more colourful host had never rubbed shoulders anywhere else on subcontinental railways.

The seemingly limitless supply of water emanating in the Khojak strata even today is piped all the way to Chaman and as we raced through the tunnel with our headlight slicing the gloom we passed sporadic showers. Then, quite suddenly, the pounding of the diesel eased and finally gave way to a high pitched whine. I looked enquiringly at Waqar.

‘It’s downhill all the way now. We’ll go with our brakes jammed on.’ He said. As we emerged into the harsh glare of mid-morning the sign stared us full in the face: ‘Drivers, check your Brakes!’ and a little later: ‘Drivers, You have been Warned!’ That certainly had a very ominous ring to it.

Earlier Salim Jehangir had told me that in the event of brake failure on the descent the train could be doing well over one hundred and fifty kilometres an hour when it hit the buffers at Chaman. Which meant the train would be ripping up the antiquated track behind it as it hurtled to certain catastrophe.

‘So, what’s the condition of the brakes?’ I asked Waqar with some trepidation. ‘We’ll soon find out.’ He grinned. The whine of the engine bit into my ears and far away across a wide pan of dusty brown lay a great straggle of dun-coloured buildings with an occasional sprinkling of green: Chaman. In Sindh, Punjab and the Northern Areas people paint their houses and the doors and windows brilliant colours. But here their aesthetic sense was perhaps deadened by the insipid, colourless surroundings and they allowed their houses to look as lifeless as the landscape they sprouted from; there was not a trace of colour in a single house.

Imperceptible though it was from the cockpit, we were now making wide loops along the contour lines of the western flank of the Khwaja Amran spur as we raced into the flat pan of Chaman. Because of our looping movement Sanzala railway station with its bulky battlement in the middle distance switched from the right to the left and than back again. During the brief halt I noticed that the impressive brick tower was rather misleading for the rest of the building had very nearly fallen to pieces.

Past Sanzala we went raising great clouds of dust with most of them working their way into our train and clattered into Chaman. This was another misnomer, for there are not enough trees in Chaman to make one box of toothpicks. My fruit-wallah has all along fooled me about the pomegranates, grapes and melons of Chaman. The fruit, in fact, comes from Kandahar across the Durand Line.

The Kandahar State Railway that changed names to the Harnai Road Improvement Scheme; then to the Sind Peshin State Railway to be finally called the Chaman Extension Railway had once promised to go across this frontier. But the geo-political situation of the late 19th century, never static, did not alter sufficiently to favour the line across the frontier and now the buffer stops were not very far from where we stood. And as our brakes had worked we were not to be seeing them up close. That was quite all right with me.

Related: Stealth in Steel: Kandahar State Railway, Wheels of Empire

Labels: , ,

posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 6 July 2015 at 22:51, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Is this line still there?

At 6 July 2015 at 23:36, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 6 July 2015 at 23:37, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 10 July 2015 at 18:49, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

In 2007, Baloch miscreants blew up three priceless bridges and put paid to this beautiful endeavour. In the event, they too suffered because the journey from, say, Harnai to Sibi that once cost about Rs 80 by train was now three short journeys by tractor costing upward of Rs 300. This was in 2009. It would be more now. But human stupidity has no limits!


Post a Comment

<< Home

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