Billowing thick black smoke and a whooping whistle, the Khyber Steam Safari, served foreign and local tourists for years, taking them chugging through the rugged mountains, trudging along the historic Khyber Pass. Sadly, it was brought to a screeching halt in May 2007 on security grounds.
Though militancy dealt a final blow to what was described as a ‘journey into time and history’, nature too took its toll on one of the great engineering feats of the British Raj. Floods and torrential rains in June 2007 washed away tracks and bridges, followed by vandalism by local tribesmen.
It was in 1920 that the British undertook to build the track from Peshawar, up to Landi Khana, just two miles short of the Durand Line that divides present day Pakistan and Afghanistan.
This turned out to be an arduous task both in terms of engineering as well as getting the wily tribesmen to agree to allow the track to pass through their territory. Negotiations at times turned out to be more difficult than putting up 34 tunnels and 92 bridges and culverts. The worldly-wise Afridi tribesmen charged the British for every centimetre of their territory. The railway was finally opened in April 1926 as far as Landi Khana.
The train climbed 1,200 metres before descending 872 feet in seven kilometres to the low-lying Landi Kotal and Landi Khana.
The British had built the track to augment its forces and their logistics. The Pakistan Railway used it to transport passengers to and from the tribal area every Sunday, until financial woes forced the authorities to stop the service altogether.
Decades later, Sehrai Travels’ in collaboration with Sarhard Tourism Corporation launched the Khyber Steam Safari for foreign and local tourists. The Time magazine counted the railway journey through Khyber amongst the world’s top five.
There is no indication that the government will allow the train to resume its service in the near future on security grounds, nor does it appear willing to repair the historic track, considering Pakistan Railways’ seemingly perennial and un-ending financial troubles.
Tour-operator, Zahoor Durrani, who helped start the Khyber Steam Safari, is running from pillar to post to at least get the track repaired. He says he has presented several petitions to the Governor, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Masood Kausar and Railways Minister, Ghulam Ahmad Bilour. He says that if the government, does not have the money, it should seek financial support from the USAID to repair the track before it disappears into history.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Tourism Corporation has now shown interest in running the Khyber Steam Safari, not to Khyber, but in the opposite direction: between Peshawar and Attock Khurd, that would pass over the historic rail-and-road bridge at River Indus. The KPTC has allocated funds for the purpose and it is now awaiting a green signal from Pakistan Railways.
“I am worried about the fate of the vintage steam engines, a monument in their own right, would be resigned to the junkyard and sold for scrap,” Durrani moans. “We need to preserve these for ourselves and for our children”.