In March 1887, Quetta, a compact little frontier town with a British garrison served by businesses owned almost entirely by Parsis and Hindus, saw the first-ever railway train pull into its spanking new station building. This was, however, not in the service of the people of the land. The line, much faster than the earlier camel trains, was to put British troops in quick access of the unruly frontier with Afghanistan, where an ever-expanding influence of Czarist Russia was threatening British interests.
Whatever the case, looking back today, one can but only marvel at the heroic effort of putting this line through. The remarkable thing about the main line up from Sindh into Balochistan is that it was, in the words of railway historian P.S.A. Berridge, “a tale of appalling muddle in the beginning, of extreme privations in the face of terrible heat and freezing cold, and of success achieved through sheer grit and determination to win a route through forbidding and inhospitable desert and mountainous country.”
The railway network as we know it today in Pakistan was slowly taking shape, and the line from Karachi along the right (west) bank of the Indus had reached the leafy farmland of Ruk near Shikarpur in Sindh. Between this newly canal-irrigated country and Mach at the bottom end of Bolan Pass, there lay the utterly barren, treeless and flat Pat (pronounced Putt). Here, so it is recorded, a locomotive’s headlamp could be seen at night at distances up to 20 kilometres away.
Since the line proposed to cut through desert and mountain to reach Kandahar, it was named Kandahar State Railway (KSR). But when work began late in 1879, for some curious and unrecorded reason, official correspondence dropped ‘State’ from its title.
The British wanted to get to Kandahar before the Russians. The legacy of that was a feat of engineering and the sleepy train stations up to Chaman
The Second Afghan War had just come to a simmering end but that did not lessen the imperative for swift execution. And so, some 3,500 men were employed at Ruk. Of these 1,600 were engaged in actually line-laying and unloading of freight trains bringing in the materials from Karachi. The remaining 1,900 worked on earthworks, bridging and camp administration.
The hurry was not just to reach Kandahar. It was to beat the infamous summer heat of the treeless Pat, where temperatures from May to August routinely touched almost 50 degrees Celsius. This frenzy of work made for a record in line-laying and, by mid-January 1880, the rails had crossed Pat: in just 101 days, 214 kilometres of steel line had been laid and made serviceable.
And so it was that, eventually, the clatter of the steel wheel resounded through the Nari Gorge north of Sibi and into Quetta in 1887. Later, the direct line through the Bolan Pass became the everlasting glory of Balochistan’s railway.
In 1887, as the line began its westward progress from Quetta, it was once again renamed: now it was called Chaman Extension Railway (CER), as if that would fool snooping Russians into believing that it was not really the strategic line heading into coveted Afghanistan, as planned by Raj authorities. Interestingly, as work began on this line in 1879, from being KSR and CER, the project became The Sind Peshin State Railway. In between, in a rather silly attempt to mislead supposed Russian spies, it was also called the Harnai Road Improvement Scheme.
Now, north of Quetta lies the lovely little station of Bostan, with a large yard of mixed narrow and broad gauge lines. The Chhappar Rift line, when it ran, approached Quetta via this sleepy little station. For the line out to Chaman en route to Kandahar, Bostan was to be the junction. Westward lay the 2,000-metre-high jumbled barrier of the Khawaja Amran mountains. These wonderfully crumpled tangles of mountain rise all over Balochistan.
Within the space of a few score kilometres, the line — if it were to be laid to Chaman — would have to climb from 1,400 metres 2,000 metres to surmount the Khawaja Amran barrier. In the 1880s, there were no locomotive working freight or passenger wagons capable of executing such an ascent. The only answer was a tunnel.
Surveys were carried out and, in mid-April 1888, work began. Here were some 4,000 men: Kashmiris, Sikhs, Hazaras, Tibetans, Pakhtuns from as far away as Swat, Makranis and 65 Welsh miners plus the usual complement of civil engineers. In early September 1891, the line through the tunnel named Khojak was ready for inspection and a test run. Later that month, the first train rolled out of the Chaman portal of the 3.9-kilometre-long tunnel. At that time, Khojak was the longest railway tunnel in the subcontinent, but the way Indian Railway has surged ahead with development, there must now be longer tunnels in that country.
It was not as simple as that, however. The Khawaja Amran range is a water-bearing stratum and, even today, as the train passes through, a drizzle of cool, fresh water washes it. Boring into this rock entailed heavy timbering to prevent cave-ins. This was where the Welsh miners came in handy, with similar experience from their homeland. The full import of the water-laden rock became better known when, in the winter of 1889, workers struck an underground reservoir and flooded the shaft. There was fortunately no loss of life and the water was eventually drained off.
The Khojak Tunnel is marvellously aligned as straight as an arrow. The only curve in it is in the vertical, that is, it gains height near its midpoint. As the train enters the shaft, riding the footplate one can feel the locomotive begin to strain. Eventually, the driver eases back the lever and the growl of the big diesel changes to a softer thrum as the apex is crossed and sunlight becomes sharper outside the approaching portal.
From Quetta to Bostan, the line runs past crowded housing and farmyards. Beyond, it winds through dramatic, parched clay hills. Yaru is just another indifferent sort of station, but Saranan has a ring to its name and an old-world aura. Abandoned many years ago, it stands taken over by a local family and its mud brick and timber structure complete with a pillared veranda may not last many more years.
At Shelabagh, the station smack on the eastern portal of the Khojak, locals tell you the tale of Sheila. It is undecided if she was the cuckolding wife of a nameless civil engineer working on the tunnel or a dancing girl brought here for workers’ pleasure. But tales abound of a woman flirtatious and obliging as none could have ever been. One story, told me several years ago, was that she favoured masons who could lay the greatest number of bricks in a day inside the tunnel. Since record shows there are 19,764,426 bricks lining the interior of the shaft, many a man must have won her favours.
What storytellers do not reveal is that shela in Pashto is a small stream and that the several brooks washing down the surrounding hills watered, and still do, a number of orchards and gardens. And so, gardens watered by hill streams have become the Garden of Sheila, the flirt.
Beyond the western portal of Khojak, Sanzala, with its hefty turret, seems more of a fortification than a railway station. And way off, across the dusty landscape one can make out the muddle of Chaman’s bazaars and housing. Barren and plastered into a landscape that bakes in summer and freezes in winter, the name is a clear antithesis: there are not enough trees in Chaman to produce two boxes of matches, leave alone the fruit that we erroneously believe is grown there.
Starting from Ruk station near Shikarpur, Kandahar State Railway had a long journey of some 500 kilometres through three name changes. But the ambition to reach Kandahar was never fulfilled: the line ends in Chaman almost within view of the towering gateway on the border. The only action the whitewashed station ever sees is the once-daily services that crawl in and out. In its veranda and on the platform, children play and men gossip.
Dreams die hard and, in 1966, Pakistan Western Railway (as it was then called) proposed extending the line to Spin Boldak, just across the Durand Line. The new dream was to push a line through to Kabul on one side and Herat on the other. The latter was to traverse through north-eastern Iran to tie in with the Central Asian network at Merv in Turkmenistan.
Even as we dreamt our great dreams, in reality we meant to go nowhere, as our locomotives hauled trains along lines laid in the 1880s. Meanwhile, Iran connected Zahedan and Mashhad with the rest of its railway network and pushed the line through to Merv. Afghanistan remains uncertain for any railway project to be undertaken and will be for the foreseeable future. In a way, the title Chaman Extension Railway, given it by Raj engineers, was prophetic.
The writer is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and author of nine books on travel.
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 12th, 2020