A dream of the Kandhar Railway in the middle of the 19th century seems to be realized in the 21st century with the change of political scenario from the conflict to cooperation in this most sensitive region. This has become possible with practical move for the regional connectivity project to be undertaken jointly by Afghanistan and Pakistan for railway from Chaman (Pakistan) to Kandhar (Afghanistan) as one of the components of a compact and comprehensive rail road mega programme for 10-member countries in the ECO region.

Announcing a Rs3 billion package for Balochistan, through which the Pakistan Railways would penetrate into Afghanistan via Chaman-Kandhar rail route, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz added that paper work on the track had been completed. Work on it would begin soon. It would usher in, a new era for economic cooperation between Pakistan, Afghanistan and eight other ECO-member countries in the field of train traffic for the region sprawling over an area of more than seven million sq kms.

The ECO region consists of ten countries - Pakistan,,Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kirgistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhistan - with a population estimated at 350 million peoples. The Chaman-Kandhar pioneering rail track of the Afghan Railway would be close to Central Asian States, (members of ECO countries). All these Central Asian states are very well connected with Russia and Turkey.

Turkey, in its turn, has rail linkage with Europe on one side, while with Iran on the other. Iran has rail link with Pakistan. There are, however, some significant missing rail links inside Iran with Pakistan. Iran is also actively engaged in stitching these links with Taftan, already enjoying rail linkage with Karachi and Peshawar via Quetta.

Along with the Rs3 billion Balochistan package announced at the Balochistan Cabinet meeting in Quetta on October 2, Shaukat Aziz said Pakistan was also going ahead with another rail project linking Gwadar, with Taftan through marine and mineral rich areas of southern and northern Balochistan adjacent to Afghanistan and Iran. Side by side the ECO highway network is in full swing to give greater fillip to tourism, trade, commerce and industry for the benefit for over 350 million people in the region.

The construction of the Kandhar railway would be a symbol of cooperation in the 21st century between Pakistan, and Afghanistan for access to Central Asia rather than a cause of conflict between the then two big powers of the British Empire and the Russian Empire in the middle of the 19th century. Both these big empires had an 'eagle eye' on Afghanistan because of its geo-physical, geo- economic and strategic situation in the region.

Even today, Afghanistan acts as a bridge between the Saarc and the ECO regional economic groupings. Afghanistan is flanked by the Central Asian states in the north and Pakistan in the south. All the members of the ECO club have railroad network except Afghanistan. All these dependable networks terminate at Afghanistan from the north and from Pakistan in the south.

Similar situation existed when Afghanistan was bordered by the British Empire in India and the Russian Empire in the middle of the 19th century. Both these Big Powers desired for an access to Afghanistan by acts of aggression rather than cooperation. As the railway system had come of age in Europe, so both London and Moscow tried to take full advantage of this railway invention to advance their imperial designs in this part of the world. The bone of contention for these two Big Powers was rail access to Marv in Central Asia.

The British Empire selected Balochistan for access to Marv, Central Asia, through Afghanistan. Access to Afghanistan from India by the British imperialists was conceived as far back as the Middle of the 19th century. Keeping in view, the strategic significance of Sindh and Balochistan, British imperialists in India built railway, which was extended to Bolan Pass in 1885. It was known as Sindh-Pishin Railway. Rail track entered into ? Balochistan from Sindh near Jhatpat, traversing the Harnai Valley and terminating at Chaman, Pak-Afghan border town close to Kandhar, Southern Afghanistan. Work on it began in Oct 1879 and completed at Chaman in 1892.

The British Engineers with Indian manpower mostly from Sindh and Balochistan constructed railway from little known railway station Ruk, halfway between a Larkana and Sukkur in north- westerly direction to Sibi, Balochistan. The British imperialists laboured across the blistering plains of Sibi, Balochistan, initially to reach Kandhar, Afghanistan, by rail, finally connecting Kandhar with Marv in Central Asia via Herat, western Afghan town. This 217 Sukkur-Sibi section was known as Kandhar State Railway.

Availing of the second Afghan-British War, Russians stitched the great deserts of Central Asia with rail tracks. When the British came to know of the Russian success in the occupation of Marv in 1883, they reviewed and revived the Kandhar State Railway extension from Sibi to Quetta and Chaman. Two directions for this extension were considered. One through Chappar Rift and another through historic Bolan Pass and Khojak Pass. Chappar route of the rail from Sibi to Quetta and Chaman was via Harnai, Khost and Bostan. From Bostan, the rail track could go in two different directions: Quetta in the south and Chaman in north-west eventually into Afghanistan via Kandhar.

Chappar rift: The great crack of the Chappar rift to Bostan with recurrent mud slides turned out to be tough. As such, only Sibi-Harnai section of the railway was completed. It is still operative as Railway Khost Section between Sibi and Harnai, a branch line of the Pakistan Railways.

Bolan Pass: The rail track through mighty Bolan Pass, then was laid from Sibi to Quetta via Mach, Kolpur and Spezand by 1886. Mach-Kolpur section of this track is an engineering feat and feast for travellers and tourists for two reasons. The slow speed train from Sibi to Quetta through 21 tunnels is most adventurous experience worth enjoying.

The train frequently sneaks into tunnels and snakes out in a zig-zag way through the mountain rocks of Bolan Pass, producing dramatic effect in a mystic atmosphere. Equally interesting is the train commuting system on Quetta-Sibi section of this PR mainline. There are uphills and down dales on this Sibi-Quetta section. At this section, train stations have been built with special catchments.

Similarly, train travelling from Quetta to Chaman is equally enjoyable through Khojak Pass tunnel, about 7575 ft above sea level, leading to Pakistan Railway terminal at Chaman, close to Spin Buldak, not far away from Kandhar in southern Afghanistan.

Now this real Kandhar Railway would be a trend-setter for a most modern rail system, beneficial to the ECO countries and beyond, because of better thinking for living in peace rather than waging war.

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