A Bridge Almost Too Far

by Salman Rashid, 2013

Mr Rashid is a travel writer and Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. Website

P. S. A. Berridge, a Bridge Superintendent with whom my father worked as a young Assistant Engineer on the North Western Railway in pre-partition India, wrote a very readable account of this railway network. The book, titled Couplings to the Khyber, has long been my bible. Unfortunately, out of print in Britain there are only a few copies of this book to be found in Pakistan; one in the Railway Headquarters of Lahore and the other in the library of the Department of Archaeology at Karachi.

The destroyed bridge at Tanduri
The destroyed bridge at Tanduri

Berridge notes that the story of the construction of the line to Quetta has "no parallel in the whole of the history of the railways in India." Among other things, he tells us, it was the exemplary courage and fortitude of the engineers and ordinary labourers against not just the elements but recalcitrant and depredatory Marri tribesmen, that was most admirable and which made the laying of line possible.

Tanduri Railway Station
Tanduri Railway Station

Today as trains haul passengers up through the sharp gradients of the Bolan Gorge, few realise that the first train to reach Quetta in March 1887 did not follow the Bolan route. Instead, that train went north from Sibi into the Nari River gorge through Babar Kach into the blistering hot shingle wastes of Gandakindaff and into the winding Kuchali defile to climb up to cool heights of Nakus and Shahreg.

Beyond the lonely little station of Khost, the line entered the dramatic and breath-taking Chappar Rift to eventually make its way into the Zhob River valley near Khanozai and so southwest to Quetta. But the Rift, a dramatic crack across a synclinal hill caused by a prehistoric earthquake, was a tale of tribulation and sheer hard work. Geologically unstable as it is, it took constant patrolling and repair to prevent accidents from taking place because flash flood frequently washed out the line in the Rift.

In the end it was a flood that went bounding down the chasm during the night of 11 July 1942 that cut the line forever. By then the Bolan Gorge connection known to railway engineers as the Bolan-Mushkaf line was already commissioned and there was no threat to Quetta being cut off from the rest of the country. And so the line in the Rift was dismantled. Even today forlorn looking bridge piers, the raised line bed, tunnels and at least two abandoned stations - these latter put to other use - stand as reminders of the long-ago line.

After the line in the Rift was taken down, the passenger train from Sibi ran only as far as Khost. About ten kilometres farther on lay the last serviceable station of Zardalu. While regular passenger trains ran up from Sibi to Khost, a number of coal trains per week went up as far as Zardalu to ferry the yield from nearby mines to the main line at Sibi.

In April 1987, exactly a hundred years since the first train had steamed up from Sibi, I rode the train (called the Q-489) to Khost. The Station Master there, a Mansehra man, offered to commandeer a friend's jeep to take me up to the Rift. But if we were to do that, I would have missed the return train and would have had to wait until the following morning to return to Sibi. It was not until February 1993, fifty-one years after the last train had struggled through that I was driven from Quetta to the Rift by a friend.

Of all the sights I have seen in Pakistan, this was one of the very few that actually did take my breath away: the yawning gape of the Rift with the languid stream at its bottom, the bridge piers like accusing fingers raised to the sky, the tunnel openings, the majestic sweep of the line bed in the wild and desolate valley floor and snow on the distant peaks was something surreal; it was beyond my imagination. I ran amok like an excited child - much to the amusement of my friend Shahjehan Panezai.

I made friends on this line. Idrees Chaudri, the quiet, well-groomed Station Master at Harnai who had spent all his professional life in Balochistan. He was the only master I always, always saw smartly turned out in uniform. I have several times mentioned his name to slovenly masters of the new generation - now they only are slovenly - that I have met in remote stations across the country. And there was the gregarious engine driver Abdul Qadeer who told yarns to shame The Cassandra Crossing. Some years after the first trip I rode the footplate from Kolpur to Mach in the Bolan when he was hauling the Bolan Mail to Karachi and he told me what could happen if the brakes of an engine failed on the downward slope: "We would storm through Mach at over a hundred miles an hour tearing up the track behind us and carry on far beyond the slope lasted well into the flat putt!"

And as if someone was listening somewhere, the engine died: no power, no brakes. I thought Qadeer wanted to see how I reacted. Without the steady thrum of the huge diesel, the quickening clack-clack-clack of the wheels became very pronounced - it was quickening because without brakes and with its huge mass behind us the train immediately began to gather speed. Qadeer tried the starter button on the console. Nothing happened. I then saw the cloud pass across his face and realised something was amiss. He spoke to his fireman who opened a door in the bulkhead aft of the cabin and went into the engine compartment. There I saw him punch a red button. Nothing. A second time and the engine roared to life and Qadeer hit the brakes.

With Qadeer too I had once ridden from Khost to Sibi. It was November, night fell early and as we slowly trundled southward, an owl, attracted by the locomotive headlamp, flew straight in from the open front window. Unhurt it flapped about the cabin as the fireman and I tried to show it the way out. That was the most exciting part of that journey. But that was the past.

Recently in Quetta, I was dissuaded from going into the Chappar Rift for fear of the rampaging Marri tribesmen. But I could go up the Nari Gorge from Sibi, not as far as Nakus, the highest elevation on this line which I wanted to visit, but only as far as Babar Kach. The journey was truncated because, so I was told, the Marris had blown up the bridges across the Nari. That was news to me. I had imagined the line was still running and that I would be able to ride the train all the way out to Khost.

Sometime after the dastardly slaying of Nawab Akbar Bugti, resentment broke out, once again, among Baloch peoples across the province the brunt of which was borne by poor Punjabis. But the destruction of this line was the saddest and cruellest act committed by ignorant tribesmen. The landscape this line passes through, its remote and picturesque loneliness and the heroic endeavour that went into its laying make it a prime attraction for railway buffs.

Years from now when the borders of this land may or may not be re-drawn, when peace and the rule of law prevail, it would have been the Marris who would have stood to benefit from the undamaged existence of the line through the Nari Gorge. The Marris, through whose lands the line passes, would have been hotel-owners, restaurateurs, handicraft-sellers, what have you. But now, misguided and exploited, they have laid low their own asset.

The Sibi Scouts outfit stationed at Sibi of necessity maintains a line of communication with its units strung out along the old railway line and there being no reasonable road link, continues to use the line. The standard procedure is to get to Nari railway station, twelve kilometres north of Sibi and connected with it by a good metalled road, ride trolley to the destroyed bridge and wade across the stream. Since word is already out, a second trolley awaits on the far side which ferries them to the next destroyed bridge and so on.

The overnight fall of rain had left Sibi blissfully cool as we drove out to Nari. But for the small guard of the militia, the railway station was deserted; not very different from the time in 1987 when I first rode the train to Khost. The train itself was crowded with Baloch and Pushtun folks, however. As it worked its way up, and they got off the train at their stations, the former always walked eastward, the latter to the west. It was as if the Nari River and the railway that followed it formed the border between the two ethnic groups.

Neither from the window of a passenger carriage nor from inside the locomotive driver's cab can one enjoy the panorama as from the open trolley. Yet the memory from that journey of two decades ago was etched on my mind: the rugged brown hills with their sparse cover of verdure, the gravelly bed of the Nari with its braids of water, and the lazy sweep of the track between the hills and the river where nary a soul moved. This was the kind of landscape that would send the Lahori artist Iqbal Khalid into over-drive.

We reached the first bridge. Of its six spans, only two remained intact. The rest lay tilted into the river. Hundreds of men had toiled thousands of man-hours in blistering summer heat to raise this structure but when it came time to lay it low, a handful of miscreants with a load of explosive destroyed their very own asset that could one day have made life somewhat the better for them. Back in the 1880s, the Marris had resisted the laying of the line and their depredations were a constant bother. Now they had committed the ultimate mischief.

We waded across the muddy river to the trolley waiting on the other side and puttered along to the railway station of Tanduri - deserted but for the militiamen. The name Tanduri refers to the infernal heat of the Nari Gorge here. Back in 1987 our train, the Q-489, had paused here to deliver water and perishable rations to the men of the Sibi Scouts. Even at that time this station had been closed for many years for reasons that no one could tell me.

Just beyond Tanduri we made the second bridge. Of its four spans the one nearest us lay in the river with the track still festooned dramatically between the stone piers. We waded across the Nari once again and scarcely had we made the far bank when a shout went up from the militiamen: "The river is rising!"

It had been raining overnight and even as we were making our way northward, we could see dark storm clouds roiling above the hills in that direction. The rain that fell in the hills during the night was now due to flow down the river here. If we carried on to Babar Kach, as far as I had planned to go that day, there would be no coming back - not the same day at least. And so the militiamen guarding the destroyed bridge told us to hurry back.

I was sorely disappointed when authorities in Sibi had earlier said I could not get as far as Nakus on the trolley. Now the rising river had prevented me from getting even as far as Babar Kach. There were yet two more bridges that they said were "partially damaged" that I was denied. It was not with little regret that I turned my back on Babar Kach.

As we puttered back to Tanduri the trolleyman said that every rainstorm makes travel in the Nari Gorge next to impossible for local people. When the bridges were intact, trains went back and forth the full one hundred and thirty-three kilometres between Sibi and Khost, but now only pick-up trucks plied. The train ticket, which so few ever purchased, cost a paltry fifty rupees while the pick-up charges two hundred per person for the ninety-kilometre journey from Harnai to Sibi. When rainstorms make it impossible for pick-up trucks to ply tractors with trailers are used. Then the fare goes up to eight hundred rupees per person.

There are folks that need to get to Sibi urgently for business or for medical attention and this includes Marris whose kinsmen blew up the bridges. I wonder what those poor misguided souls had in their minds when in the dark of a night they stole onto the bridges, planted their explosives and committed this act of sabotage upon themselves. If the potential of their line as a tourist destination was far from their thoughts, they could at least have considered the facility it had provided four generations before them and continued to do so until that night in the summer of 2008.

In Quetta my friend Lieutenant General Khalid Shamim Wynne told me plans were afoot to repair the bridges and get the Nari Gorge line up and running again. Indeed, said he, even the defunct Zhob Valley Railway may also be up-graded and extended to Dera Ismail Khan and the rest of the railway network. If this were to happen, there will be some great railway journeys to undertake. And great yarns to swap with drivers like Abdul Qadeer as we trundle through new-fangled stations where master of the Idrees Chaudri school run a nifty unit.

The spectacular scenery of the Nari Gorge
The spectacular scenery of the Nari Gorge


The crossing which we had waded earlier in the morning at only knee-deep had risen to midriff level when we returned. Had we carried on to Babar Kach or even tarried after being warned about the rising waters, we might indeed have gone one bridge too far. (This story appeared in The News on Sunday in April 2009)