Arrow Through Khwaja Amran: Chaman Extension Railway

by Salman Rashid, 2013

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

The railway lines in the far western part of the British Indian Empire which ultimately became Pakistan were laid mainly for strategic purpose. The Kandahar State Railway, taking off from Ruk near Larkana to reach Quetta as the Sind Peshin State Railway, was meant as a warning to Czarist Russia that the Victorians were never far from Quetta and the frontier, just in case they considered mischief in uncertain Afghanistan.

North Western Railway logo
North Western Railway logo

However, between the garrison and the vague border, there lay the great mass of barren rock called the Khwaja Amran. The clayey topsoil of the range turned to powdery dust when dry and deep mire when it rained. Through this variation did the trail snake around the contours of the mountain to drop down into the arid flat pan of Chaman on the Afghan frontier. Even in the best of times, a military column took three days to journey the one hundred and forty kilometres from Quetta over the Khwaja Amran Pass to Chaman. When it rained, it was nearly impossible to get laden mules and gun carriages through the knee deep muck. A revival of KSR was the answer.

Entrance to Khjojak tunnel
Entrance to Khojak tunnel

This renewed effort to take rails through the mountain into Afghanistan was called the Chaman Extension Railway. In March 1888, the line inching forward from Bostan, thirty-three kilometres north of Quetta, across largely barren rocky desert, had reached a point ten kilometres short of the Khwaja Amran Mountains. The following month work began on the Khojak tunnel and never had such a carnival of multi-ethnic workers gathered as the one assembled at the little village of Shelabagh.

Here were men from as far as Makran, Zanzibar, Kala Dhaka, Herat, Ghazni, Swat, Kafristan, Tibet and from Punjab - and that is only to name a few. As well as that, there was a complement of sixty-five Welsh miners specialising in timbering of underground passages. This was an essential part of the tunnelling project because the Khwaja Amran is a heavily water-bearing mass of rock in which an artificial cavern was prone to collapse. Even today, as the train rumbles through it, one can see a steady fall of water in the beam of the locomotive's headlamp.

If cholera had been the bane of the huge muster of men in the Chhappar Rift, typhus and pneumonia were the afflictions of the Khwaja Amran. At 1949 metres above the sea, the arctic blast of mid-winter howling down from Afghanistan sent pneumonia rampaging through camp to pick off a large number of workers every year. In the winter of 1890-91, another eight hundred succumbed to typhus. But work proceeded apace and despite the odds the first train to Chaman steamed through on 5 September 1891, three and a half years since worked commenced from Bostan.

A number of interesting facts attach to the 3.92 kilometre-long Khojak Tunnel, as they call it. At the time of building it was the longest railway tunnel in the subcontinent. Its shaft is lined with over nineteen million bricks, all of which were burnt locally in kilns fired by coal transported by rail from the mines at Khost. It is noteworthy that while the excavation began from both ends, the sappers met with remarkable accuracy in the centre making the Khojak a tunnel as straight as an arrow.

The Chaman Extension Railway was essentially strategic. But when it was commissioned, Afghanistan was suffering a period of relative peace and the line was demoted to a fruit line. An inestimable amount of pomegranates and peaches from Afghanistan ended up in the markets of Lahore, Delhi and even Kolkata because of the daily refrigerator vans that left this station. Today, for many years, it has served petty smugglers who conceal their bolts of cloth in the hollow walls of the carriages. To avoid custom officials at the Quetta railway station, the men get off with their merchandise as the train slows outside the station.

Killa Abdullah station
Killa Abdullah station

As the Afghan situation made this a stop and go endeavour in its early years, so it continues to be. A proposal to extend it to Spin Boldak, just inside the Afghan frontier, was heatedly debated in concerned circles before being shelved in 1966. In the early 1990s, mandarins in Pakistan went to town with the pipe dream of a rail connection between Pakistan and Central Asia by way of Kandahar, Farrah and Herat.

But despite all that hot air, the buffer stops of Chaman Extension Railway still sit in Pakistan within sight of the Afghan frontier.