Stitching the Crack

by Salman Rashid, 2013

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

"Seh ghwari?" says the man sitting at the mouth of the tunnel: "What are you looking for?"

"I am looking for the old railway," I reply in broken Pashto as I huff up the hill. The man does not smile, and he is not even trying to be funny when he asks if I don't think I am a trifle late to be looking for the railway - the last train on this line had run exactly fifty-one years and eight months earlier. I smile and pass on and he tells my friend following behind that I must be mad. Three hundred metres away lies the yawning maw of the Chappar Rift that has brought me on this journey; a journey that I had dreamt of for the last seven years.

Chhappar Rift
Chhappar Rift

When, around the early years of the 19th century, the Raj became paranoid with the fear of a Russian invasion of India there was, among other things, a great flurry of railway building to reach Afghanistan and eventually Central Asia in order to pre-empt Russian influence in those countries. And as Russian railways inched across trans Caspian desert regions, subcontinental railways reached on the one side into the Khyber Pass and on the other across the treeless Kachhi desert on the border between Sindh and Balochistan on its way to Sibi at the foot of the Bolan Pass en route to Quetta. Simultaneously another line went north from Sibi to Harnai and Khost where it turned west to reach Quetta via Bostan. This was the Kandahar State Railway (KSR), for that is where it hoped to reach before skirting the mountainous regions of Afghanistan to Herat and head north for Merv in modern Turkmenistan.

But the KSR never crossed the frontier: the buffer stops in the dusty town of Chaman virtually tread on the Durand Line. And even before it got as far as the border the railway was a stop and go affair that was to change names thrice. In a Victorian attempt to fool the Russians into believing that they were up to anything but sneaking by railway into Afghanistan, the Government of India gave this project the ridiculous title of "The Harnai Road Improvement Scheme." Subsequently the idea of crossing the frontier was dropped and the railway was renamed The Sind Peshin (sic) State Railway (SPS) before being called The Chaman Extension Railway. All that remains of this line today is a sleepy branch between Sibi and Khost with a twice daily service carting Marri tribesmen to remote homesteads and Pathans working the coal mines at Sharig. (That was early in 1994. By 1999 the service had been cut to just one train out of Sibi in the morning and back from Khost by nightfall.)

Seven years ago in Khost at the end of a free-wheeling jaunt I had been offered a ride to the Rift by the friendly Station Master. In the end, however, the jeep was not available and I had to make do with a graphic description from the talkative man. That and the words of Berridge (Couplings to the Khyber) had been my only knowledge of the place: "An extraordinary freak of nature, it is a gigantic crack cutting at right-angles across a series of synclines and anticlines. The whole mountain range has been split open with this great crack athwart of its contours, and down the chasm thus formed flows the river from the valley on the higher end of the rift to the lower."

I knew I had to see the Rift for myself when my father, himself a railway engineer who had worked in the area, talked of what he called "the most outstanding feat of railway engineering in the subcontinent." And so together with my friend Shahjehan Panezai I set out to retrace the defunct line. Unlike the railway that was pushed out on a northerly bearing from Sibi to Harnai and Khost, then across the Rift to the southwest to Bostan and Quetta, we choose to drive in the opposite direction from Shahjehan's village near Bostan.

Khanai, our first stop out of Bostan, is abandoned and the line, not broad gauge but tiny narrow gauge, stretches eastward across the treeless expanse into oblivion. This is the disused Zhob Valley Railway (ZVR) that once connected Bostan and Zhob and was one of the highest narrow gauge lines in the world and the longest in the subcontinent. Its other rare distinction was that between the stations of Bostan and Khanai both broad and narrow gauges were interlaced on the same sleepers. But today even the narrow gauge has lain disused since 1986 - a victim of improvement road transport and railway inefficiency.

Beyond the station we turn east on the road to Ziarat. It takes me some little while to recongise that our road lies exactly on the old track bed because the cutting through which it leads would only have been done for a railway line. A road, on the other hand, would not have called for so much earthwork but would simply have zigzagged around the contours. If there was ever a station at the little village of Kach, it has gone but the men in the bazaar point us in the direction of the B & R rest house and say it originally belonged to the railways but changed hands after the closure of the line. It is a right lovely little bungalow draped with resplendent bougainvillea. Its verandah has the standard wooden fretwork of all railway buildings and I imagine it would have been the Station Master's residence or the rest house for itinerant railway officers.

Outside the village a pair of stone pillars stand in a small stream. The bridge is no more but across on the other side of the stream an angular cutting in the rock marks the route of the railway. Indeed, across the stream we are following the alignment of the old railway which, in turn, had followed the ancient Kandahar-Chappar Rift-Sibi caravan route. Shahjehan tells me that we should soon be passing through an old railway tunnel. Presently we spot the portal and the semi-circle of darkness beyond. This is tunnel number 15 as counted from Chaman. It was built in 1886 says the dado in the middle of the arch. We pause for the building to the left of the road seems patent railway. Its flowering creepers and potted plants add colour to the bleak setting.

Two militiamen emerge to greet us. Neither of them knows if the building once belonged to the railway. We potter about and I walk some way off to take a picture. From the distance the prospect of the old railway station is unmistakable: the building, the gentle curve of the track bed and the long line of the lip of the curving platform. I realise then that we stand at the Mudgorge railway station and half expect the up train to emerge from the dark tunnel, its whistle screaming, the stack spewing dark smoke to the complement of the clank and boom that only steam locomotives can produce. But nothing. All is silent in Mudgorge.

The British engineers who toiled away here back in the 1880s called it Mudgorge because of the soil. Mostly clay, it becomes a morass after a fall of rain and had given them constant trouble with line maintenance until someone even began to call it Madgorge. But now, decades after the last railway engineer has left, the officers of the militia have put up a small sign outside the building. Surely they haven't a clue where the name comes from nor too that it is somehow connected to the defunct line. Nor indeed what the name really is not what their sign says: "Mud Guard."

We drive through the tunnel and shortly afterwards the rocky landscape on our left gives way to the wheat fields and fruit trees of legislator Noorjehan Panezai's village, Manrang. On our right we are hemmed in by the first of the anticlines which is an elongated hill folded above the earth's crust like a Swiss Roll giving it a rounded rather than a jagged crest. The dirt road becomes black top as it rises through the folds of these hills and soon we are on the crest looking into the wide valley at the bottom. We see the line of the railway looping wide across the open valley until it disappear behind some trees way in the east. As we go over the top onto the other side we see the line bed coming in from the lower valley. Then the tunnel becomes visible - a dark semi-circle in the bleached limestone, and soon we are in the dry river bed with its six stone columns; once again without the bridge.

Here as the line comes up from the lower or Sibi side of the valley it makes a wide loop to gain height, goes through the tunnel and over the bridge before it climbs into the Rift. But the rounded sides of the anticline do not even afford the narrowest shelf for the line to be laid on therefore a "shallow gallery-like tunnel" is cut into the hard limestone. Six hundred and seventy-six metres of this gallery give way to a proper tunnel 197 metres long.

Shahjehan dissuades me from entering it for fear of snakes and, he believes, porcupines and the odd wolf. Beyond the tunnel is the yawning crack of the Chappar Rift - the artistry of some prehistoric earthquake, and stitching this tear is the spectacular Louise Margaret bridge named after the Duchess of Connaught who opened it in March 1887.

From gallery tunnel into tunnel, onto bridge into the tunnel on the other side, trains once made their way across the Rift and down conglomerate slopes. This was the only way a train could have ever crossed this landscape for at the bottom of the Rift there flows a muddy river known to flood violently after rains. But if it was the Rift that made this line possible it was eventually the Rift itself that put paid to it: on the night of 11 July 1942 a rain storm sent a roaring torrent through the crack. Even in the best of times regular patrolling was required on this lonely five kilometre stretch of line in the Rift and when on the morning of the 12th the patrolling team arrived they found a thirty metre length of line festooned over a gap in the line bed on the hillside.

As it was, the Rift had a long list of minor accidents and washouts and now the authorities knew that they had finally and irrevocably been defeated by nature. This decision was the easier to reach for by now (1942) the line through the Bolan had been upgraded permitting trains to run through from Mach at the lower end to Quetta. The line across the Chappar Rift was abandoned. Since Europe was fighting its World War every single steel fixture between the stations of Zardalu and Khanai was taken up to be put to "better use" as munitions and all that remains today of this spectacular piece of railway engineering are the line beds, tunnels and bridge piers. Few people visit this Victorian relic and even fewer pause to marvel at the tenacity and dedication of those brave men who first pushed through this hostile country armed with plane table and theodolite to plot the course of the future railway.

Haji Gul Mohammed
Haji Gul Mohammed

We drive on to the deserted station of Zardalu which comes to life only when contractors from neighbouring coal mines ask for wagons to collect their loads. Khost, end of the line for modern trains, is made just after midday. Idrees Chaudri, the Station Master, orders tea and sends for old Haji Gul Mohammed, who claims to remember the dismantling of the Louise Margaret bridge. He says the complexity of the problem defeated the best railway engineers until a Sikh offered to do it.

However, the passage of five decades has simplified the memory of a highly complicated engineering job and the old man says that the Sikh ordered half a dozen wagons filled with rocks to be taken into the tunnel at the mouth of the Rift. The bridge was tied to them and the wagons allowed to roll down the slope, bridge and all. Of course the story cannot be complete without the grisly oriental twist and Gul Mohammed tells us that in order to prevent the Sikh from undertaking similar assignments the authorities had his hands chopped off! Berridge writes that a certain "Harnam Singh was the bridge inspector in charge at site," and he also tells us of the difficulty of the dismantling job. It was a far more intricate problem than old Gul Mohammed would like.

We decline the Station Master's offer to stay for lunch and return the way we had come. At the mouth of the Rift we pause once again and Shahjehan says this must have been the most dramatic railway journey in the country, something that he would love to have experienced. I cannot but agree with him, but the best would be to do it as Berridge describes it: "With the closing of the upper reaches of the SPS, Baluchistan lost one of its most impressive show-pieces. In its heyday, the railway often used to fit a seat on the front of the locomotive for visitors, and in 1922 the Prince of Wales, later to become the Duke of Windsor, traversed the Chappar Rift on a silver-plated push-trolley."