Alas, Sindh is Now Lost: Indus Valley Railway

by Salman Rashid, 2013

Scinde Punjab Delhi Railway logo
Scinde Punjab Delhi Railway logo

In January 1831, Alexander Burnes the swashbuckling young lieutenant of the army of the East India Company set sail on the Indus River from Thatta. He was on a large boat bearing five dray horses and an ornate coach as gift from the British sovereign to Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab. That is how it was on face value.

Apocrypha of exploration has it that somewhere along Burnes' journey through Sindh, a fakir sitting by the river, upon seeing his approach, wailed, "Alas, Sindh is now lost. The English have seen the river, the road to our conquest." To Burnes himself a native soldier said, "The evil is done. You have seen our country." Twelve years later Sindh was taken by the army led by Charles Napier. Within months steamers, precursors of the railway, were plying up and down the Indus.

The story of the first railway track in Pakistan begins in December 1853 when Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General of India, approved the line from Karachi to Kotri. Orders went out to Bartle Frere, Commissioner Sindh, to proceed with the project. Now, Frere had a favourite engineer, a young Lieutenant Chapman of the Corps of Engineers who he wished to assign to the survey of the line. When summons reached him to report to Karachi, the man was busy aligning a road in the Lakki Hills south of Sehwan.

It was evening when orders reached Chapman, but steamers on the Indus did not ply at night. Knowing the standard procedures but in a hurry to be present in Karachi in the morning, Chapman forced the master of his boat to press on into the dark. The steamer hit a submerged rock and sank, drowning Chapman and twenty-seven others. And the Scinde Railway, as it was to be called, was put on hold as the country headed into turmoil.

With the Mutiny of 1857 behind them and the subcontinent firmly in their grip, British authorities finally began work on the line out of Karachi in 1858. Three years later, in May 1861, it had reached Kotri. But for the blistering summer heat in the stony wastes north of Karachi, the work was easy and certainly not the kind to set the pace for things to come.

Given the nature of the Indus with its uncontrollable summer floods, bridging it between Kotri and Hyderabad in those early days was considered formidable. The line, designated Indus Valley State Railway (IVSR), was therefore to follow the road along the west bank of the river, the very one that Chapman was building when he died.

Even as survey and preparation of line bed north of Kotri was underway, their raged what has since been known in railway history as the Battle of the Gauges. While England, Europe and USA favoured the 4 foot 8 inch (1435 mm) Standard Gauge, the railway in India already had three different ones. There was the 5 foot 6 inch (1676 mm) Broad Gauge, the one-metre Metre Gauge and the 2 foot 6 inch (762 mm) Narrow Gauge. It was not until mid-1874 that the battle was won in favour of Broad Gauge (already laid between Karachi and Kotri) and work progressed.

Fifty kilometres northeast of Larkana in country lush with paddy fields and mango trees today but which was largely forest and scrub in those days before the canals, the line swung right. All that existed at this turn was a nondescript village called Ruk. Thence the line followed a south-easterly bearing to Sukkur, twenty-five kilometres away. The Indus Valley State Railway had reached its terminus in 1878, dealing the death blow to the old Indus Steam Flotilla.

That year the line designated the Scinde Punjab and Delhi Railway, running south from Lahore, reached Rohri on the left bank of the Indus River. For the next eleven years, a ferry operated between the two riverside cities. Taking eight passenger coaches at a time, the ferry made it possible to travel between Karachi and Lahore without changing trains. Getting the train on and off the barges was a tedious and lengthy operation, but it remained in force until 1889. That year, the massive steel structure of Lansdowne Bridge made "through" trains possible. The forty-day journey by steamboat between Karachi and Lahore was of a sudden cut to a mere two days by train.

Even as railway engineers were hard at work linking Rohri with Hyderabad, IVSR hugging the western flood plain of the Indus remained the main line in Sindh for twenty-two. In May 1900, the Kotri Bridge was opened soaking up all the major rail traffic and relegating the first line in Sindh to a secondary position.