Kandahar State Railway

by Salman Rashid, 2013

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

Stealth in Steel: Kandahar State Railway

28 March 2013

The lonely spot where the IVSR swung southeast to reach Sukkur was headed for fame. Barely months after the first train chugged through the forested spot of Ruk, the Second Afghan War broke out and suddenly the primary imperative for the government of India was to make a fast connection between Karachi and Quetta, and beyond. The answer was the Kandahar State Railway (KSR).

Kandahar State Railway
Kandahar State Railway

The order for selection of officers to work on this line went out on the autumnal equinox of 1879. Within ten days work commenced and in keeping with the urgency of the times, the first two hundred and thirteen kilometres of KSR from Ruk to Sibi was laid in a mere one hundred and one days! Completed on 14 January 1880, this feat has no parallel in the history of railway engineering in the subcontinent and remains a record to this day.

This extraordinary achievement was across a vast, flat alluvial plain, criss-crossed by a dozen rivers all of which lose their waters in the thirsty soil. Other than the raising of the line bed and several bridges, no major earthworks or civil engineering were required. Beyond Sibi, sitting at the foot of Bolan Pass, was a range of very rugged mountains. There were steep slopes and sharp turns to be negotiated.

By early 1880, the survey of the Bolan Pass and a reconnaissance of the possible route as far as Kandahar were completed. The Broad Gauge that had reached Sibi, it was learned, could not go up the steep gradients and and sharp curves of the pass. A new route north from Sibi through Harnai and Khost was deemed suitable. Work would have proceeded anew with the onset of winter, but early in 1880, the troops protecting the engineering party were withdrawn to join the war in Afghanistan. Work on KSR was suspended.

Three years went by, the war in Afghanistan ended and Sibi remained the only railhead in Balochistan. Then word came of the annexation of Merv (Turkmenistan) by the Russians. Paranoia ran high and KSR, designated a secret operation, was renamed The Harnai Road Improvement Scheme. The pretence of building a road instead of a railway, kept progress slow and with the war in Afghanistan having run its course and KSR went low priority once again. The only progress was redesignating it the Sind Peshin State Railway.

The first ten kilometres north of Sibi was trouble free engineering. Then they hit the gorge of the savagely beautiful Nari River. Muddy brown when it rained in the hills, otherwise blue, it teemed with fish and crocodiles as it snaked through the narrow gorge. The meandering course of the Nari warranted bridge after bridge and in the ninety-three kilometres from Sibi, to Harnai there are ten major steel spans - six of them telescoped in one stretch of eleven kilometres.

Glowing tribute was the lot of the men who came to work on this line: "the sterling qualities of the Pathan, the Sikh and the Punjabi peasant, their powers of endurance, their unlimited patience, their mechanical skill and their versatility" were attributes to celebrate. And for good reason for this was a country of blistering summers of forty-eight degrees Celsius in the shade and frosty winters when the ponds in the flood plain froze solid. That was not all. Baloch tribesmen harried the workers, killing and plundering. Further up the route, in Kakar country, it was hardly any better.

Neither was the administration of fifteen thousand workers an easy task in such a remote and desolate region. Scurvy, malaria and fever were common. In November 1884 and again six months later, cholera broke out taking a toll of two thousand lives from the workforce. It was only after line reached Nakus and its orchards, 1025 metres above the sea, that some respite from the terrible heat became possible. Beyond lay the Chhappar Rift, the reason this route was chosen for the railway.

Riding the "Kandahar State Railway"

2 July 2013

In late October the chill air of early morning in Quetta made me shiver. The railway station at just after seven in the morning was already bustling: a Sialkoti beggar woman in a heated altercation with a bearded Pathan threatening to get his legs smashed. Nearby an aged cripple shuffled along in a squatting position rolling a large round jute bag in front of him. From the windows of the train women and children peered while men waited outside scratching in their crotches and spitting all over the place. The tea kiosks were crowded but the book stall had just two men looking disinterestedly at some cheap pulp magazines - which, besides a couple of local papers, was all on offer. The Q-487 Passenger train to Chaman on the Afghan frontier was not yet ready to leave.

Kandahar State Railway
Kandahar State Railway

I was travelling in style in the Assistant Officers' Saloon courtesy friends in high places in the Railways and Salim Jehangir, a jovial grey-haired Lahori and veteran of thirty years on the Railways, was keeping me company. This was just as well for he knew just about everything that was worth knowing about the railway in Balochistan. And what he did not know, his little note book listed in an immaculate hand. "This is a journey into history," he said with a twinkle in his eye as we rolled out of Quetta Railway Station one hour behind schedule. Earlier he had taken me on a tour of the train pointing out the sorry state of repair the carriages were in. It was used by smugglers, he said, to transport contraband from Chaman to Quetta, and the best place to hide the goods was in the water tanks feeding the toilets. The round plates held in place on the bottom of the tanks by bolts were nearly all missing. These, he said, were appropriated by the smugglers.

"They stuff whole bolts of material in the tanks and screw on the plates," Jehangir explained, "Over a period of time the least careful do not even bother to replace the plates. When the plates are lost and their merchandise in danger of discovery, they start tearing up the compartment walls concealing the contraband and nailing them on again." There were ample signs to support whatever he was saying.

The year was 1857 - the year of what we call the "War of Independence" and what the British called the "Mutiny". The First Afghan War had already been fought and lost by the British at a terrible cost to human life. Sindh and Punjab had been annexed and Westminster was getting to do more and more with the affairs of the East India Company. This was the year that William Andrew, "Chairman of the Scinde, Punjab and Delhi Railway" mooted the idea of taking a line up to Kandahar in Afghanistan.

The epic struggle that was euphemistically called The Great Game between Russia and Britain for the control of Central Asia was at its height and Britain was very nearly going crazy with fear of the Russians marching into India through Afghanistan. The railway to Kandahar was, therefore, not merely going to be an expression of the power of the English crown; it was a grave necessity. Nevertheless it was not until twenty-two years later, in October 1879, that work actually began on the project.

At that time the Indus had not yet been bridged and the line running from Karachi through Kotri, Dadu and Larkana passed through Ruk on its way to the terminus at Sukkur. The Kandahar State Railway (KSR) was to take off from Ruk and head for the Balochistan Plateau on the other end of the tortuous Bolan Pass and cross the frontier into Afghanistan near the border town of Chaman. Sixteen hundred men in a great feat of railway engineering completed the two hundred and fourteen kilometres across the desert to Sibi in a record time of one hundred and one days.

This was time to pause and take stock before attacking the defiles of the Bolan and to wait out the furnace heat of Sibi. But far away, on the dusty open plain to the west of Kandahar, a British garrison was about to face what has been termed "one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the British in Asia." If Kandahar was not wrested from British hands it was for the high price paid in terms of human life. This setback and a new pacifist government in London put the Kandahar State Railway on the back burner.

In 1883 came the news that the Russians had taken Merv in Central Asia and the pacifist government in a fit of frenzy ordered the resumption of work on the railway. However, it was a Top Secret affair under the ridiculous name of "The Harnai Road Improvement Scheme." But this is another story. In the event, however, the first train pulled into Quetta in August 1886.

We passed through the choking early morning smog of Quetta, briefly paused to collect more Pathan families at the stations of Sheikh Manda, Baleli and Kuchlak before arriving in a cloud of dust at Bostan. The name is a misnomer if I've ever heard one - it was like being in a desert. There was nothing to liken Bostan to a garden. But several days later my father, who was the Divisional Engineer at Quetta in 1947, told me that Bostan was at that time truly a sprawling garden. Then the karez that watered its orchards forsook the town and it turned into the desert it is now.

I rode in the locomotive and as we cleared Bostan the sun glinted off a machine gun barrel high up on a hill to the left. It was only then I realised how many bunkers peppered the barren contours around us. It was a grim reminder that things had not changed very much since the time the line was laid over a hundred years ago. Two men on a motorcycle waited at an unmanned level crossing and just when there was no time for them to cross, their machine lurched forward only to stop short of the track. With a sharp intake of breath I hit an imaginary brake. The motorcyclist laughed as we went past and Waqar, the engine driver, looked straight ahead, unperturbed by the macabre Pathan sense of humour.

We clattered through a landscape of brown hills and across bone-dry streams. The aging diesel (American design produced in Australia) pounded away for all it was worth and we lurched crazily around the bends. It must have been doing all of sixty kilometres an hour when at one point we seemed heading to ram at top speed into a round hill. Only, just in time, we made a loop around it.

We stopped at stations with evocative names: Yaru, Saranan, Gulistan and Kila Abdullah heading for Khojak Pass that straddles Khwaja Amran, an elongated spur of the Toba Kakar Mountains. Beyond the platform of Shelabagh station was the dark opening to the longest railway tunnel in the subcontinent - the Khojak Tunnel. At 1945 metres (6380 ft) above the sea this was also the highest point on this line.

"We are about to enter a five rupee note." Jehangir said as we stood in the middle of the tracks comparing the picture on the reverse of the note with what lay in front. I could not help wondering if its builders had ever thought their tunnel would one day adorn a currency note.

The dark semi-circle of the tunnel was flanked by massive towers and above ran a loop-holed parapet - reminders perhaps of the uncertain time when it was built. "1888 Khojak Tunnel 1890" said the dado in the middle. Beyond lay the cone of rock that we were to travel through for the next 3.92 kilometres - the result of the unremitting struggle of "an army of workmen" comprising of Pathans, Makranis, Punjabis, Kashmiris, Tibetans and even some Zanzibaries besides a few Persian Gulf Arabs. Since the tunnel was to bore through water bearing rock it required extensive timbering for which sixty-five Welsh miners were imported. Perhaps a more colourful host had never rubbed shoulders anywhere else on subcontinental railways.

The seemingly limitless supply of water emanating in the Khojak strata even today is piped all the way to Chaman and as we raced through the tunnel with our headlight slicing the gloom we passed sporadic showers. Then, quite suddenly, the pounding of the diesel eased and finally gave way to a high pitched whine. I looked enquiringly at Waqar.

"It's downhill all the way now. We'll go with our brakes jammed on." He said. As we emerged into the harsh glare of mid-morning the sign stared us full in the face: "Drivers, check your Brakes!" and a little later: "Drivers, You have been Warned!" That certainly had a very ominous ring to it.

Earlier Salim Jehangir had told me that in the event of brake failure on the descent the train could be doing well over one hundred and fifty kilometres an hour when it hit the buffers at Chaman. Which meant the train would be ripping up the antiquated track behind it as it hurtled to certain catastrophe.

"So, what's the condition of the brakes?" I asked Waqar with some trepidation. "We'll soon find out." He grinned. The whine of the engine bit into my ears and far away across a wide pan of dusty brown lay a great straggle of dun-coloured buildings with an occasional sprinkling of green: Chaman. In Sindh, Punjab and the Northern Areas people paint their houses and the doors and windows brilliant colours. But here their aesthetic sense was perhaps deadened by the insipid, colourless surroundings and they allowed their houses to look as lifeless as the landscape they sprouted from; there was not a trace of colour in a single house.

Imperceptible though it was from the cockpit, we were now making wide loops along the contour lines of the western flank of the Khwaja Amran spur as we raced into the flat pan of Chaman. Because of our looping movement Sanzala railway station with its bulky battlement in the middle distance switched from the right to the left and than back again. During the brief halt I noticed that the impressive brick tower was rather misleading for the rest of the building had very nearly fallen to pieces.

Past Sanzala we went raising great clouds of dust with most of them working their way into our train and clattered into Chaman. This was another misnomer, for there are not enough trees in Chaman to make one box of toothpicks. My fruit-wallah has all along fooled me about the pomegranates, grapes and melons of Chaman. The fruit, in fact, comes from Kandahar across the Durand Line.

The Kandahar State Railway that changed names to the Harnai Road Improvement Scheme; then to the Sind Peshin State Railway to be finally called the Chaman Extension Railway had once promised to go across this frontier. But the geo-political situation of the late 19th century, never static, did not alter sufficiently to favour the line across the frontier and now the buffer stops were not very far from where we stood. And as our brakes had worked we were not to be seeing them up close. That was quite all right with me.