As lonely a line can be: Nushki Extension Railway
by Salman Rashid, 2013
Mr Rashid is a travel writer and Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. Website
Please also see a later article on the Nushki Extension Railway by Mr Rashid, written in 2014.
Even for the British, the far west of Balochistan with its rebellious tribes was an uncertain frontier. Consequently, immediately after the First World War broke out in 1914, a new paranoia rode the minds of authorities in India: infiltration through Iran by Turkish and German agents to foment trouble and precipitate the ultimate breaking away of Balochistan. A force was despatched from Quetta to the region of Saindak, now celebrated for its copper mines, to keep an eye on the situation.
The mode of travel of this force was a hundred sixty kilometres southwest to Nushki by what was then called the Nushki Extension Railway. Thence westward the remaining four hundred and sixty kilometres to Saindak by slow moving camel train. With the war in Europe dragging on and there being no sign of let up in the activities, supposed or real, of the Turko-German agents provocateur as well as the need to regularly rotate troops on that distant frontier, it was decided to extend the line.
By February 1917, the railhead was at Dalbandin. It is recorded that in 1915, just as survey for extension got underway, disease killed some thirty thousand camels along the ancient route to Iran. Since the railway was following this same road, the surveyors adjusted their bearings with the line of camel skeletons bleaching in the sun!
As it is, Balochistan is sparsely populated; but at that time this region was almost uninhabited. This was a desert sprinkled with black stones and occasional sand dunes of a sharp crescent shape that shifted with the wind. And the wind! The bad-e-sad-o-bees-roz - Wind of a Hundred and Twenty Days - actually raged, and still does, at fifty knots nonstop from early April until the end of September. It carries with it the sand of the desert to cut the skin of the exposed part. Temperatures remain in the forties Celsius for eight months of the year and water was, and still is, available in few places.
This was the loneliest railway in the entire subcontinent and its epithet The Lonely Line was in every way apt: between Dalbandin and Nok Kundi, one hundred and seventy kilometres apart, there was only the intermediate station of Yakmach stuck in a most consummate wilderness. The name signifying One Date Tree, Yakmach is believed to have served as encampment for the beleaguered Hamayun as he trudged his weary way to Iran after his defeat at the hands of Sher Shah Suri.
If laying the line was difficult, operating it was ever more so. Running some thirty kilometres south of the line of jagged, barren range of Koh e Sultan separating British territories from Afghanistan, it was repeatedly cut across by the shallow channels of their drainage. Being without bridges with the line sitting in the stream bed, it was up to the locomotive driver to decide if the water, when it flowed, was low enough for the train to pass or not. Miscalculation and the water putting out the fire and halting the train was not unknown. And breakdown on the Lonely Line meant a delay of up to two days before relief arrived.
Despite the difficulties, the line crossed the border to reach Duzdap, now Zahedan, in 1918. In the beginning this was a purely strategic line used by the government for military and commercial purpose. However, by 1922, it was opened for passenger traffic. In those early days before pollution had hit this remote region, as the train chugged past Nok Kundi, travellers could discern the snow-capped smoking cone of Koh e Taftan (which gives its name to the last station in Pakistan). The Lonely Line was thus the only railway in the entire subcontinent passing within sight of an active volcanic peak.
This was the subcontinent's railway connection with Europe that many a Victorian railwayman dreamed of. But Zahedan was not connected to the rest of the Iranian railway network until 2009. And when it was, it was impossible for through trains because of the difference in gauges: the line up to Zahedan was Broad Gauge while the Iranian system was all 4 foot 8 inch Standard Gauge.
In the heyday of its life, the Lonely Line saw two passenger trains out and back per week between Quetta and Zahedan as well as a number of freight trains. Dwindling interest in keeping this line going resulted in its decay. Today, more than ever before in its one century of life, it is lonely as lonely a line can be.