Once Upon a Line: Metre Gauge Steam

by Salman Rashid, 2013

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

If the lines west of the Indus River were built to serve a military strategic purpose, one stitch across the Thar Desert east of Hyderabad was laid purely for commercial reasons. This was the line from Mirpur Khas eastward to Jodhpur. It all began when the Karachi Chamber of Commerce represented to the government that a rail connection be established between Jodhpur and Karachi. The reason for this demand was that Rajasthan being connected to Mumbai by the Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway, all exports from Rajasthan ended up at Mumbai port. This was unfair and to the detriment of Karachi's commercial interest, so her businessmen thought.

In response to this demand, a Broad Gauge connection from Hyderabad to the village of Shadipalli, ten kilometres east of Mirpur Khas was completed in 1892. But the Jodhpur Bikaner Railway ran entirely on the Metre Gauge. Now, this entailed trans-shipment of freight at Shadipalli in the outback for onward transmission to Hyderabad.

In order to curtail the two-time trans-shipment, the government of Jodhpur came forward with the offer of constructing a through Metre Gauge line from his capital all the way to Hyderabad. There was a provision, however: that the Hyderabad-Shadipalli link be converted to Metre Gauge in order to give a through run from Jodhpur all the way. The British Indian government agreed and the first train from the Jodhpur Bikaner Railway rolled into Hyderabad on 20 October 1900 bringing with it the revenue that Karachi port expected.

So far there seemed to be not a single railway constructed for the purely altruistic reason of facilitating the travelling public. In 1909, the government did just such a thing by laying a connection from Mirpur Khas to Jhudo, ninety kilometres to the south. In 1935, this line was extended east to Naukot and thence north again to Pithoro and Mirpur Khas; a loop line purely for the benefit of the desert people.

The year 1939 saw the line from Mirpur Khas connect with Nawabshah in the north. That completed the Metre Gauge network of Sindh and the province's link with Jodhpur. With independence the new border sliced this line near the quaint little station of Munabao, a few kilometres east of the little hamlet of Khokhrapar, effectively cutting off the connection with the Jodhpur Bikaner Railway.

If there was a lively and crowded small gauge network worked by steam, it was the Metre Gauge in Sindh - a very delight for the steam railway enthusiast. Until 1990, there were five trains daily around the loop as well as between Mirpur Khas and Nawabshah. Besides, there were another ten trains between Mirpur Khas and Khokhrapar every day.

But the railway was running out of steam - literally. The newest locomotives dated back to the 1940s and had clocked over a million kilometres each. The old school of steam mechanics, having reached the age of superannuation, was easing out of service, diesel power had already taken over the main lines and the network in the Sindhi outback that served only desert people was of little importance for the babus of Islamabad.

One by one, the beautiful steam workhorses of this network were permitted to die. Of the fifteen locomotives that leaguered in the steam shed at Mirpur Khas in 1987, only seven remained in mid-1990s. Today, seven whose boilers have not been fired for many years gather the dust of the Thar Desert. Some of them have been cannibalised, or merely vandalised. They stand under the rotting tin roof of the locomotive shed, dark ghosts from a glorious past.

In 2006, the line from Hyderabad to Khokhropar via Mirpur Khas came full circle. That year the section between Mirpur Khas and the border was upgraded to Broad Gauge - as it had begun in 1892. Today trains run through from Karachi all the way to the border.