Worth its Salt: The Sind Sagar Railway

by Salman Rashid, 2013

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

Deep in the Punjab hinterland, there runs a line that seems to lead nowhere. It takes off westward from the station of Malakwal, off the main line from Lala Musa. Had it been built after independence, one could look at it differently as a line meant to serve the travelling public.

Station on the Sind Sagar Line
Station on the Sind Sagar Line

But this was the Sind Sagar Railway that crossed the Jhelum River to skirt the purple loom of the Salt Range to Khushab, Mianwali, Kundian and down south to Darya Khan. Across the Indus from this sleepy town lay Dera Ismail Khan under the shadow of the Suleman Mountains and treading on the toes of Waziristan. As much a flashpoint in the 1880s as it is now, Waziristan needed monitoring and the Durand Line (drawn in 1893) patrolling. And so even the obscure old Sind Sagar was as strategic a line as PNSR or KSR.

That having been said, there was a commercial interest as well. Nearing the end of the 19th century, the salt mines at Khewra were fully functional on modern lines and delivering up large quantities of fine rock salt every month. The earlier camel trains to the marts east of the Jhelum River or the river journey upstream and down were slow and cumbersome. A rail connection to Khewra was the answer.

The line south from Rawalpindi via Attock city (then called Campbellpur) skirting the Kala Chitta Hills to reach Mianwali on the Indus, was still ten years in the future when work commenced on the Sind Sagar Railway in 1886. As every line has a showpiece, this had the Victoria Bridge, a magnificent steel structure spanning the Jhelum River between Malakwal and Haranpur. Completed in May 1887, this piece of engineering was fit for any spot on a main line where it could be seen and admired. But relegated to a branch line, and one that is little used, oblivion is its lot.

Haranpur, where Emperor Jahangir hunted ravine deer in the 17th century, became the junction for the line to split northwest for the mines and southwest for Khushab and its ultimate destination at Darya Khan. But compared to the lines to Chaman in Balochistan and to Peshawar that served their strategic purpose, as they still do hauling military units back and forth, the Sind Sagar Railway was a poor cousin. Virtually no movement of forces took place by it.

Until 1998, regular twice a day steam trains plied between Malakwal and Khewra and nearby Gharibwal with its cement factory. With steam already phased out around the world and Europe operating old showpiece locomotives for railway buffs, tourists ended up at Malakwal to ride the footplate across the Victoria Bridge.

But all that ended in 1998. In September that year, the last of the old steam workhorses was cut up in the yard at Malakwal. Like the cadavers of giant dismembered animals, they were loaded on freight cars to be shipped to the foundries of Lahore. The era of steam in Pakistan met its end at Malakwal, the north-eastern terminus of the old Sind Sagar Railway.

Meanwhile the slow passenger services between Malakwal and Khewra or Gharibwal no longer remained feasible and were cut. Today only one train up and down every day crosses the Victoria Bridge on the Jhelum.