The railway lines in Pakistan and the stories they tell
A wintery morning. A small, all but abandoned, railway station. A few scrawny plants growing between its building and a double rail track glued on a cheerless slope with sombre, brooding hills closing in from all sides as if to prevent the station from escaping. That was Hirok station in the heart of Balochistan’s Bolan Pass — or at least that is my most abiding memory of it.
On a bench in front of the building lay what looked like a body shrouded in a grey shawl. To the grinding sound of our trolley’s brakes, it raised a bit of the shawl from its head to cast a bleary eye in our direction. Recognising the trolley men, it waved a languid hand and went back under the shawl. We passed on down the slope, once again gathering speed.
It was March 1995 and friends in the railway had arranged for me to be taken down the Bolan Pass by trolley. From Kolpur station at the western head of the pass to the coal town of Machh, around 25 kilometres in the south-east, it is all the way down. After the initial push, the trolley goes screaming down the sharp gradient powered only by gravity. This slope had once seemed impossible for broad gauge steam engines to negotiate.
It was, indeed, for the sharp gradients of the Bolan Pass that railway engineers took the line north from Sibi through the Nari Gorge and across the dramatic Chappar Rift in order to connect Quetta with the rest of British India. But the unstable geology and the continual mud and rock slides in the rift told Raj railway engineers that another line was needed if they had to get to Kandahar in a hurry. And the hurry was imperative.
Having resoundingly lost the First Afghan War (1839-42), the army of the East India Company was paranoid with fear of Russia marching into Afghanistan. The situation only worsened in the latter half of the 19th century as tensions between Czarist Russia and Victorian Britain rose to a fever pitch, both vying for imperial superiority in Central Asia. Since railway was the fastest way to transport troops, Russia was swiftly embroidering Asian deserts with steel threads east of the Don River even as British engineers hastened to match stitch for stitch through the Subcontinent and across the shale and limestone barriers of the Suleman Mountains and the Bolan Pass.
It was not until seven years after the end of the second Afghan War (1878-80) that the first line through Chappar Rift reached Quetta. But landslides and floods plagued the route even when it was being built, necessitating an alternate line. This seemed feasible only through the more stable geology of the Bolan Pass
Originally, the line from Sibi was to swing due west to reach the village of Rind Ali (Rindli on British maps of that era). Here it would veer north-west for Hirok through the Kundlani Gorge.
As the summer began in 1885, the line started to inch forward. Through furnace blasts of searing wind, labourers and engineers toiled to put a broad gauge (five feet and six inches wide) line. To add to the discomfort of the heat, cholera broke out in construction camps, resulting in the deaths of several hundred workers. Still, with remarkable doggedness, the builders kept at it, perhaps driven by the desire to reach the cooler heights as quickly as possible.
By mid-November that year, when the heat had already let off, the line reached Hirok (where the body under the shawl had waved to me) at 1,400 metres above the sea. Now came the hard part. The height rose dramatically to 1,790 metres within the 12 kilometres distance between Hirok and Kolpur through the Dozan Gorge. This rise of 390 metres in such a short distance was so sheer that not even the most powerful locomotive of the time could haul a train up it.
The railwaymen’s answer was to put in a smaller metre gauge (three feet and three inches wide) line between Hirok and Kolpur. The line to Quetta from Kolpur was again to be broad gauge, passing across what is known as Dasht-e-Bedaulat (the Wretched Plain) — nothing grew here except a few grasses and, if winter rain and snow were abundant, some flowers. (In the early 1990s, I saw the first of several tube wells sprouting on the plain. Within years, it stood transformed with seasonal wheat and orchards.)
The change in gauge meant that freight and passengers would be transhipped from broad gauge carriages to the smaller ones at Hirok. After being hauled up to the cool heights of Kolpur, they would be shipped again to the larger vehicles. If that was not trouble enough for sahibs and memsahibs, another problem was that the line, sitting on the stony bed of the Bolan River as it passed through the tortuous Dozan Gorge, suffered periodic damage when rain sent down a flood in the otherwise dry stream. Once again, it was realised that this too was not the answer and plans were put in place to lay a ‘high level’ broad gauge line from Sibi to Dozan.
In 1888, work began on new bridges and tunnels. Two years later, as if to prove the old adage about the best laid plans of mice and men, nature brought down a huge flood through the gorge, washing away the bridges, girders and all. The Kundlani Gorge route just turned out to be another replay of the maddening Chappar Rift route.
So, yet another alternative was needed. The line was now to be built through somewhat higher Mushkaf Valley that sits between Sibi and Hirok. With a shallower gradient difference, the line was forced all the way up to Hirok through places with names as mysterious as Aab-e-Gum (Lost Water, where the Bolan River disappears underground) and as evocative as Machh (Date Palm).
Hirok onward, some magnificent bridges and a number of tunnels took the line to the top of the pass at Kolpur. Even now, trains had to be hauled up from Machh to Kolpur with what in railway parlance is called a banking engine, that is, an extra engine at the back of the train to give it additional upward push.
The tunnels here have interesting names: there is Windy Corner and then there are Mary Jane, Cascade and Summit. The second one is named after the wife of F L O’Callaghan, the pioneer of this line, and the last one is an obvious reference to the top of the Bolan Pass. Below Cascade, right next to Elgin Bridge, there is a bit of another mystery: a smaller tunnel. This is the old metre gauge tunnel abandoned after the broad gauge line became operational.
It was in 1894 when the first ‘through’ train from down country rolled into Quetta by the Mushkaf-Bolan route. By and by, this became a daily service even while the once a week up and down service through the Chappar Rift also continued. Then, in July 1942, came the flood in the rift to wash out that line. If Raj engineers had little interest to re-establish it, it was only because the Bolan Pass line was running trouble-free.
Climb to a vantage point high above the valley floor in Dozan Gorge and watch the diesel engines hauling green and cream coaches along the brown contours of the landscape into Cascade Tunnel. As the clatter and growl of the engine turns into a boom and, later, as the noise reverberates solidly off the rocky bed of the dry stream when the lines travels over the magnificent Elgin Bridge, the flesh crawls and the eye mists. It is like being in a high adventure movie. And as you contemplate the scene below, of a sudden you are hit with one realisation: had periodic disasters not devilled the Chappar Rift, the Bolan Pass line would never have been laid.
At Quetta, the line spreads out in three prongs: one going south-west to the Iranian frontier; the other going west across the Khwaja Amran Mountains to Chaman; and the third going north-east to Zhob. Each of these lines has a story of its own to tell.
This article was published in the Herald's June 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.