Farrukh Riaz Butt

In April I went to Quetta to see the railway tracks there and elsewhere in Balochistan dating back to the British days.

I was impressed by the American locomotives: 3812, 3801, 3815, 3841, 3826 and 3806 that were running on the tracks, each engine of which can pull 13 coaches easily. It seems as if time stands still, and we live in the same period when Pakistan came into being.

Many trains in Balochistan are steam, dating back to the early part of the 20th century.

The engine sheds across the tracks are full of the little 2ft, 6 inch narrow gauge engines, their boiler fronts open for inspection, greasy figures tapping and oiling their wheel gear.

All the signboards belong to a different era as far as the art of writing signboards goes; giving a somewhat archaic look.

The railways system was of course, built and furnished by the British and the lines connecting Lahore to Delhi, Lahore to Peshawar, Landikotal, Quetta, Karachi and other places in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, namely Kohat, Bannu, Havelian, and in Balochistan, namely Chaman, Zhob to Ziarat via Kach Hernai were known since1883 as the north western railways.

It was the longest rail network in the sub-continent and ran across the country side where the climate extremes were terrible.

Heat in Sindh deserts was enough for 32 British soldiers to die one afternoon in 1915, while in another instance; passengers crammed in a train suffered frostbite in the remote Zhob valley.

The link to Quetta was a vital one. The British had occupied the city in 1876 when, under the Jacobabad Treaty signed with the Khan of Kalat, it became an important military outpost.

The British soon after moved into Sibi and the road link between the two, via the Bolan Pass, was the main and vulnerable communication link.

But if extremes of temperature were a problem, the problems that confronted the engineers were formidable, including geographical as well as the dangers from marauding tribes and the ever-present risk of fatal epidemics.

Sibi, which is a main junction at mere 500 feet above sea level, with mountains shutting it into the north and west giving it an unenviable reputation of being the hottest place in the entire sub-continent.

But recently, about two or three months ago, the experts have discovered a coolest tunnel in Sibi, which is as cool as a Kaghan Valley or Ziarat Valley or Harnai hilltop; one can't sleep without blanket in summers.

The initial stage of the line out to Sibi had been completed in 1880, cutting out the long and gruelling marches from Jacobabad across the Sindh desert.

But to take the line on to Quetta through the Bolan Pass was going to prove more difficult than building across flat terrain.

Besides that the second Afghan War had broken out in the previous year, and it was realised that the line couldn't be finished before the war ended, and, therefore, there was little need for hurry.

It was decided to initially pass the line through Harnai, where the gradient was not steeper than 1 in 44 as against the 1 in 25 for the Bolan Pass. A line was also to be laid direct to Quetta through Bolan; the two lines meeting at Bostan, 22 miles from the city, then passing through the Kojak Tunnel, Shelle Bagh mountains to finish at Chaman.

Procrastination at top government level in England caused the line to be delayed yet further, and it took a Russian advance in 1883 to galvanize what had become a stop-go policy into one of extreme urgencies, nonetheless, it was 1887 before the first train was to run through to Quetta via Harnai. Nowadays trains still run up to Chaman, but only via the Bolan Pass, landsides finished the Harnai route in 1942, although trains are still running between Sibi and Khost, where there are coal mines.

Anyone following stretches of the line today will find some of stations, tunnels and bridges have evocative names, leaving Sibi on the Harnai Line, the train runs across flat countryside for some six miles before entering the Nari garge, which it crosses and recrosses six times on its way passing a long-closed station with the name "Tanduri" – which means, oven, and further on, across a shingle plain to Gundakindaff, the line enters the tortuous defile of Kuchali. Here there are three bridges and as many tunnels, and here it was too in this peaceful valley, that a convoy of British soldiers returning from Afghanistan.

In the Bolan Pass too, the engineers thought wistfully of home as they carved and blasted their way through the rock, and spanned the chasms with their bridges. Thus there is the Elgin Bridge, and two tunnels, one named Windy Corner, the other Marry Jane, the lady being the wife of Mr Flo'callaghan, who first took the railway into the Bolan.

Consequently, Balochistan has begun to attract the hardier elements of the railways enthusiasts world, who make their way here to ride in the trains, to experience the intense heat of the footplate – the engines now are oil burning and to examine one of the longest and most remarkable narrow gauge railway anywhere.

BATTLE OF THE GAUGES!

There is a line that runs from Bostan through Khanai and Hindu Bagh to Zhob or as it used to be known, Fort Sandeman. It is an enduring reminder of the "battle of the gauges" that plagued the development of Indias' Railways right from 1850, when 5 ft, 6 inch was accepted as the standard on the understanding that any narrow gauge lines would be expanded to full width "whenever the development of the traffic renders such a change advisable."

The Zhob Valley Railway – all 200 miles of it, never did find it advisable, apparently for the train still runs down there passing through the station of Kan Mehtarzai, at 7,225 feet above sea level the highest on the whole railway system. Out of Sibi and just before the Bolan Pass, Machh is a resting place, a station on the level where a second engine is taken on to help the train through the pass, while the passengers take a meal in the nearby restaurants. Here the little tea room is very English. There is the smell of hot tea and warm eggs and cakes.

The waiter, white coated and attentive, hovers with his giant tea pot and the ceiling fans churn the air slowly.

On the wall is a big clock, manufactured by Gillett and Johnston of Corydon in 1910 with NWR in bold black letterings on the face but the clock is still working. Now, it is clear cause that the present government has not enough money – so the government shall invite the foreign investors for example Japan, China, United Kingdom, USA, Germany, France Russia and Korea, they come to Pakistan and invest the money for the improvement of the projects which are stopped because of some circumstances. If the foreign investors take the Pakistan Railways broad and narrow gauges system on lease no doubt we can say that Balochistan broad gauge and throughout the Pakistan railways system. Best income for Pakistan tourism and in the end I would like say always by Railways.