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The Telling Tale of Pakistan Railways

Nearly 200 years ago, most people travelled as caravans on land routes while ships and boats were used to travel in the water channels. A famous English civil and mechanical engineer George Stephenson made the steam locomotive, in 1825, weighing nearly 90 tonnes. Later, he went on to build the 25-mile (40 km) railway between Stockton and Darlington that was opened on 27 September 1825. This was the first public steam railway in the world.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013


In 1830, nearly five years after this auspicious event, Britain launched its first regular train service that ran from Liverpool to Manchester. That was the turning point as the railways networks were rapidly built in other countries as well. For instance, in 1834, Ireland started railways operations in the country. The very next year, in 1835, both Germany and Belgium followed the suit. Canada also joined the railways club in 1836. During these years, railways networks saw an unprecedented expansion when the trains started running across USA and Europe.

After thirty years of successful operations in their homeland, the British rulers introduced the railways network in the Indian Subcontinent and the very first train in the Subcontinent ran between Bombay and Thane on 16th of April, 1853 in a 14-carriage-long train drawn by 3 locomotives named Sultan, Sindh and Sahib. The train took nearly 45 minutes to cover a distance of 21 miles.

In 1855, a company namely “Scinde Railway” was formed to run trains in the areas which now form Pakistan. On 13 May 1861, the company operated the first railway line for public traffic between Karachi City and Kotri, a distance of 108 miles (174 km).

Within no time, train became the safest as well as the most comfortable means of transport throughout the world. Different cultures and civilizations came closer after having connected by the railways network. Their bilateral relations and people-to-people contacts enhanced as never before. The system of trains and railways also made impact on literary traditions and contemporary literature. Many of the romantic tales in our literature had their plots constructed or developed in journeys by train.

Besides, another aspect of trains' importance came to light when the US and France used them to transport their soldiers and military equipment in the times of war or to quell rebellions and ward off internal strifes. However, the need and importance of railways was strongly felt when the world entered into the World War I, which saw Germany and Turkish Ottoman Empire joining hands to fight against the Allies i.e. Great Britain, France, USA, Russia and others.
 The total length of Pakistan's broad gauge railway line is 11301 kilometres but the miserable state of affairs is right before us. On the contrary, Indian Railways owns 63000-kilometre-long railway tracks and employs more than 1.6 million personnel.
 Germans were fully aware of the unrivalled naval strength of the Great Britain which had occupied all the major ports and was present in almost all the coastal areas across the globe. To counter this British might, Germany planned to connect herself with Asia and Africa through railways network. Hence, she built the Jeddah railway line that after passing through various Arab countries, reached Turkey and then further connected Austria and Germany.

The Britons sufficiently knew that unless the supply line of Turkish troops from Arab region is severed and the Jeddah Railway Line is destroyed, defeating the Germans and the Turks will remain a dream. For this very purpose, they implanted world-known spy and a British Army officer Thomas Edward (T.E.) Lawrence, later to be known as Lawrence of Arabia, who organized Arabs against the Turks and also annihilated the Jeddah Railway Line with powerful dynamite explosions thus restricting the military movements.

The total length of Pakistan's broad gauge railway line is 11301 kilometres but the miserable state of affairs is right before us. On the contrary, Indian Railways owns 63000-kilometre-long railway tracks and employs more than 1.6 million personnel. On average, nearly 20 million Indians travel by trains daily while the goods trains transport more than 2 million tonnes a day cargo.


A circumspect look at the railways network in the present-day Pakistan reveals that building railways network was started in Sindh and Punjab in 1861 and 1862 respectively. However, the year 1878 saw two major incidents which compelled them to expand railways as well as canal system here. First, a famine struck the region in which nearly 10 million people, at a time when the whole population of the Subcontinent was 160 million, lost their lives. Second, the British won the second Anglo–Afghan War after humiliating defeat in the first war (1839-1842). British rulers strongly felt the need of a railways network in today's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that may reach to the Afghan border.

This was 'testing times' for the colonial rulers because the rail companies which were earning millions of rupees from their operations in the plains of Sindh and Punjab, were reluctant to go to the mountainous region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the deserts of Balochistan for two major reasons. First, the endeavour required huge investments, and second, huge losses were also imminent. Finally, the government enunciated that to meet the costs of construction and the losses therein, the companies operating in other parts of India will dedicate some percentage from their profits. It was argued that the proposed railway line was indispensable keeping in view the defence needs. The track was named the “Strategic Railway Line”.

The construction started from Rawalpindi-Jhelum and in its first phase, 184-mile-long track was laid in 1883 that was extended to Jamrood in 1901. In 1925, Landi Kotal and Landi Khana were also linked to it. There were immense hardships in laying the railway line in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. 

In Balochistan, on one hand, the total length of Sibi-Harnai-Khost Section, Sibi-Bolan-Quetta Section, Quetta-Bostan-Chaman Section, Bostan-Zhob narrow gauge line and of Quetta-Spezand-Taftan-Zahedan Section was more than 1550 kilometres, and at the other, Bostan-Zhob narrow gauge line – once the longest narrow gauge line in the world – was 296-kilometre-long. Moreover, it also had the highest railway station in Asia at an altitude of 7500ft. The track, which reached up to Zhob–D.I. Khan from Bostan and was mainly used for patrolling the border with Afghanistan, was closed in 1985.

Thousands of workers and hundreds of camels were employed to construct the Sibi-Harnai-Khost track, which was closed after the assassination of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti in 2006. They fell prey to the vagaries of weather, and most of them died of cholera and malaria while hundreds were brutally killed by the tribesmen.
 Gwadar is not only a warm-water, deep-sea port situated on the Arabian Sea, but its strategic importance has now become the focus of the world's attention as well.
 More than 2000 labourers along with 5000 camels worked for the construction of Sibi-Bolan-Quetta track. At this track, Kolpur and Quetta stations are situated at an altitude of 6500 and 5500 feet respectively. The construction of 190–kilometre–long Sibi to Quetta railway track cost 285 million rupees. Hundreds of workers and camels also were killed due to various factors.

Here, a noteworthy fact is that Mirza Hadi Ruswa, who authored a classical masterpiece of Urdu literature namely “Umrao Jaan Ada”, worked at this project as sub-engineer.

After Quetta, at Bostan and from here, 144–kilometre–long railway line was also laid up to Chaman, a Pakistani city at Pak-Afghan border. Famous Khojak Tunnel, nearly 2.5 miles or 12870 ft in length and completed in 1890, is also located here.

Another interesting fact is pertinent to mention is the company which built this line took all their workforce on this line to Australia later as it was awarded a contract for the construction of a railway line there. Most of these labourers were Pashtoons and they settled in Australia afterwards. They set their camels free to gaze in the forests. Even today, their descendents are called camel-men in Australia.

Coming back to the point, the longest railway line in Balochistan, which was built in exigence, was Quetta–Spezand-Taftan–Mirjawa-Zahedan track. It was more than 700 kilometres in length and was named “War Line” by the British rulers. The region after passing Noshki consists of deserts and mountains. This is the very region where Pakistan successfully conducted its nuclear tests on May 28, 1998.

Till 1979, Pakistan Railway personnel were staffed here up to the Iranian city Zahedan. Iran had completed the railway network from Turkish to Pakistan border after 1979 and a goods train also ran to the Europe through the Turkish city of Istanbul. Soon after its inauguration, Bangladesh and India, among others, showed a keen interest in exporting their cargo to Europe through this train. But, unfortunately, the project was rolled and now the track is almost closed since many years. Only a train namely “Water and Ration Train” runs once a month just to provide the eatables and water to the railway employees on the stations at this route.

Today, Pakistan railway's net annual losses amount to more than one 100 billion rupees while to revamp its infrastructure, 200 to 250 billion rupees are required. Nevertheless, Pakistan's new Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, during his recent visit to China and later in Islamabad and Gwadar, pronounced his plans to link Gwadar and Khunjerab through the railway network. Khunjerab is the bordering point of Pakistan and China and is located at an altitude of 15397 ft on the ancient Silk Road.


From here, Kashgar, a city in Chinese province Xinjiang located at 4530ft above sea level, is at a distance of 414 kilometres only. The proposed Rawlpindi–Khunjerab railway line, if built, will probably be the highest railway line in the world, and will pass through the world's highest glaciers.

It is to be noted that Gwadar is not only a warm-water, deep-sea port situated on the Arabian Sea, but its strategic importance has now become the focus of the world's attention as well. Gwadar is located near Gulf States and at the mouth of Strait of Hormuz, which is a thin strip running through Iran and Gulf States. Its width is so narrow that if two ships drown here, half of the world will be deprived of the oil supply.

After travelling from Gwadar through Turbat, Ketch and Kharan, when we reach Chagai, in district Noshki, there is the same old 'War Line' that runs from Spezand to Taftan. To the west, lies Iran, and also there is the border of Afghanistan in the northeast near Dalbandin. And then after passing Afghanistan's relatively narrower areas, there is the Central Asian region, especially, Turkmenistan.

It is to be kept in mind that in the last five years railway track has also been laid in Afghanistan, first of its kind in the country. This 1250–kilometre–long line has been laid in northern Afghanistan, from Central Asian region to Kabul while another from Kabul to Peshawar that is 1200 kilometres in length.

It seems probable that in the coming days, the German idea of World War I will be a reality. Railway service is getting increasingly popular mainly due to the reason that the minimum speed limit is 350 kilometre per hour. There are now electric engine who do not emit smoke and there is hardly any environmental or noise pollution.

Given the above–mentioned historical narratives and the present state of affairs, if Pakistan successfully completes railway tracks; first from Lahore to Istanbul and further to western Europe; second from Gwadar–Dalbandin to Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Russia and to Eastern Europe; third, Lahore–India–Bangladesh; and fourth, Rawalpindi–Khunjerab–Kashgar line, it can provide a trade corridor to China, India, Russia, Central Asian Republics, Iran and Turkey thus may earn billions of dollars annually.

The most pertinent question is 'are these plans executable especially keeping in view that to build the 140-kilometre-long track on Bolan Section, 285 million rupees were spent in those days, and in 2004-05, the project to lay 296 kilometres of broad gauge railway line cost 10 million rupees per kilometre that could now well be more than 20 million rupees?

The writer is a renowned educationist & social researcher.
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