Indian politician Shashi Tharoor rightly asserted that the British put up the railway system in India in their own interests and benefited immensely from it. While partly agreeing to Tharoor’s assertions, I am willing to forgive the British for giving us this engineering marvel in the shape of tracks spread over thousands of miles, rolling stock, steam engines and the beautiful Victorian railway stations all over the country.
Let’s not forget the continuing benefits of this exquisite logistical feat. It is fascinating to see how the West was won (partly) by the imperialists of the subcontinent in the later half of the 19th century. This cannot be better explained without appreciating the role of the North Western Railways.
In the later part of the 19th century, the British had already laid main broad gauge lines (five feet, six inches) across the subcontinent. At the time, North Western Railways had a vast network across present-day Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
One of the main broad gauge lines ended at Mari Indus near Kalabagh on the eastern banks of the River Indus. The British established a large military depot near Mari Indus to provide for the troops stationed across the river in the Wild West in areas such as Bannu, Tank, Kohat and Waziristan. The depot still exists today near the Mari Indus station.
To reach the Wild West, the British laid a narrow gauge (two feet, six inches) line from Mari Indus to Bannu passing through Kalabagh, Isakhel, Lakki Marwat and Bannu with a branch line to Tank. From Tank and Bannu, only military lines were allowed to take the cargo into forts in Waziristan. The gates of these forts would open, engulf the whole train and then close.
These trains were primarily meant to address military logistics, but also provided local passenger services. However, they would move so slowly that people would get down to buy a drink and more passengers could get on the train as well.
Another broad gauge line ended at Kohat, connecting the city to the garrison town of Rawalpindi. One can still see the colonial-era stations at Fatehjang, Basal or Jand on the way. These stations still display Gillet and Johnston Croydon wall clocks, although only a few of them are working today.
I also saw the elegant Neale’s ball token system that is still in existence, which was used to avoid collisions on single track lines. While the clocks and token systems may be out of order, the traditional signal lamps are always working, including the postcard platform benches with “NWR” carved on them.
I was also fascinated to see the iron double-decked bridge built in 1905 over River Indus at Khushal Garh with the passage for trains above and vehicles below with massive iron gates to close the bridge in case of any trouble from the west. From Kohat, another narrow gauge line would emerge to connect it with Thal in the west.
There were three narrow gauge lines set up by the British, primarily in western mountainous areas as they allowed better maneuverability for locomotives and wagons. The longest one in the subcontinent was Zhob Valley Railways connecting Bostan near Quetta with Zhob.
The second longest ran from Mari Indus to Bannu line, laid over a 1928 vehicle-cum-railway bridge over the River Indus in Kalabagh. The third was a 100 km narrow gauge line laid to connect Kohat and Hangu with Thal near Parachinar.
The narrow gauge trains finally stopped functioning somewhere in the early nineties after being in service for about a century. There are fascinating accounts written of those fortunate enough to enjoy the train rides by narrow gauge lines in the late eighties. These include accounts from our own railway buff, Salman Rashid.
Today, the railway stations at Kalabagh, Tank, Bannu, Hangu, Ustarzai and Thal are abandoned while the tracks are derelict, misaligned and stolen at places. Traveling from Kalabagh to Bannu or from Kohat to Thal, I couldn’t help but notice the rusty, brown coloured railway tracks, old fort-like stations and broken bridges. This reminded me of an era when the whistling train would tear across the Wild West, the forgotten backyard of Pakistan till this day.
I was always captivated by the western-most frontier station of North Western Railways in Thal. After the long drive from Kohat to Hangu and finally to Thal, I saw only remainders of the rusted railway tracks lying around. It was difficult to imagine how a foreign power could lay these tracks a century ago in this hostile territory.
There were around four or five stations from Kohat to Thal including Ustarzai, Raisan, Hangu and Kahi before the railway track passed through the 1909 Thal fort, currently the Brigade headquarters of the Pakistan Army.
Initially, the railway station may not have been part of the fort but with time it expanded to become part of the station. The old fort-like railway station still has the traditional, maroon water tank of North Western Railways. The railway station has traditional sentry turret at the top with loops to guard against invaders and reinforced iron gates.
The station is now occupied by Christian families from Sialkot, oblivious to the history of the last frontier station of North Western Railways. However, the icing on the cake was finding some long-standing rolling stock.
I noticed that the wagons had “Thal Safari” marked on them, which still stand at the very end of the railway line on a small cliff. The train never went any further from this point, although it appears that the British played with ideas to extend the railway line to Parachinar and on to Kabul.
Parachinar town, some 70 km further west, still has a lot of railway properties and a rest house, which was perhaps acquired by the British in anticipation of a grand North Western Railways traversing Koh-i-Sufaid range into Afghanistan.
While Tharoor may be right that the British developed railways in their own interest, it is unfortunate that we didn’t maintain what they left behind.
While it may not make sense to redevelop the narrow gauge lines, Pakistan Railways should at least think about reviving some of the abandoned stations on the pattern of Golra railway station in Islamabad. To add to this, redesigning small sections of narrow gauge trains could also become potential tourist attractions.
This article first appeared on Dawn.