The famed Indian politician Shashi Tharoor rightly asserts in his crisp English that British put up the railway system in India in their own interest and benefitted immensely from it. While partly agreeing to Mr. Tahoor’s assertions, I am willing to forgive the British for giving us this engineering marvel in shape of thousands of miles of tracks, lovely rolling stock including steam engines and the beautiful Victorian railway stations sprinkled all over the country. And let us not forget the continuing benefits of this exquisite logistical feat to this date. It is fascinating to see how the west was won, well partly, by the imperialists of the subcontinent in later half of nineteenth century and this cannot be better explained without appreciating the role of North West Railways.
Reading the 1915 gazette of Mianwali District, I read ‘ Chalo chaliyay Isakhel, jithay chaldi choti rail’ meaning lets go to Isakhel where the little train runs. So the story goes like that in later part of nineteenth century, British had already laid main broad gauge lines (5 feet, 6 inches broad) across the subcontinent and North West Railways had a vast network across present day Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. One of the main broad gauge line ended at Mari Indus near Kalabagh on the eastern banks of River Indus.
British established a huge Military deport near Mari Indus to provide for the troops stationed across the river in wild west in areas like Bannu, Tank, Kohat, Waziristan etc. The depot exists to this day close to Mari Indus station. To reach the Wild West, British laid a narrow gauge (2 feet, 6 inches broad) line from Mari Indus to Bannu passing through Kalabagh, Isakhel, Lakki Marwat and Bannu with a branch line to Tank. From Tank and Bannu, strictly Military lines would emerge that would take the cargo into forts in Waziristan. The gates of these forts would open and engulf the whole train and then close. These trains were primarily meant to address Military logistics but also provided local passenger services though I am told that these trains were so slow that people would get down to buy a drink and then get on as well.
Similarly another broad gauge line ended at Kohat connecting the garrison town of Rawalpindi with Kohat and you 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 though only few of them are working. Similarly you can always find the elegant Neale’s ball token system 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 as are the picture postcard platform benches with ‘NWR’ carved on them.
And yes you cannot miss the 1905 angle iron double-decked bridge over River Indus at Khushaalgarh with 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.
In all, there were three narrow gauge lines set up by British primarily in western mountainous areas as narrow gauge allowed better maneuverability for locomotives and wagons. The longest one in the sub continent was Zhob Valley Railways connecting Bostan near Quetta with Zhob. The second one was from Mari Indus to Bannu line laid over a 1928 vehicle cum Railway Bridge over River Indus at Kalabagh. The third was another 100 kilometers narrow gauge line put up to connect Kohat and Hangu with Thal near Parachinar.
The narrow gauge trains finally stopped functioning somewhere in early nineties after being in service for about a century. You can read fascinating accounts of those fortunate enough to enjoy the travel by narrow gauge lines in late eighties and 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.
However as you travel from Kalabagh to Bannu or from Kohat to Thal, you cannot escape the rusty brown colored railways tracks, old fort like stations and broken bridges which remind you of an era when the whistling train would tear across the wild west, the forgotten backyard of Pakistan to this date.
I was always fascinated by the western most frontier station of North West Railways in Thal. Driving from Kohat to Hangu and then Thal, I was able to see the rusty railways tracks lying around and it was difficult to imagine how a foreign power would lay these tracks down a century back in this hostile territory.
There were some four or five stations from Kohat to Thal including Ustarzai, Raisan, Hangu and Kahi before the railway tracks finally entered the 1909 Thal fort, currently Brigade headquarters of Pakistan Army. It appears that initially the railway station may not be part of the fort however with time the fort expanded to engulf the railway station within it.
And here I was standing in front of an old fort like railway station with traditional maroon water tank of North West 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 some Christian families from Sialkot oblivious to the history of the last frontier station of North West Railways. However the icing of the cake was to be able to find some long standing rolling stock in the shape of a couple of wagons.
The wagons had ‘Thal Safari’ marked on these, perhaps an idea of some enterprising fellow and these stand at the very end of the railway line on a small cliff. The train never went any further from this point though it appears that British played with ideas to extend the railway line to Parachinar and on to Kabul. Parachinar town, some seventy kilometers further west, still has a lot of railways property and a railways rest house perhaps acquired by British in anticipation of a grand North West Railways traversing Koh-i-Sufaid range into Afghanistan.
So while Mr. Tharoor may be right that British developed Railways in their own interest, it was difficult for us to even maintain for our benefit what they left to us. While it may not make sense to revive the whole sections of narrow gauge lines, Pakistan Railways may think about having some small loops of narrow gauge trains as tourist attractions or reviving some of these abandoned stations on the pattern of Golra railway station in Islamabad.