Kabul River and Loi Shilman railways

Previous page: Merv to Kushka railway

March 2014 update: Since this page was written I have found some more primary sources and gained a much better understanding of the project. While hopefully nothing here is incorrect, please do not treat this page as the definitive story. I am planning a major update, which will come sometime soon.

If you have any information on the Kabul River and Shilman Valley railways, do get in touch.

During the second Afghan war (1878-1880) Sir Guilford Molesworth considered the possibility of constructing a metre gauge railway through the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan. However, there was not yet a bridge across the River Indus, and constructing one would have been a major undertaking. In 1885 Captain JRL McDonald surveyed the feasibility of building a railway to Landi Kotal,1 and in 1890 he surveyed a route along the Kabul River gorge. In 1898 another survey was carried out for a metre or narrower gauge line through the Khyber Pass to Landi Kotal.

In 1901 the broad gauge North Western Railway was extended from Peshawar to Jamrud, and in 1905 work began on a railway along the Kabul River valley in the Mullagori hills.

Parliament authorised the construction of this line as far as Torkham, and there was heated discussion about what course should be taken. There were two potential alignments. One ran up the Loi Shilman valley as far as the Shilman Ghakki pass, while the second route followed the Kabul River to Smatsai, below the fort at Dakka. On 17 December 1904 Lieutenant-Colonel HA Deane, Agent to the Governor General and Chief Commissioner, North West Frontier Province wrote to the Secretary to the Government of India with plans and estimates for the Shilman Ghakki route.2

Commander-in-Chief Lord Kitchener supported a direct route westwards through the Loi Shilman valley, with a tunnel between Warsak and Smatsai. The tunnel was deemed to be too expensive, and so it was decided to take an easier alignment following the bend in the river to Palosi.

The Afghans considered their territory to extend for some distance on the Indian side of the artificial border of the Durand line. Which ever route the railway took, it would extend beyond British-controlled areas. Construction work was held up by local tribes launching attacks on the works. The authorities discussed how best to protect the line, and the Chief Commissioner for police and militia corps on the North West Frontier directed Major GO Roos-Keppel of the Khyber Rifles to prepare a scheme to defend two possible routes for the railway.

Major Roos-Keppel, Major Dundee of the Royal Engineers and Captains Bickford and Rouston of the Khyber Rifles discussed the matter at Landi Kotal. “The construction of the railway will undoubtedly be unpopular” Roos-Keppel wrote3 to Major WE Venour, staff officer to the Chief Commissioner on 31 May 1905.

The railway would be very exposed to attack, in particular from the north. As a result a levy corps would need to be strong and self contained, with about 1 750 rifles. The Khyber Rifles could be expanded to provide guards, and both the Khyber Pass and the Kabul River Railway could be supported from Landi Kotal, though outposts would be two or three days march over difficult terrain from the garrison. Roos-Keppel suggested that troops’ pay may have to be raised. If the line ran via the Loi Shilman valley then the Khyber Rifles would need six additional infantry companies, with 100 Sowars (cavalry). The more exposed Kabul River route would require nine infantry companies, with 100 Sowars.

The line was to be protected by blockhouses. On the Loi Shilman route the locations of the defensive points would be:

  • Blockhouse 1: 1 mile north west of Shahmansur Khel, to control the Chena Gudr ferry.
  • A signalling post night be required on Tor Ghar, between blockhouses 1 and 2.
  • Blockhouse 2: Spur north of and immediately above Ghorangi.
  • Blockhouse 3: On main spur due east of the mouth of the Loi Shilman valley.
  • Blockhouse 4: 1/2 miles further north
  • Blockhouse 5: On hill 1/2 miles north west of Fatteh village
  • Blockhouse 6: On hill 1/6 mile north of Kama.
  • Blockhouse 7: If politically possible this would be located on the main ridge south of the pass, else it would be on a knoll about 2/3 mile south east of the Shilman Ghakki pass.

The Kabul River alignment would require Blockhouses 4, 5 and 6 to be on the left bank of the river. Number 7 blockhouse would be located either in the same place or further to the west. Two companies would be located from Shinilo Gudr to Sara Tigga. Half a company would be based at Shinpokh, half at Smatsai.

On 6 July 1905 Lieutenant-Colonel HA Deane wrote4 to the Secretary to the Government of India with “proposals for the protection of working parties during the construction of the railway and for the safeguarding of the line after completion.” Deane understood “there is a possibility of work on this railway being put in hand in the coming Autumn”.

“Apart from the question of Afghan interference, the line is open to attack from two sides:- the Afridis and other tribes on the right bank of the Kabul River and the Mohmands … on the left bank.” Construction would require “assistance not only of the Khyber tribes through whose country the railway will actually run, but also of the Mohmands who from their position on the flank and their propinquity to the railway up Sara Tigga would be enabled to cross the Kabul River and inflict damage on the line.” Because the Afridis and Mohmands were hereditary enemies, Deane did not recommend Roos-Keppel’s proposal to use the Khyber Rifles to guard the railway. Instead he recommended a moderate increase in the number of Khyber Rifles to guard the railway within the Khyber agency’s area, and the raising of a levy corps of Mohmands to hold a chain of posts from Michni to Sara Tigga.

On 15 July 1905 the British Government sent a telegram to the Government of India saying they were not satisfied that the Shilman Ghakki route was the best available. The Government of India said it would investigate further.5

Construction work began on the Loi Shilman route, and by 1907 there was 32 km of metre-gauge some broad gauge line in place from Kacha Garhi on the railway to Jamrud, to Warsak. The line was to run along the Kabul River valley and then westwards towards the Loi Shilman valley.6 The Flying Afridi ran as far as Warsak in the Peshawar plain7 (not the Warsak in the Loi Shilman valley).

An alliance between Britain and Russia resulted in the Convention of St Petersburg of 31 August 1907.8 Britain would “neither to annex nor occupy” any portion of Afghanistan, and Russia declared the country to be “outside the sphere of Russian influence”. This reduced the perceived threat to India, and the Kabul River railway was dismantled in 1909 without reaching the Durand line. The track materials and bridges were recovered for reuse elsewhere.

Next page: Khyber Pass railway

References

  1. http://www.gre.ac.uk/~ko903/archive/webpages/khyber.htm
  2. Mentioned in Letter from Lieutenant-Colonel HA Deane to the Secretary to the Government of India 1905-07-06 PRO 106/56
  3. Letter from Major GO Roos-Keppel to Major WE Venour 1905-05-31 PRO WO 106/56
  4. Letter from Lieutenant-Colonel HA Deane to the Secretary to the Government of India, 1905-07-06 PRO 106/56
  5. Proposals for raising a levy corps of Mohmands and increasing the Khyber Rifles to guard the Kabul River Railway. Letter from EHS Clarke, Deputy Secretary to the Government of India, to the Hon’ble Mr MF O’Dwyer, officiating Chief Commissioner and Agent of the Governor General in the North West Frontier Province. 1905-08-28 PRO WO 106/56
  6. Couplings to the Khyber PSA Berridge 1968
  7. Gun Running & the Indian North West Frontier Hon. Arnold Keppel 1991
  8. Key Treaties for the Great Powers 1814 – 1914 Vol 2 1871 – 1914 Michael Hurst (Ed.) 1972

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