Khyber Pass railway
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Pakistan Railways SGS locomotive 2386 at Shahgai water stop 10 March 1978 (George Woods)
The Third Afghan War in 1919 highlighted to the British authorities the desirability of being able to concentrate military force on the Indian border rapidly in times of trouble. The Khyber Pass had a road suitable for motor transport, and an aerial ropeway was constructed using surplus parts from World War I, but something better was needed.
As a result, the famous railway was built through the Khyber Pass. The 1 676 mm gauge line planned by Colonel Gordon R Hearn started at the North Western Railway terminus near the fort at Jamrud, and ran though the Pass to the Afghan frontier.3 The Afghan government objected to Britain’s plans to build the railway, on the grounds that the scheme was purely strategic and unlikely to ever become part of a commercial link to Afghanistan.
The line to Landi Kotal was formally opened with a ceremony on 2 November 1925.4 It was completed to Landi Khana on the Afghan border on 23 April 1926. The final 2 km section to Landi Khana had a downward ruling gradient of 1 in 25, and although tracks were laid up to the border post this section was not used.
The Khyber line was laid out for mainline locomotives, and featured extensive sidings and signalling to ensure it could play a major role in carrying troops and supplies in the event of war.
The Khyber Pass railway is justifiably famous, and its history has been documented by others.5
The railway never crossed the border from British-ruled India into Afghanistan, and following requests from the Afghan authorities the section to Landi Khana closed on 15 December 1932.
The train service was always fairly sparse, but continued to run until 1982 when it was deemed not commercially viable.
In the 1990s a tourist charter train service branded the “Khyber Steam Safari” was launched as a collaboration between Pakistan Railways and tourism company Sehrai Travels.67 Operations were suspended in 2001 and 2002 during the US-led war in Afghanistan. Steam-hauled services had restarted by April 2002,8 but (perhaps unsurprisingly) suffered from a lack of tourists.9
The infrastructure was damaged by flooding in 2006, 2007 and most seriously in 2008, and by 2009 operations were again suspended because of damage to the track.10
The Khyber Pass railway was purely a strategic line, with little if any commercial traffic, so repairing the damage is unlikely to be economically justified unless it can be incorporated into a wider scheme to serve Afghanistan.
Charter train about to depart from Shahgai for Jamrud, with Pakistan Railways HGS 2-8-0 locos front and rear, 23 December 1993. Photo: MaltaGC (licence)
Next page: The Kabul to Darulaman railway
- Chapter XI, Permanent Way Through the Khyber, Victor Bayley, Jarrolds (London), 1939 ↩
- I don’t know the cost of the railway. The battlecruiser HMS Hood completed in March 1920 cost £6,025,000 ↩
- Couplings to the Khyber, PSA Berridge, 1968 ↩
- Khyber Railway Opened. Ceremony At Jamrud, The Times, 3 November 1925; p15; Issue 44109; col B ↩
- See for example Khyber Pass Railway, Owais Mughal, All Things Pakistan, 2006-09-26 ↩
- The derailed safari train. One of the five celebrated trains of Asia calls for immediate attention. Syed Inayat Ali Shah, The News on Sunday, 2008-04-20 ↩
- Khyber Steam Safari, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation ↩
- And on the left, the Tora Bora caves!, Daily Telegraph, 2002-04-05, quoted at The International Steam Pages ↩
- Steam up the Khyber, The International Steam Pages ↩
- The best place to watch for updates on the situation is probably The International Steam Pages ↩