Maps of railways to the borders

Amongst a collection of Historical Maps of India is Plate 24 Sect. III: Afghan Frontier, SE Afghanistan and west Punjab from the 1893 edition of Constable’s Hand Atlas of India, showing the never-built Chaman – Kandahar railway.

Chaman to Kandahar railway on the 1893 edition of Constable's Hand Atlas of India

The Digital South Asia Library has a high resolution scan of the 1909 Imperial Gazetteer of India map of Afghanistan showing the Russia railway from Merv (Mary) to Kushka (Serhetabat) close the Afghan border.
Imperial Gazetteer of India 1909 map of Afghanistan

China’s interest in Pakistan rail links

In an article at Asia Times Online, Syed Fazl-e-Haider writes about co-operation between China and Pakistan, including plans to extend the Khyber Pass line and build the Spin Boldak line. There is also discussion of a direct China – Pakistan railway.

Chinese shun Pakistan exodus

China has also shown interest in early laying a track between the Pakistan border town of Torkham and Jalalabad in Afghanistan, as the Chinese want to use the Pakistan Railways network to transport their goods and equipment for the development of copper mines and various other projects in Afghanistan. Separately, Pakistan Railways has completed a feasibility study for a rail section between Chaman, in Balochistan, and Kandahar in Afghanistan that is part of a proposed link across Afghanistan to Turkmenistan.
Source: Asia Times Online, 2009-09-11

Good railways but lousy boundaries

This is a border with no boundaries, boasting a frontier town with no frontier, said Jason Burke in describing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at Chaman in an article in The Independent published on 21 January 1999: Frontline: Chaman, Pakistan-Afghan frontier – Legacy of the Raj: fine railways and lousy borders.

Even the home secretary in Quetta – the second-most senior civil servant in the province – admits the frontier, effectively created as the western boundary of British India, is a farce: “It is an imaginary border. You Britishers built us good railways but gave us some lousy boundaries.”

Planning a Chaman – Kandahar route

Pakistan Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission has used satellite images for Route Selection for Chaman Kandhar Railway Line. The client was Pakistan Railways, but unfortunately there is no date.

Satellite image of proposed route for Chaman to Kandahar railway

Scope of Work:

  • To locate feasible route from Chamman, Pakistan to Kandhar, Afghanistan. The route had been marked on the satellite image
  • Processing of satellite data. Geo-referencing. Digitization of SRS data for Chamman-Kandhar Railways Route Location and alignment

Chaman – Spin Boldak railway progress at last?

Various recent news reports, when taken together, imply that there could be some progress with the plans for a rail link from Pakistan to Spin Boldak.

This would be a 10-15 km extension of the Pakistan Railways line which currently terminates at Chaman, just short of the Afghan border.

On the other hand, it might just be talk. Does anyone know anything hard about what might be happening?

Building this long-proposed extension would seem to make sense. A line from Chaman to Spin Boldak would just be a cross-border extension of Pakistan Railways’ 1676 mm gauge rail network to the first settlement on the Afghan side of the border.

It would be comparable to the lines to Hayratan and Towraghondi in the north of Afghanistan, which are simply cross-border extensions of the Uzbek and Turkmen railway networks. Customs formalities and the like could be completed with Afghanistan, rather than Pakistan.

View Chaman – Spin Boldak railway in a larger map

Pakistan has helped Kabul to construct Chaman-Kandahar Rail Link claims a 1 August 2009 report by NN Khattak in The Frontier Post.

Blame game must end

Pakistan is doing its best within its resources to help Afghanistan in its rebuilding efforts. Both countries agreed to cooperate on a pipeline project that would transport energy from Central Asia via Afghanistan into Pakistan. There is also talk of running a railroad through Afghanistan that would connect the republics of Central Asia with Pakistan and, through Pakistan’s ports, to overseas markets. Similarly, there are ongoing discussions about bus links between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan has constructed 75km long Torkham-Jalalabad Road and internal roads in Jalalabad to promote Afghanistan’s economy and trade. To bring the people of both countries closer, Pakistan has helped Kabul to construct Chaman-Kandahar Rail Link. This will help the people of Afghanistan to enter a new phase of industrialisation and development. Pakistan has provided 100 buses to Afghanistan to promote people-to-people contacts. The bus service between the cities of Pakistan and Afghanistan would enhance the cooperation between the people of both countries.

Source: The Frontier Post, 2009-08-01

Then there is this:

Pakistan turns to China to modernise railways

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan and China have agreed to cooperate for modernization of Pakistan Railways network, DawnNews quoted Railways Minister Haji Ghulam Ahmed Bilour as saying.

Bilour said that Pakistan Railways wanted to strengthen and expand the Torkham railway line [Khyber Pass] to meet the international standard, Quetta-Chaman-Kandahar section [Chaman – Kandahar doesn’t yet exist], Quetta-Iran [presumably the Zahedan route], and Quetta-Peshawar railway link via Zhob- D I Khan-Bakhar.

The railways minister said that Chinese side emphasized the need for early laying of Torkham-Jalalabad railway track [an extension of the Khyber Pass line] as they wanted to connect this section with Afghanistan so that they could use the Pakistan Railways network to transport their goods and equipment for the development of copper mines and various other projects launched in Afghanistan.

Source: Dawn, 2009-07-28

A line from Chaman across the border to Spin Boldak has been discussed for a very long time, with Britain contemplating building a line on to Kandahar in the nineteenth century. A line from Quetta to New Chaman opened by 1891, running 5 km beyond Chaman fort to terminate within 200 m of the frontier. This railway did not enter Afghanistan as such – the 1893 Durrand line was drawn around it – but rumour had it that track materials were stockpiled in case a military emergency required the rapid construction of a line over the border.

Proposals for the extension have resurfaced every so often, including in 1966, when Railway Gazette reported “Work on the proposed rail link between Chaman in Pakistan and Spin Baldak in Afghanistan is to begin soon and will take about a year and a half to complete. The link will be over seven miles long and will cost about $800 000. Over two miles of the link will be in Pakistani territory.”

This was to have been funded by the US Agency for International Development, but was canceled in 1968. Despite this, the line is actually shown on some maps.

The scheme has been discussed many times since, with studies in 2004 and 2007. In May 2009 the government of Pakistan said preliminary work had begun.

Maybe something is finally happening? ISAF is in need of a reliable transport route to Afghanistan, and perhaps has been the spur to action which has been needed?

In the longer term and given a suitable political climate, a Chaman – Spin Boldak line could be extended onwards a further 80-100 km from Spin Boldak to the city of Kandahar. This would be a significant destination in its own right, rather than just a border town. And from Kandahar, we can look at the map and dream of taking the permanent way onwards towards Herat, and thus Iran. And maybe one day Central Asia…

‘Preliminary work’ started on Kandahar and Jalalabad lines

An official government of Pakistan press release dated 19 May 2009 claims preliminary work is underway for the long-planned Chaman – Spin Boldak – Kandahar extension of Pakistan’s rail network into Afghanistan.

The press release also says similar work is underway on a line from Peshawar to Jalalabad; presumably the rehabilitation of the famous Khyber Pass line combined with an extension over the frontier.

PR No. 206

UKRAINian ambassador calls on minister for railways

Islamabad; May 19, 2009

Ukrainian Ambassador, Mr. Ihar Pasko called on Federal Minister for Railways Ghulam Ahmad Bilour here today.

The matters of mutual interests in the backdrop of extending cooperation and business in Railway sector between the two countries came under discussion.

The Federal Minister for Railways briefed the Ambassador about on-going development in Railways Sector and told that preliminary work has been started on Chaman-Qandhar section and Peshawar-Jalalabad section.

The Minister said that establishment of rail link with Afghanistan, Pakistan may provide an easy access to Central Asia Russia and rest of Europe.

The Ukrainian Ambassador briefed the Minister about the achievement and development of Ukrainian Railways and expressed his eagerness to extend cooperation in railway sector with Pakistan.

The Ambassador highlighted the characteristics of Ukrane locomotives, Tracks and other technicalities.

The Secretary and Chairman Railways welcomed the offer made by Ambassador and said that Ukraine might also participate in Tender Process by following the rules and procedures laid down by the Railways Ministry regarding procurement.

The Secretary Railways further said that the exchange of Railway experts from both sides will benefit each other in professional backdrop.
Source: Press Information Department, Government of Pakistan 2009-05-19

Unfortunately it does not specifiy what “preliminary work” means.

Reduction in deficit of Pakistan Railway witness in current financial year: Bilour.

ISLAMABAD, 13 May, 2009 (Frontier Star) — Federal Minister for Railways, Ghulam Ahmad Bilour has said […] while talking to media on the occasion of inauguration of “Islamabad Express” […] the under-construction Railway project from Chaman to Afghanistan would be completed very soon, reducing not only the travelling difficulties of passengers but also save their time.
Source: The Free Library/Asia Pulse/Frontier Star

The idea of a line to Kandahar has been discussed for many years – it was one of the first proposals for an Afghan railway way back in the 19th century.

On 1 October 2004 the Pakistan Times reported:

Quetta-Kandhar Bus Service to begin Shortly

[A meeting between] Governor Balochistan Owais Ahmed Ghani and Governor Kandhar Engineer Mohammed Yousuf Pashtoon […] decided to start construction of Railway line between Pakistani border town Chaman and Afghan city Kandhar for which survey has already been conducted. […] The 100 km Railway track would be completed at an estimated cost of US dollar 110 million with the coorporation of Pakistan Railways.
Source: Pakistan Times 2004-10-01

Third Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan

Islamabad Declaration

The delegates participating in the Third Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan having met in Islamabad on 13 – 14 May 2009:

Transport, Trade, Energy Cooperation, Agricultural Cooperation, Capacity Building and Education, Border Management, Health, Counter Narcotics and Refugee Return and Reintegration are areas with considerable scope for mutually beneficial regional cooperation.

Connectivity: Increased trade in the region will be facilitated by affording Afghanistan easy accessibility to the Sea, developing east-west and north-south corridors on the basis of mutual agreement, and further developing infrastructure links with Afghanistan and its neighbours.

Railway connection between Iran and Herat is already on going on the basis of a grant from the Government of Islamic Republic of Iran.

An 80 km railway link from Hairatan (on the Uzbekistan border) to Mazar-e-Sharif is considered a priority route for development. The planned link forms part of CAREC’s Transport and Trade Facilitation Strategy, and is in accordance with Afghanistan’s Railways Development Programme. The project will be developed with Asian Development Bank grant support.


4. High priority will be accorded, in terms of resource allocation and political commitment to the following set of practical short-term projects of benefit to Afghanistan and the region:
a. Concluding negotiations of the Afghanistan Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement before the end of 2009, as agreed earlier this month in Washington, DC.
b. Extension of rail link from Chaman to Kandahar.
c. In addition, the European Commission will conduct a pre-feasibility study of railways across Afghanistan linking major destinations within Afghanistan and its neigbours.

Read in full on the Ministry of Foreign Affairswebsite.

(thanks to Michael G Erickson for sending me a link)

Goods handling on the Chaman Extension Railway

At a model railway show I picked up a copy of Soldier with Railways, the autobiography of Tony Mains, a British railway enthusiast and army officer who travelled extensively in India. Mains was an intelligence officer in Iraq during World War II, and his book also describes various trips by rail from Basra to Turkey, Syria and Beruit.

The chapter describing his time in Baluchistan in 1944-46 gives a history of the railways to the Afghan border at Chaman in (what is now) Pakistan, and this description of traffic:

The station at Chaman was literally on the frontier, and near by were a number of sheds, which, rumour had it, contained the material to extend the line to Kandahar in the even of a fourth Afghan War. There was a heavy traffic in fruit brought by by lorry from Kandahar, and dispatched onward in ice bunkered wagons, necessitating a daily special good train. The supply of wagons was never adequate for the traffic offering, and the hubbub created by the arguments this engendered could be heard all over the cantonment. There is no doubt that the railway staff benefited greatly from this, and the story was current that the North Western Railway administration used to post a very senior Station Master to Chaman to enrich himself in his last year of service.
Soldier with Railways, by Lt Col A A Mains (Picton Publishing, 1994) pp101-102

Khojak tunnel circa 1905

The Chaman Extension Railway from Bostan Junction on the line through the Chapar Rift to Chaman on the Afghan frontier was opened 30 September 1891. The broad gauge line’s summit is at over 6000 ft, and the route passes through the Khojak tunnel through the Khwaja Amran range. The rails stopped 5 km beyond Chaman fort, and just 200 m short of the border with Afghanistan as fixed by Sir Mortimer Durand in 1893.

A supply depot at Chaman contained the rails, sleepers and bridge parts which would be needed to extend the line the remaining 108 km to Kandahar in the event of a military emergency. Meanwhile the Russians were thought to be storing similar materials at Kushka to allow the rapid construction of a line to Herat if they thought there was an emergency!

I met with unbounded civility and hospitality from everybody in Quetta as well as at Chaman, our most north-westerly point on the Afghan boundary. For those who believe in the unpreparedness of England, it may be stated that, from this point, we could with ease lay a railroad to Kandahar in less than three weeks.
Across Coveted Lands, Or a Journey from Flushing (Holland) to Calcutta, Overland by A Henry Savage Landor (Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1902)

An extension of the Chaman line at least as far as Spin Boldak has often been proposed in subsequent years, but doesn’t seem to have made much progress.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are expected to enter in to a new trade and economic cooperation mechanism during the President of Pakistan first official visit to Afghanistan on January 7, 2009, official sources told Daily Times on Friday.

Extension of railway link between Chaman-Spin Boldak is expected to be deliberated in the visit as this issue was discussed in 2006 for establishing better communication and development of physical infrastructure, which will help in enhancing trade facilities between the two countries.
Source: President’s first official visit: Pakistan, Afghanistan to ink new trade agreements, Daily Times, 2008-12-27.

Studies for two Pakistan Railways extensions

In November 2008 Hail Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, Pakistan’s Railways Minister, told the National Assembly that two studies for railways were being considered.

One plan is to revive the long-standing proposal to extend the Pakistan Railways network by about 10 miles from the current terminus at Chamman to reach Spin Boldak across the border in Afghanistan, providing a railhead for Kandahar.

The other plan is much more substantial, being a 662 km link from Havelian in Pakistan to China via the Khunjerab Pass, which reaches an altitude of 4700 m. However it had been said in September that this route was not commercially feasible.

Pak-China rail link pre-feasibility study completed, National Assembly told

Bilour told the house in response to a question raised by MNAs including Fauzia Wahab, Muhammad Asad Khan, Yasmeen Rehman and Shereen Arshad Khan, that the PC-I for Chaman Spinbuldak (Afghanistan bordering town) rail link was completed with the cost of Rs 417 million in June 2004 and the project was to be executed by M/s Railcop, however, work could not be started due to non-issuance of NOC by Afghanistan government. The revised cost of PC-l is now assessed Rs 943.00 million, he added.

He said that the Pak-China Rail link pre-feasibility study has been completed through two consulting firms M/s L.L.F of German-Austria and M/s Don fang Electric Corporation (DEC) of China and following route has been recommended for detailed feasibility. Havelian-AbbotAbad – Batagram – Thakot-Bridge-Bèsham-Pattan -Dassu-Chillas – Gilgit-Karimabad – Sost-Mintaka Pass. The length of this route is 662 km and tentative cost is US $10.237 billion to be completed in 15 years, he informed.


Source: Business Recorder, 2008-11-11

There are more details of the feasibility studies in the February 2007 Asia Times Online article China-Pakistan rail link on horizon, by Syed Fazl-e-Haider. This says:

As a part of its development plan for its transport and communications network, Pakistan Railways has completed a feasibility study of the Chaman-Kandahar section for laying railway tracks between Pakistan and Turkmenistan through Afghanistan.
Source: Asia Times Online, 2007-02-24

Maglev to Kandahar?

Well, maybe not. That would just be silly. But today’s Pakistan Times reports that President General Pervez Musharraf on Saturday [2007-03-03] called for fast development of the Pakistan Railways on modern lines to provide economical travel to the people, swift movement of goods and to create linkages with neighbouring countries.

He said the current target of increasing speed of trains up to 140 km/hour was not enough. “Today the world is moving on to magnetic levitation trains and monorails for mass transport, we need to go for these,” he added.

The President referring to his vision for the Pakistan Railways spoke of plans to link Chamman to Kandahar in Afghanistan and to build an ambitious rail track from Havelian to the Khunjerab Pass to connect with the Chinese mainline.

“Both the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have expressed desire to join this rail link as it will provide them an access to the Gwadar Port,” he said.