Pakistan, 1996: The Khyber Pass, part 1

This travelogue was originally published by Dr Roland Ziegler in 1999 in German. This English translation is by IRFCA, 2012. The original German version is available at www.rolandziegler.de

This is a part of the travelogue detailing Dr Ziegler's travel through Pakistan in 1996.

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The Khyber Pass, part 1: Jamrud to Shaghai

Jamrud, the Lower Valley, Reversing stations, and Shaghai

The route to the Khyber Pass was built by the British between 1920 and 1925 for purely military reasons. With the railway line they could demonstrate a presence on the Afghan border and move troops there quickly. The cost of construction apparently played only a minor role, because of the elaborate alignment characterized by numerous tunnels and bridges as well as two reversing stations (switchbacks). The area through which this route passes was never under British control. The only ones to exert influence here were the clans of the Pashtun, and this has remained the case even under Pakistani rule. Only the railway and the mountain road were formerly under British authority, and this remains essentially the same with Pakistani sovereignty. The para-military force of the Khyber Rifles, a British creation, serves to provide security here. (The Khyber Rifle Music Corps as a result to this day maintains a tradition of playing the bagpipe.) Interestingly, these troops are recruited largely from locals, the Pashtuns.

The area around the Khyber Pass is a very wild region, and for foreigners it normally not possible to enter the tribal area. The closure of the pass goes back to the beginning of the Afghanistan war of the 1980s. At this time the regular train traffic was also stopped. Since the mid-1990s, trains have been occasionally running again. More frequent runs, even on a regular schedule, are envisaged to revive tourism. This would include temporary permits for foreigners. Nevertheless, the route remains unsafe and it must be expected that special train services will be interrupted or discontinued at any time.

However, at the time of our tour special trains up the Khyber had still to be arranged on an individual basis. In the preparatory phase of our journey this was the subject of long correspondence. What proved very helpful was that a television crew from the BBC wanted to take pictures ("In the footsteps of Alexander"), and we could run our program as desired. To get the most out of it the Khyber train has been chartered for two days. Since the itinerary of the first day was very much repeated on the second day, I have selected and ordered the photos from both days into one report. Most of the pictures are from the first day.

Preparations for departure in Jamrud

Preparations for departure in Jamrud

The 18km section from Peshawar to Jamrud fort was completed in 1901 and passes through flat land. The Khyber trains begin and end in Peshawar, but usually travelers get on at Jamrud, transferring from the bus and under protection of a military convoy! The journey time by train between Peshawar and Jamrud is quite unpredictable, as the railway crosses the runway Peshawar airport!

At the platform in Jamrud, our train is ready, with two locomotives of the HGS class (wheel arrangement 2-8-0), each with the typical auxiliary water tender and two passenger carriages. On the second day, it is even possible to add two empty goods wagons to the consist. The engines are coupled to both ends of the train, each with chimney facing outward. What at first sight looks like some sort of unconvincing push-pull-train at a European railway steam festival is actually most authentic here on the Khyber Pass line. After all, there are two reversing stations to be overcome, where the train changes direction of travel, and for this the train's composition is quite suitable.

Train ridership has grown significantly compared to the previous days. Our own group has increased by a few people who came especially for these two days from Europe or who are on their way back from China. In addition, we have the BBC team with us. But now there are also the military men of the Khyber Rifles, and there are quite as many of them as of us tourists. I count a total of about 70 people for our train, of which 35 are armed security personnel.

26 January 1996

Fortified village

Fortified village

How insecure the area is you can guess from the villages, all of which look as if they are prepared for longer sieges.

26 January 1996

Entering the valley, the start of the incline

Entering the valley, the start of the incline

A few kilometers beyond Jamrud lies the entrance of the valley, through which the tracks and the road make the ascent to the pass.

26 January 1996

Valley crossing

Valley crossing

A few kilometers into the valley the terrain rises steeply. The railway starts to negotiate this obstacle by first crossing onto the other side of the valley with a short embankment and a bridge.

26 January 1996

Lower viaduct

Lower viaduct

The lower bridge is a popular photo opportunity. Strong wind, however, blows the smoke to the sunny side of the train and clouds over the photographers (and also dries the skin out extremely quickly, which is being fought with lots of sunscreen).

26 January 1996

The two reversing stations

The two reversing stations

From the other side of the bridge small white station signs can be seen on the opposite slopes of the hill on two levels, and on the lower level one can see signals as well. These are the locations of the two reversing stations on the line. The fortified buildings with embrasures help secure the railway.

27 January 1996

Before the lower reversing station

Before the lower reversing station

The train is approaching the lower reversing station. On the left the track from the lower to the upper reversing station can be made out. The signals are no longer in operation. There can only be one train on the line at a time. (And only between sunrise and sunset. This has less to do with military security than with technical railway safety.)

26 January 1996

Catch siding on the lower reversing station

Catch siding on the lower reversing station

The same place as in the previous picture, but from a different perspective. The train is approaching the reversing station from the direction of the lower viaduct again.

The special features of the route include the measures for brake failures on the trains. The track in the foreground (the catch siding or runaway track) has a roller-coaster rise to absorb the momentum of the runaway train. But I wonder if the train would not have previously just flown off the tracks rounding the bend. In any case, even today, the normal setting for the points is for them to be set to the turnout for the catch siding.

26 January 1996

Lower reversing station

Lower reversing station

Again, the lower reversing station, this time facing the other way. As photographers, we are only free to move while accompanied by the armed escort. The Khyber Rifles, however, are willing to climb to more exotic points for the photo opportunities (as in the previous picture).

26 January 1996

Departure from the lower reversing station

Departure from the lower reversing station

After the arrival at the lower reverse was repeated at least three times, we continued to the upper reversing station. (The train will halt once again to the photographers board.) The HGS 2277 which was previously leading is now the banker at the rear. In front of the smoke chamber, the military personnel have set up a bench, on which the ride can probably be enjoyed more comfortably than standing on the cowcatcher.

26 January 1996

After the upper reversing station

After the upper reversing station

Meanwhile, we also have the upper reversing station -- the photographs offer less -- behind us. HGS 2277 now leads us again. The route takes advantage of another tributary valley to gain height.

Another fortified military observation post can be seen in the background.

26 January 1996

Khyber Rifles at Shaghai station

Khyber Rifles at Shaghai station

Shaghai station is below the apex of the route (which does not coincide with the actual Khyber Pass summit at Landi Kotal) at 818m and 357m higher than the station at Jamrud (461m). With a distance of 16km between the two stations, one can calculate the average gradient of 1:45 or 2.23% -- not an atypical value for mountain railways.

For the locomotives Shaghai is a service stop, and some riflemen take the opportunity to pose for photos -- on the HGS 2303 now acting as the trailing loco.

26 January 1996

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