A close look at Pakistan’s railways and their weak points

As armchair warriors are now having a field day, it is time to take a good look at Pakistan’s railway system and how its major routes could be fairly easily disrupted in the event of a major war.

We first take a look at this system map of the late 1960s, from Berridge’s “Couplings to the Khyber” published in 1969.

PWR in 1969

Metre gauge lines are not shown separately. At that time they existed in a corner of Sind, from Mirpur Khas to Khokhropar, the Jamrao-Pithoro loop and Mirpur Khas-Nawabshah.

This map shows a line under construction from Kot Adu through Dera Ghazi Khan and Kashmor which connected at Jacobabad to Karachi and Quetta sides. This was opened in the 1970s.

Now take a look at the bridge over the Sutlej between Lodhran and Bahawalpur. If something were to happen to that bridge, there is no way ANY train between northern Pakistan and southern Pakistan could run. Try, for example, to travel from Karachi to Lahore if that bridge near Bahawalpur was disabled. Also note the portion of the main line from Rohri to Khanpur which is relatively close to the Indian border and vulnerable to air and land-based attacks.

Now let us look at a more recent map. I am not sure exactly who created it, but it seems to be relatively accurate in showing today’s system when cross-checked with the online timetables on http://www.railpk.com/


Note how the system has shrunk. No metre gauge left, one line to the Indian border being converted and the rest abandoned. All those narrow gauge lines to exotic places like Thal and Fort Sandeman (Zhob) have been pulled up by the 90s. Many BG branch lines (particularly in Sind) have closed. The ambitious project on linking Gwadar does not seem to have made much progress. And the branch from Sibi to Khost has been immobilized by sabotage by Baloch militants a decade ago, and is probably not going to reopen.

The only significant addition is the line from Kot Adu to Jacobabad mentioned earlier, which works as an alternative link between the north and the south and further away from the border.

Thus, if that bridge near Bahawalpur was disrupted, you could still route trains by this branch. Let us consider a trip from Rawalpindi to Karachi. Under normal conditions it would run from Rawalpindi to Gujranwala, Lahore, Multan, Bahawalpur, Rohri and Hyderabad on the way to Karachi.This would be mostly on double line.

Minus the Bahawalpur bridge, you would have a long journey over single track most of the way through Kundian, Kot Adu, DG Khan, Jacobabad, Rohri and Hyderabad on the way to Karachi. The line from Kot Adu to Jacobabad happens to pass through a somewhat lawless area where express trains generally do not keep to timetables. Then the line crosses the Indus near Kot Adu on the Taunsa Barrage (not unlike our Farakka barrage) which is somewhat further from the Indian border but should not be impossible to disrupt-particularly if the intention was to disrupt river control over a significant part of central Pakistan.

So let us say there is disruption to our old friend the Sutlej bridge near Bahawalpur and our new friend the Taunsa Barrage near Kot Adu. Let us see if ANY train can travel from Peshawar/Rawalpindi/Lahore to Quetta/Karachi.

The Indian railway system, particularly with its dense network of BG lines in north-western India, are not so easy to disrupt. There are some fairly well-known choke points, but it would take a considerable effort to completely block traffic to the numerous railheads near the border.

The coming of unigauge may not be welcomed by everyone, but it has removed significant vulnerabilities in rail transport between Northern and Southern India. In 1991, it could be shown that disruption of the Krishna bridges near Vijayawada and near Raichur would result in complete blockage of BG traffic from the North, West and East to Tamil Nadu, Kerala, most of Karnataka and a good part of undivided AP. At that time there was no Konkan Railway, no Hubli-Bangalore BG line and no Secunderabad-Dronachellam-Guntakal BG line. Now there is some redundancy.

Coming back to Pakistan, you may like to know more about the bridges in question. First there is the Empress Bridge on the Sutlej, between Adamwahan and Bahawalpur stations. (BTW President Zia ran into trouble when something happened to his C-130 after it took off from Bahawalpur). Here is the location of the bridge:


And here is a  TV report about the bridge, which dates back to the 19th century when Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress. It was in fact opened in 1878 soon after she had been proclaimed Empress.

The Taunsa barrage with its rail tracks is located here:


We also have a video of a train passing over it:


Similarities with the Farakka Barrage and its railway line and road can be seen.

Needless to say, there are probably heavy anti-aircraft defences around these bridges-but they wouldn’t help against something as basic as a land-based Prithvi missile or one of the numerous longer-range missiles in our inventory.

And remember that India does not have a suitable anti-missile system at present, unless one counts some kind of “jugaad” like using Patriot-type anti-aircraft missiles which might just work against primitive ballistic missiles such as Scuds. But those days are gone. But there are plenty of innovative things which our armed forces have done, such as using AN-12s as bombers or anti-aircraft guns to hit targets on the ground (which seems to be a common method of execution in North Korea).