Hidden stories of the Khyber Railway-1

The Khyber Railway may not see trains again. While its basic history is known well enough, there are a couple of planned extensions which may have changed the history of the route if they had been implemented.

We start with the basics, from this “official” map used by Victor Bayley and Gordon Hearn  in a paper presented at the Institution of Engineers in the late 1920s. It can be found in “Couplings to the Khyber” by PSA Berridge:

Khyber map

Not all of these stations appeared in timetables.

The Khyber Railway actually starts from Jamrud, which was the railhead beyond Peshawar Cantt since 1901. Work on the present line started in the 1920s, and the section up to Landi Kotal was opened in 1925 and up to Landi Khana in 1926. While an embankment may have been built up to the border, probably rails were not laid. These are points which are yet unclear and can be established only by visits to the area-if it is safe enough.

The stations listed in timetables are given in the Fergusson lists:

Khyber line station lists

Note Kacha Garhi, we will meet it again soon. It seems to have been in the timetables only around 1910.

As most readers know, passenger trains did run up to Landi Khana up to 1932. Then the ruler of Afghanistan “requested” that this be stopped, and the trains then ran only up to Landi Kotal.

It is unclear how useful the line was for freight. Typically there was a passenger train from Peshawar Cantt to Landi Kotal on one or two days of the week from the 1940s onward. Regular services stopped in 1984, though tourist specials ran on and off until rainstorms washed away large parts of the line in 2006.

Even so, it is still possible to see see remnants of the line and stations (yes, even Landi Khana) if you travel by the road which now sees plenty of goods traffic into Afghanistan.

Next we come to the lesser-known stories connected with the line’s construction.

To begin with:

The official date of opening from Jamrud to Landi Kotal was 3 Nov 1925. and to Landi Khana 3 Apr 1926. Nothing is said about the line beyond Landi Khana.

But Richard Wallace has found evidence that work on the tunnels was continuing even after these dates. Not so surprising, as it is possible to run trains through tunnels where all work has not been completed as long as there is nothing to block the rails.

To be continued.


The importance of Landi Khana-1

You would have heard of Landi Kotal, long known as the terminus of the Khyber Railway and the main cantonment guarding the head of the pass.

Landi Khana is not so well known. We first look at a detailed map of the Khyber Railway, which featured in an article by Victor Bayley and Gordon Hearn, the men most responsible for the construction of the line:

Khyber map

This lists all the stations on the line. Most of them were not shown in timetables.

The line was completed up to Landi Kotal in 1925 and to Landi Khana in 1926. Actually the line (or at least the embankment) was built up to a point right on the border. This point is mentioned as Torra Tigga Nala in contemporary accounts, though it is unclear what exactly it was (A station? or siding? or no track at all?)

Trains ran all the way up to Landi Khana in the first few years. Then the King of Afghanistan “requested” the Indian government to close the last stretch of the line. So no trains ran beyond Landi Kotal since 1932.

Here we see the 1930 NWR timetable for the line going all the way to Landi Khana:

Landi Khana TT 1 001

My old friends from Dehradun would note the passenger train connecting Peshawar Cantt with that city. Coming to the point, we see from the small print that the trains ran between Landi Khana and Peshawar twice a week, and started from Landi Kotal on the other five days. This was the peak traffic for this line; by the time regular services ceased in 1984 the train ran up to Landi Kotal only once a week.

In the reverse direction, we see the same pattern, except that on Sundays the train left Peshawar later to provide a connection with the Frontier Mail and ran up to Landi Kotal.

Landi Khana TT2

Timetables in later years mentioned that “Passports will be examined at Jamrud”, meaning that you needed a passport to travel into the tribal territory where the British government had limited powers. However (as my father recounted), tourists from other parts of India could travel up to Jamrud, probably have their picture taken there, and say that they had visited the Khyber.

This is a picture of Landi Khana station (which obviously was taken between 1926 and 1932):


Note the Gurumukhi script. And the ever-reliable HGS locos which tackled the Khyber and Bolan passes without much fuss.

There appears to have been a small military outpost here, but it must have closed long ago. Which is why many people (even those presently living in Pakistan) do not know of its existence. As we will see, the remnants of this station still stand but there does not seem to be anything around it. The local villagers still use water from the water pipes laid in the 1920s for watering engines.

You may find it interesting to watch this 9-minute video (entirely in Urdu) from 2017 to see this place as a sideline to a trip up to the Afghan border:

Note the Gurumukhi sign which no one has bothered to remove yet.

One of the places they passed was this station which was one of the stops on the excursion trains which ran until the floods wrecked the line in 2008.

Shahgai (Khyber)

Here another sign in Gurumukhi script still survives, unlike this one from pre-partition Lahore:

If you approached the Afghan border, you would see this sign if you tried to cross anywhere except the official route:

And if you did succeed in crossing, you could look back and see this:

Afghan border

It should not be difficult to understand what P, J and LKL were. In those days all distances were measured in miles.

Now, you may say, you have told us all about a corner of Pakistan so obscure that few Pakistanis (leave alone Indians) have heard of it. Why is it important?

The answer is: It was important to know about it if you were an Indian POW in Pakistan in 1972.

To be continued.