Beyond the Mashriq Maghreb Express

UPDATE: In 2021 I received a message from a person in India who admitted to placing the article on this topic in Wikipedia as a sort of joke. This confirms my suspicion that there was something wrong as no other reliable reference could be found.

One of the persistent “urban legends” in South Asian railway history relates to train services between the two parts of Pakistan. This is what you will see in a Google search:

“Between 1950 and 1955, there used to be a train named the Mashriq–Maghreb Express which ran from the westernmost extremity of Pakistan (Koh-i-Taftan in Balochistan) to the easternmost rail extremity at Chittagong in modern-day Bangladesh, stretching at total of 2000 km over the Indian Territory.”

This translates to “East-West Express”.

This even made it to Wikipedia. The problem is that there is no reference to such a train in any official documents of India and Pakistan. Not even in the Bradshaw of 1951.

There are several odd things here. Why start from Koh-i-Taftan, a small place near the Pakistan-Iran frontier which never had more than two trains a week? More importantly, how would it reach Chittagong directly when it was (and still is) metre gauge? Nothing is said about the ferry crossings in East Pakistan which were in use until the early 2000s.

Perhaps it was something which the government of Pakistan wanted to introduce, but was never implemented. Whatever reference you will see on the net essentially repeats the paragraph given above-but only in anonymous blogs or general articles about Pakistan.

It is just possible that some travel agency in West Pakistan had offered packages of combined railway tickets between West and East, including the intervening routes in India. And the advertising may have been fancy enough to give the impression that they could buy a single ticket for these journeys.

Now the references in Wikipedia have also gone. Someone must have pointed out the lack of supporting references.

However, there were a number of relatively short-distance trains connecting India and West Pakistan as well as India and East Pakistan running in the early 1960s before the 1965 war put an end to them. They include trains connecting

Amritsar and Lahore

Munabao and Hyderabad (Sind)

Sealdah and Khulna, Goalundo Ghat and Parbatipur

Various short trips across the border connecting places in Bengal and Assam with East Pakistan, such as one between Kulaura and Karimganj. These are all mentioned in Indian timetables of that period.

For the moment, it is interesting to look at the details of meetings between ministers and officials of the two countries in 1955 about the planned improvements of the train services. This largely consists of details of how goods trains would connect the Calcutta area with north Bengal via East Pakistan:

Note that the entire railway system of East Pakistan was then called the Eastern Bengal Railway. Similarly the entire system of West Pakistan was called the North Western Railway.

The document also lists out how this was to be implemented including transhipment between BG and MG at Santahar.

At that time the line from Haldibari to Siliguri was metre gauge, so BG trains coming from Calcutta side through Pakistan would be transhipped to MG wagons there.

Another document which may be of interest is a IBRD (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development) report on transport in both parts of Pakistan, covering river, road and rail transport. Apart from a review of the systems at that time, it is interesting as it describes several projects which were implemented in later years:

This document may be of interest to those studying the history of transport in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Special thanks to Ash Nallawalla, Kamal Narang, Jishnu Mukerji, Harsh Vardhan and others.

Reviving the Darjeeling Mail route?

Here are extracts showing the timetable of the Calcutta-Siliguri route in 1944:

Darj Mail 001

As you can see, the border line crossed the tracks between Chilhati and Haldibari stations.

Recent pictures of these stations:

Further south, the Radcliffe line crossed the tracks between Banpur and Darsana. Later Gede station was built closer to the border. (Similarly Petrapol station was built close to the border).

As we well know, the Maitri Express and some goods trains cross the Gede-Darsana border. Probably the Haldibari-Chilhati border will  be used for goods trains only. In case you are wondering, there have been many attempts by Indian governments over the years to get Bangladesh to allow transit for Indian road vehicles and trains to cross Bangladesh to reach North Bengal and the Northeast. They do not seem to like the idea. In fact, tourist visas issued to Indians invariably mention that you must enter and leave from the same point if traveling by land e.g. if you enter at Benapole you have to leave at Benapole.

The US and Western countries do not have such restrictions on the entry and exit points. It is understood that the Bangladesh government has made these restrictions as it does not want visitors to use their country as a means of traveling from one part of India to another.

Anyway, there are some interesting stories connected with the Haldibari-Siliguri section, which I will take up next.