One of the most fantastic railway journeys in Pakistan once used to be north from Sibi, through the Nari River gorge, over the cool heights of Harnai, Nakus and Shareg to the wild west town of Khost. The Nari Gorge is the country of the proud Marri and Bugti peoples of Balochistan. Somewhere near Harnai, the line enters Pashtun lands all the way to Quetta.
And Khost! Oh, what another world it still belongs to. My last outing there was in February 2011, and nothing seemed to have changed since my first visit in 1986. Except, the train no longer ran. Early in 2007, some misguided Baloch had blown up three bridges in the Nari Gorge putting an end to the train service up to Khost. This was mischievous because who, but the Baloch themselves, would have gained from bringing tourists to visit this, the greatest railway engineering feat in Pakistan.
Had they not done the line in, one day –– when peace will return to Balochistan, and if we got our act together –– the Marri and Bugti tribesman could have lived off good earnings from a tourist trade that they cannot even measure: there are thousands of railway buffs in the West who would give anything to experience the adventure of the line north from Sibi.
In 1994, I rode the footplate of the Q-489 that steamed out of Sibi at seven in the morning. For company, friends in high position in the railway had given me a young permanent way inspector (PWI). Now, a PWI (fancy name for line inspector) is a diploma holder either in Civil or Mechanical Engineering who is then trained by the Pakistan Railway at its own institutions before being assigned to the field. He is the man who should know everything about the laying of lines, their gradients and curves. He is the man who ensures that the line is in good fettle.
The PWI, whose name I no longer recall, was not the brightest spark the railway could have offered and I tell you, I have travelled with some stars in my time. Men from traffic inspectors to station masters to drivers who knew everything there was to know about the railway and its functioning.
Somewhere near the hill country northwest of Harnai, riding the contours of the scrub-covered hills, the line skirted a large bowl that sat at a much lower level. There, in the middle of the circular pan, was a small-domed shrine. The original design, according to the PWI, was to take the line down into the depression to save a few miles. But the holy man buried therein cursed the British railway engineers for disturbing his worship.
And so, as the line came abreast to the lip of the depression and work proceeded ahead, something always went wrong. There would be a derailment of equipment, or an accident claiming lives (always British). ‘There were also occasions,’ said my not-so-bright PWI, ‘that a portion of the line into the low ground was magically dismantled overnight.’
Railway authorities pleaded with the saint to let them take their line past his humble home, but the man was adamant: they had to go around, not past his home. Realising that this little demi-god meant what he said, the engineers gave up and the line came to pass along the contours above the bowl.
I asked the PWI if this was a joke or a serious tale. He was quite taken aback that I should distrust the power of the men of God. It was not that, I told him, but his ability as the professional he was supposed to be that I doubted.
Did he ever consider that the gradient from the alignment of the line into and out of the depth would be fifty per cent or more? This was something on which not even the most powerful steam engine of the great North Western Railway (as it was then known) could have hauled a train. The line hugged the contours not because of some non-existent saint’s malevolence. It did so because railway engineering is what it is.
I had the man utterly at sea. He, a PWI, had never thought of it. Logical reasoning, I suppose, does not rise out of in-breeding.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 10th, 2012.