Khyber Railway: A Lost Opportunity?

By Abdur Razzaq

Following the Pakistan floods of 2007, the railway running between Peshawar and Torkham has completely ceased to exist, with the government failing to reinstate its use and completely ignoring it for transportation purposes over the last few years.

Bunir Khan who lives in the Khyber Agency compared the situation with other countries improving their transportation systems, “Just look at the United Arab Emirates – they are building a brand new railway system because they know how useful this mode of transport is, but here in Pakistan no efforts are being made to use the existing railway at all.”

A train en route to the Khyber Pass in 1978 - today many parts of the track remain damaged, yet to be repaired or revived. Photo credit: George Woods

A train en route to the Khyber Pass in 1978 – today many parts of the track remain damaged, yet to be repaired or revived. Photo credit: George Woods

In fact, the complete opposite is happening, with the existing railway becoming further destroyed, as tracks are ripped out to make way for improved surfacing of the Peshawar- Torkham road and running further into disuse owing to the damage occurring over time.

Meanwhile in neighboring Afghanistan, new plans are underway to build a brand new railway system, spanning from Mazar-i-Sharif and the border with Uzbekistan, all the way to Herat and Iran. This will not only help to transport people between the areas, but opens up and connects Afghanistan with Central Asia and other parts of the Middle East, developing trade and economic relations. It seems strange, therefore, that while other countries are spending millions on building brand new tracks, nothing is being done in the border regions of Pakistan to extend or even use the railway system that already exists.

These plans have now prompted some of those residing in the Pak-Afghan border to request that renovations be similarly implemented to revive the current railway tracks, as well as to expand it further into Afghanistan. I spoke to 31-year-old Hussain, a businessman from Landikotal Ashkhail Shinwari about what benefits such a railway could bring. “I really believe that by extending this railway line from Peshawar to Afghanistan, we can help towards peace and prosperity in the region. The railway would be a fantastic source of development not only for Landikotal, but for other border areas too. Extending the railway would help to improve the facilities and develop the area through where it runs.”

Bunir Khan, spoke of the solid foundation laid down by the British in 1925 for the railway between Peshawar and Torkham. “Since the British, nothing has been done on this track, but expanding it to Afghanistan would really help to revive it and bring benefits on both sides.” He further highlighted the shared culture between Pashtoons living in the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan and how relations between the two sides can be further improved through this. “People living on both sides of the border have the same social norms and values, so people are constantly travelling across the border. I really feel that such transportation would only make things easier for people and would definitely get a lot of support from them.”

Indeed, the current, main route of travel – the road running between Peshawar and Torkham – has become extremely overcrowded. Many complain of how it is often busy or blocked, owing to the large amount of traffic and people that travel across it every day. Hussain believes that rebuilding the railway track leading to Afghanistan would help relieve some of the heavy traffic on this road, “I don’t know why the government of Pakistan does not try to focus more of its efforts on rebuilding this railway track. The roads are getting busier and their condition worse – people travelling between Pakistan and Afghanistan always face many problems. Having trains running between the border regions would be beneficial for local people on both sides as well as the government.”

There have been suggestions that some people living in the tribal areas may be against creating such a railway. In particular there has been talk of plans being put on hold, owing to the opposition that may come from the Afridi and Shinwari transporters and the loss of their own road-based trade if such a rail-link was established. However, Juma Khan from Landikotal disagrees with such opposition. “People living in the tribal areas know the benefits of having such a railway, but they are powerless to implement it. They have tried demanding many times that a new Khyber road be constructed, but if the government does not build even a road, how will they listen to demands for a new railway?”

The original railway tracks were laid down under the British Raj, with construction being completed in 1925. At the time, they exclusively used it for travel. Hussain believes that for this reason many people are unaware of its benefits, “British people used to travel frequently on the trains, but local people did not so much. People here are not used to such transport.”

When the railway was built by the British, it was part of their Forward Policy towards Afghanistan. As a result, the railway was seen as a threat by Afghan rulers. A similar railway line built from Quetta to the Afghan border of Chaman, completed in 1891, with plans to extend the line to Kandahar, was described by the Afghan ruler Amir Abdur Rahman Khan as “a knife pushed into my vitals.” The Afghan army at the time produced a manual on how to destroy railway tracks in the event of an invasion threat. There appears to have been little change to this mindset on the part of current Afghan rulers, even though a railway extended into Afghanistan now would be more of an opportunity than a threat.

Prior to the 2007 floods, the Safari train, as the Khyber train came to be known since it generally carried tourists, would travel from Peshawar to Torkham, but following the devastation ensuing from the floods, the government have failed to repair the tracks. Juma Khan explained that until 2005 traders were successfully doing business on the railway. “The businessmen were very happy at that time and were earning a lot of money, but when the transit journeys started through the National Logistics Cell (NLC), business became difficult due to the heavy fares that were imposed. If the government can repair even this and resume this vital transportation, it would really help to develop the area.”

He is also adamant that expanding the railway from Peshawar to Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia would be extremely beneficial, “It would be a great opportunity for Pakistani traders to import and export at a low cost, improving business with Central Asian countries and vice versa. Expanding and improving links between Peshawar and Afghanistan would really help towards greater peace in the region.”

There is a lot of debate on the benefits or potential opposition to such a railway, but as Khan notes the true situation will only become apparent when some action is taken to implement the plans, “Once railway construction starts, only then will we really know the mentality of those travelling or transporting goods for business.” With Bunir Khan adding, “The railway is very important for the tribal areas – people living in this area know that it could be a vital source of development, but I don’t understand why the government does not see this.”

The benefits of reviving and expanding the railway are clear, while opinions remain divided, but walking along the now disused Khyber Railway, it seems a real waste to abandon such a potentially vital resource for travel and trade. It risks the chance of the border regions yet again being cut off and left behind, due to a lack of initiative in following through such plans. As Hussain comments, “In northern Afghanistan, the new railway that is being built and connecting parts of Afghanistan to the outside will likely bring so much development and peace to that part of Afghanistan. It’s important that we do the same for the people in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

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