Khyber Steam Safari

By Tahir Imran Khan

Lofty mountains borders the north western boundaries of Pakistan. There are several passes in these mountains which make access to enter in the area which is know included in Pakistan. Khyber Pass, due to its easy crossing as compared to the other passes of northern mountains, used to be crossed by most of the invaders, travellers and traders from the central Asian countries and from rest of the world, approaching to the prosperous, fertile and mysterious land of the sub continent.

Entering Pakistan from Afghanistan via torkham border, one has to pass through the rugged, barren and dry terrain of these low hills. Crossing this stretch of almost 50 kilometres to reach Peshawar, thee lies the tribal areas where conditions of law and order are not certain. The area is known as the most secure place for the dacoits, murderers and the people wanted to police. A political agent usually makes communication between local inhabitants and government authorities. Such reputation of this area is same, dating back to the British ruling era over the sub continent. These were the areas where Britishers had to face maximum resistance from the local independent people.

Apart from this bad reputation of the local people, in fact they have the exemplary attitude towards the travellers and their guests. There are no government rules but they know to keep their words and are purely proud original pathans.

In 1920, considering the topography of the area and resistance and prejudice from the locals for the British, government decided to build a railway track from Peshawar to Landi Kotal. Basic reason to construct this track was quite political, only to get hold of this area but simultaneously this not only provided comfort to the locals but it was also a source of prosperity to the area as well. Although it is surprising the idea of building a railway in such a difficult area but they completed the task and without any doubt khyber railway is a marvel of engineering and could be considered as the last of the great railway constructions in the frontier, undertaken during the British raj.

The main route passes through the stations of Jamrud fort, which is quite famous due to existence of Bab-e-Khyber there, Shagai fort, Ali Masjid and Landi Kotal, the last proper town before the border line.

In recent past due to the construction of the metalled road the railway route has become less practical for locals as they can get fast transport without waiting for a long time as microbuses and other type of conveyance are frequently available on the road, resulting into lack of passengers, furthermore fear of tribal robbers and hardships of the maintenance of the route, a time came when Pakistan railways decided to close down the route for general passengers and soon people forgot that there was existing a very unique, picturesque and adventuresome rail route which could have attracted the visitors from all over the world, which was closed sown and no more operative.

Considering the potential of tourism through this route, some railway authorities, with the support of some leading tour operating agencies, decided to introduce an excursion train on this route which will be pulled by steam engines as in the past. These engines are SG 060 model and called as black beauties.

Since the idea was fantastic so within a short period this train became very popular specially among foreigners and most of the tour operating agencies started to include this train ride in their itineraries. Now there are monthly fixed departures of this train on regular basis and it can be hired on chartered basis on any desired date.

Apart from the historical and strategic importance of this route there are some other very interesting features of this train. The rail track passes through the Peshawar airport and this is the only example in the world that a train has to wait if there is scheduled flight ready to depart. Another particular thing which makes it unique is this that the track crosses through 34 tunnels and 92 bridges and culverts. At one point within a distance of about one kilometre, the track climbs for 130 meters. To make this climb, train makes a vertical, as it stops at one point, then the engine on back pulls it in opposite direction on an inclined slope then again the first engine pulls it in previous direction and finally second engine pulls it and consequently it climbs the steep portion of this track.

Due to the uncertain local conditions and conflicts of tribes, visitors are required to get a permit form the political agent of Khyber agency. After the approval of permission, the political agent provides armed guards to escort the tourists.

While making return journey of this day adventure usually visitors prefer to use road transport to sum up the joy of this track. For thrill seekers this unique adventure is an unforgettable lifetime memory.