By Mansoor Akbar Kundi
IT is said that travelling by the Sibi-Khost Express in Balochistan is something of a novelty and one can enjoy experiences which cannot be had otherwise.
I cherished the wish to explore the journey until one day I set out from Quetta to reach Sibi to travel by train. “The train will leave early morning at 7:30,” someone told me at the Sibi Junction.
“Have you a certain purpose to travel by it?” A person asked me while gazing at me. “Yes, I have,” I answered. He gazed again at me and parted, saying, “You will find the train at the station two hours before its departure. Good luck and don’t get late.”
The Sibi-Khost Express is the oldest train service and also the slowest in the world — a fact not covered by the Guinness Book of World Records. The service began in 1888. A total distance of 130 kilometres is covered in approximately six to seven hours. “I do not have the exact timings of how much time it takes,” said the Sibi Railways Station Master, adding, “but its round trip is not possible before 13 hours, provided everything goes well.”
The train sets off at 7:30am from Sibi Junction. It is a small train which normally carries seven carriages. Four carriages are for passengers and three for luggage. The carriages can exceed in case there is more luggage or a high-ranking official is travelling along with his vehicles on board. A special buggy was used by the Deputy Commissioner and Commissioner Sibi Division upon their official visits to Harnai or onwards.
The luggage includes the cattle tribesmen bring from remote areas to the Sibi and Jacobabad markets for sale. In return, they carry a variety of goods. Its last destination, Khost, is a tiny town in the remote mountainous areas of Balochistan with hundreds of coal mines still in use.
“The importance of the coal mines from where a large quantity of coal was dug out and transported to different parts of British India was one of the factors for the construction of the Khost railway track,” said Mr Japan, the 82-year-old retired railway man from the area, adding, “but it also helped the British to mobilize its forces and facilitate the law and order situation in this far-flung, land-locked area of Balochistan.” To him, it also facilitated public transport at the time when hardly any means of transport existed.
The Sibi-Khost railway track was constructed in 1885. The work began in 1878 and was designed to link Balochistan with the rest of British India. The Sibi-Khost railway line, one of the great engineering feats of British railway, was the first railway line to link Sindh and the lower parts of Balochistan, then called Thall Chathali, with Quetta. The track was facilitated by the construction of a number of tunnels. “It exceeded up to Quetta,” said Mr Lashari, the Divisional Railways Engineer. The track, however, was abandoned in 1914 from Khost onwards.
I bought a ticket and embarked the train. The train is officially named as the Sibi-Khost Express, but can rightly be called Awami or Popular Express. There is only one class (IInd class) compartments which are packed to capacity. “The passengers will exceed the capacity as it reaches the next station,” said a regular traveller on the train and a student of engineering at the University of Sindh, Jamshoro. He was returning to his village for vacation. To him, the train can rightly be called an SOS express, as no other means of transport exists in this locked area without any road facilities.
A shingle road was constructed at a huge cost in the past years by the Balochistan government, but it exists only in the C&W; record and not in reality. Those who miss the train wait for it the next morning. “This train is the only means of transport and a source of transportation for at least 12 per cent of the population in the province,” he said.
No matter how often it whistled to start, the train left the station 35 minutes late. The factor accountable for the delay was the combining of an extra-luggage carriage with the train. It contained rations for the Frontier Corps (FC) deployed in the area for maintaining law and order. The deployment of the FC in the area goes back to 1877. A number of British officers are said to have lost their lives during their encounters with the local tribesmen. One of them buried on a mound was Capt Pallasy of the Madras Pioneers, a regiment posted in the area.
The force played an important role during the Marri tribesmen insurgency in the 70s. The major FC camp is in Spin Tangi, a tiny station on the line. The FC men travel frequently by the train, but occupy separately seats and tribesmen avoid joining them. “It is a practice going on since the 70s,” said one. “You will never see the tribesmen joining them or talking to them,” he pointed out, indicating to some sitting on the floor due to the unavailability of seats in the passengers rows. He asked them to get up and sit on the benches near the ones in the corner of the compartment where the FC men were sitting, but they refused.
The train stopped on Tondoori sub-station where around sixty to seventy tribesmen were waiting for the train. They came from Marri tribes, one of the three leading tribes inhabiting the area. The other two are Tareen and Bariach. The tribesmen were going to Harnai, the sub-division of Sibi district and a busy vegetable/fruit and cattle market. A number of horses, a common scene to watch on other sub-stations on the Sibi-Khost track, were tied to poles near the platforms. They are used as a means of transport for tribesmen coming from small and far-away villages. Because of no roads and entrenched poverty, horses are still a popular means of transport. I asked the one who entered the compartment and sat near me, “Have you a horse and use it as a means of transport? He proudly said, “Yes, I do. My brother gave me a ride from my village at 7 miles (they hardly understand kms) distance. He will come to fetch me on a horse two days later when I come from Khost and Harnai.” He was a middle-aged man without any formal education. Schools probably do not exist in his area so he could not attend one and neither can his children. Although schools have opened up during the last many years, due to remoteness and under-development, teachers fail to attend their duties regularly. He kept on silently watching me, mistaking me for an FC official till I told him that I am a teacher and teach at a university. “This is harsh and unfair on our part. We are deprived of development and education due to our Sardars and the government,” he added.
The whistling and puffing stopped for a minute or two. As I peeped outside the windows, two people were talking to the engine driver. The ticket checker and guard had joined them, too. I did not understand until another person revealed to me that they are entering into a deal to stop the train on return to load vegetables to Sibi. Such a practice is common on return. The area grows vegetables and sugar cane in abundance but there is no easy transport available except the Express to take them. This facilities the growers and the railways. Otherwise, carrying the huge weight to a nearby station at a usual distance of 15 to 20 kms is not easy.
The train reached Harnai, 93 kms from Sibi, in five hours where it stopped for forty minutes. The majority of the passengers got off the train. The compartments looked less crowded. The journey between Sibi and Harnai remains crowded due to the fact that there is no road line in-between. A shingle road exists from Harnai onwards to link Loralai and Quetta.
The train left after half-an-hour for Khost. Stopping at two small stations, it took two hour more to reach Khost, its last destination. Khost looks like a remote mountainous town with numerous coal mines around. The station itself is surrounded by tons of coal. “Sir, you have reached the last station. The train will travel back in one hour,” said the guard who regularly watched me taking photos and notes during the journey. “Will you travel back, sir.” “Yes, I have to,” I answered. I walked out the station to roam the Khost bazaar which hardly comprised twenty shops, including an Afghan restaurant whose regular customers are coal miners or an irregular visitor like me. I squatted and ordered for a bowl of rice — the only dish on the menu. I was served tea without milk. Being hungry and tired, I enjoyed the food and waited until the express started whistling for departure. I reached Sibi around 11:00pm.