The International Steam Pages

Once upon a time, long ago,
North-West Frontier Narrow Gauge, February 1985

Wilson Lythgoe has been circulating friends with some steam pictures taken some time back and with his permission and encouragement they are reproduced on these pages and will be added to from time to time. Click here for the index.

At the instigation of the military, the North Western Railway of India built a number of narrow gauge lines in the early 1900's to facilitate the movement of troops into the North West Frontier area which is still causing problems for the present day government of Pakistan. By the time of my visit in February 1985, three of these lines were still operating: Kohat to Thal, Mari Indus to Bannu with its branch to Tank and the Bostan to Zhob line. I managed to visit two of them: ride the daily Kohat to Thal train part way and then the following day travel the full length of the Bannu to Mari Indus line.

I had arrived in Kohat about lunchtime after an interesting bus journey from Peshawar over the mountains and through tribal villages. I had been warned by the police at the Peshawar bus depot not to get off the bus under any circumstances until Kohat. It proved to be uneventful trip apart from a large police fort about half way with a large roadside notice saying in four languages; 'Foreigners allowed no further'. I waited for my marching orders while the police gave the bus and passengers the once over but was left alone. Later I found out the fort was supposed to stop outsider access to the town of Darra: famous throughout Pakistan for the manufacture of counterfeit guns and rifles. You name it they could make it apparently! Once at Kohat found a hotel of sorts and then to the station. Enquired if there was a train to Thal the next day and could I ride it. The answers: train time was 7.00am and I could go as far as Hangu. Hangu being about two hours from Kohat and a third of the distance. There for security reasons (I never found out whether it was theirs or mine) I would have to leave the train and either wait for it to return eight hours later or catch a bus back to Kohat. That afternoon I was stopped in the street by police and had my bag searched and that evening another search and passport check in my hotel room! 

Next morning myself, a couple of locals and an army guard of about six waited for the train to leave. Time for another passport check of the foreigner and general interrogation this time by an army officer:

'Where are you going?'
'Because I have been told I am only allowed to travel on the train as far as Hangu'
'That is correct. You can travel with us in first class'
'I would prefer to travel in second class behind the engine'
'I'm interested in the engine and will be able to enjoy it better if I'm closer'
'Then you should ride in the cab. Come with me'

Well who am I to argue with the army as certainly the loco crew didn't and were most welcoming.

At Chikarkot the three car train waits in the early morning sunshine. Note the 'fort like' appearance of the station. The fireman had disappeared so I took the opportunity for a photo.....he returned with hot samosas for our breakfast! 

At Hangu a number of freight wagons were added to the train making it a true mixed before it headed further west and leaving me to make my way back to Kohat by bus. Train engine that day was ZB 206, a 2-6-2 built by Hannoversche Maschinenbau AG (Hanomag) in 1932.

That afternoon I travelled south to Bannu spending the night in the type of hotel that was to become a feature of Pakistan for the next week or so.....very basic tending to filthy, a charpoy bed and nowhere to wash. Next morning train NG2 hauled by ZB 203, another Hanomag product from 1932, left on time in pouring rain. It didn't maintain schedule for long though. Where the road parallels the rail a truck had toppled over onto the track and the train was delayed for two hours while the line was cleared. Our loco must have been involved in an accident the previous day as the cow catcher has been removed and placed elsewhere.

Eventually we got underway again and crossed ZB 201 (WG Bagnall, 1928) on the outbound train NG1 at Thane Dar Wala . It was a hungry day.....apart from tea first thing in the morning I had nothing to eat until a 4pm arrival at Mari Indus. Fried eggs and tea in the station restaurant were never more welcome!

Two days later I returned to Mari Indus. It was a Wednesday and the one day of the week two trains were scheduled to leave: the daily to Bannu and the once a week to Tank. GS 66, a North British 2-8-2 dating from 1921, left two hours late on NG3 to Tank.

Having waited in the sun for it I reckoned I had time for a visit to the nearest tea house for a snack before the next train.....big mistake: I was just lifting the cup to my lips a few minutes later when the second train rattled through dead on time. Missed that one! I did have written permission to visit the loco depot at Mari Indus though and that was some consolation........

G 70 (North British, 1909) rests on blocks, behind it an unknown engine and to the right ZE 230 (a 2-8-2 from Hannoversche Maschinenbau AG in 1930).

The next two pictures feature G 54 (a Nasmyth Wilson product of 1913) as the yard shunter. In the second picture the difference in gauge is quite noticeable as the 5'6" and 2'6" tracks merge.

(A thought: three of the locos in this email were of German manufacture. Now how come in the middle of the Great Depression the British Empire was buying locos from Germany. Was British Industry unable to supply or were they war reparations? Has anyone any thoughts on the matter?)

I was lucky to have seen these lines when I did as after this they seemed to die a slow death. According to reports in CRJ, based on visits in late 1986, services had been reduced: the Kohat - Thal train was now running once a week, Mari Indus - Bannu three times a week while the train to Tank was still weekly. All trains were now running with a heavily sandbagged flat wagon ahead of the locomotive as "mine sweepers" as apparently a ZB had been mined whilst on a run to Thal. The Mari Indus to Bannu was then further reduced to twice weekly and by 1992 it was reported that both lines had been closed.

Rob Dickinson