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Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History
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What the papers said
excerpts from the railway press from the 1840s to the 1990s


The purpose of this section of the IRS web site is to provide a glimpse of what the British railway press was saying about various issues in the past. Every month there will be a different selection of excerpts from the railway press from the 1990s to as far back as the 1840s, taken from the collections in the National Railway Museum Library here in York. Sometimes we will group the excerpts according to particular themes, but there will also be space for a more random selection of some interesting, entertaining, or just plain bizarre corners of the railway news of the past. We hope that you will find it interesting and illuminating. It's one way of finding out what has changed, and what has not, over the past century and a half of the railway press. Previous editions are available in an archive accessible from this page.

Next update: 4 March 2002.


February 2002
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Afghanistan: a land without railways?


Afghanistan is not a country in which communications of any kind are easy. Various railway schemes were put forward by the Russians and the British during the nineteenth century, when the strategically important position of the country between India, Persia, Russia and the approach to the sea made it a vital piece in the chess-game of south Asian imperial rivalries, but none ever got beyond the planning stage. The same was true of the home-grown railway schemes of King Amanullah in the 1920s, and Afghanistan remained a country without railways until the 1980s, when the Soviet occupiers constructed a line to facilitate communications with their bases in what was then the southern USSR. Afghanistan accordingly made its debut in the 1983-4 edition of Jane's World Railways, dislodging Albania from the top slot. Since then further railway schemes have been proposed, but the disintegration of Afghanistan since the Soviet withdrawal has ensured that not a sleeper has been laid. From today's perspective it seems unlikely that railway construction will be anybody's priority in Afghanistan for a while; but at least with this edition of 'What the Papers Said' we can consider some of the dreams of Afghan railways that might have become reality.
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1928: The Railway Gazette reports on the visit of King Amanullah of Afghanistan to Swindon works; the king was planning to build railways in his own country, and understandably wanted to see how the Great Western did things

1966: A brief paragraph in The Railway Gazette reports on plans to build a rail link between Afghanistan and Pakistan

1972: Another brief paragraph in Railway Gazette International reports on another planned rail link, this time between Afghanistan and Iran

1975: Railway Gazette International describes a plan for an extensive railway network in Afghanistan proposed by Indian railway consultants

1976: Another plan for an extensive railway network in Afghanistan by another group of railway consultants (French this time) gets the go-ahead, according to Railway Gazette International

1976: Memories of King Amanullah, from the pages of Railway Gazette International

1982: Afghanistan, now occupied by the Soviet Union, enters the railway age, reports Modern Railways

1983: Railway Gazette International describes Soviet ambitions for a substantial rail link from the northern border to Kabul

1983: Yet more large-scale Soviet-backed Afghan railway schemes, from reports in Railway Gazette International...

1984: ...and Modern Railways

1992: Finally, Modern Railways reports that Pakistan Railways engineers are doing what so many others have done before, and surveying Afghanistan with a view to the construction of a strategically-important railway


The Great Western Railway works at Swindon were visited, on Wednesday, by the King of Afghanistan, who, with his customary keenness and untiring energy, manifested the liveliest interest in everything he saw. It is fitting that his first purely industrial visit should be paid to a railway works, not only because this country is the original home of railways, but as marking the importance of transportation in the modern state, a fact that is not likely to have escaped the keen intelligence of the Afghan ruler. The Swindon visit is but one of a series which he will pay to the great industrial centres of Britain during the remainder of his stay, and these visits, like those he had already carried out in France, Germany and Italy, are made with a definite purpose. It is his policy to convert Afghanistan into a stable and prosperous kingdom on modern lines, adapting the best of western practice, but cautiously, to Afghan conditions. There are no railways at present in Afghanistan, and it is said that there will not be until Afghanistan herself can build them; but King Amanullah has known how to make use of European advisers in other Departments of State, and we have no doubt that here, too, he will know where to seek the best advice. He has an object lesson in British railway construction on his own frontier in the Khyber railway, and in his visits he will see something of the unexampled resources and skill of this country in the design and manufacture of engineering and transport equipment. May the friendship between Afghanistan and our Indian Empire, which is such an important British and Afghan interest, be cemented in the future with bonds of steel!

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Work on the proposed rail link between Chaman in Pakistan and Spin Baldak in Afghanistan is to begin soon and will take about a year and a half to complete. The link will be over seven miles long and will cost about $800,000. Over two miles of the link will be in Pakistani territory.

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Iranian State Railways has submitted to the government a proposal to build an extension from the present railhead at Mashhad to Herat in Afghanistan. Although Soviet and Pakistan Western lines touch the Afghanistan border, this will be the first railway within the country.

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An initial network of 1,400 km of railway in Afghanistan connecting the principal cities of Herat, Kandahar and Kabul is being surveyed by a team of Indian railway consultants. Feasibility studies are being carried out following grant of a $20m loan from Iran.

Backbone of the network would be a northwest-southeast link from Mashhad in Iran to Herat, Kandahar, and Chaman on the Pakistan border. A direct link from Herat would serve Kushka to the northeast on the border of the Soviet Union, connecting there with the 1,524mm gauge Soviet Railways network. From Kandahar a line would run northeast to serve Ghazni and the capital, Kabul. The link with Pakistan Railways at Chaman would allow access to the Arabian Sea at Karachi, while another sea outlet at Bandar Shapur in Iran would be possible through Mashhad. Completion of the link form Kerman to Zahedan and the proposed line to Bandar Abbas would enhance the value of the proposed Afghan network by providing access to the industrial complex planned at Iran's new port.

Preliminary surveys by Indian engineers follow on from the work of an Indo-Afghan joint commission on increased co-operation between the two countries. Indo-Afghan co-operation already extends to consultation on industry and power stations and the railway interest is strong enough to justify attendance of a representative of Rail India Technical and Economic Services at inter-governmental meetings. Estimated cost of the network in Afghanistan is Rs8,000m to Rs9,000m.

An Afghanistan rail network would complete a further stage in a through Europe-Asia railway, but there will certainly be some difficulty over the choice of gauge.

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The Afghanistan government has approved plans drawn up by a team of consultants from the French firm Sofre-rail for a 1,815km network to be constructed in the period of the seventh Afghanistan national plan (1976-80). Similar to the proposals prepared by Indian consultants last year, the network, which will be 1,435mm gauge, will link the Afghan capital Kabul with the cities of Kandahar and Herat.

Other links will be with Iran at Islam Qala in the northwest and at Tarakun in the southwest, and with Pakistan at Chaman in the southeast. From Islam Qala an Iranian State Railways' line will run to Mashhad (-Teheran), giving access via Tabriz or Djulfa to Western Europe. The link through Tarakun will join the planned Kerman-Zahedan line and give access to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, while the Pakistan link will allow traffic to reach the Arabian Sea at Karachi.

About 75 per cent of the Afghan network will be laid out with a maximum gradient of 1.0 per cent and minimum curve radius of 2,000m; the remaining 25 per cent of the network will have gradients up to 1.5 per cent allowing speeds of 100 km/h. Initially maximum speed will be 160 km/h, but the proposals envisage 200 km/h running with high-speed lightweight trainsets at a later stage. Track will be continuously-laid UIC 45 kg/m rail laid on tied-block sleepers. Signalling installations will be backed by a train radio system.

At Kandahar there will be a traffic control centre, together with a motive power depot, workshop facilities and marshalling yard. Staff requirements are for 2,400 in 1975, rising to 3,300 with eventual expansion of the network. Motive power will be provided initially by 40 diesel locomotives of 2,400 hp with provision for an additional 65 units. Because of the rarified atmosphere at high altitudes, power output losses of up to 22.5 per cent are expected.

Finance for the network is being provided by Iran, which stands to benefit considerably from transit traffic. Initial forecasts are for 1,300 million tonne-km in 1985. Of major significance is the massive iron ore deposit at Hajigak in the Hindu-Kouch mountain range; ore would be transported by cableway from the deposit to a railhead 100 km away, and thence to steelworks in Iran.

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News that Afghanistan is planning to quit that small band of nations unfortunate enough not to have a railway has reminded a correspondent that there was an earlier railway age in the country, albeit brief.

In the mid-1920s King Amanullah built a short line from Kabul to suburban Darul Aman, where he planned to establish a new European-style capital. Trains ran for two or three years until the dream ended with Amanullah's overthrow in 1929, but two locos and several coaches still stand in a shed at Darul Aman as relics of a bygone era and prophetic of a new one dawning for Afghanistan.

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It is reported that, towards the end of May, the USSR and Afghanistan concluded a series of agreements on the use of a bridge across the River Amu which established a rail link to a river port just inside Afghan territory. Work on the bridge is believed to have started shortly after Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the winter of 1979-80.

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Signing of an agreement on railway development by the governments of Afghanistan and the USSR has paved the way for construction of the first stage of a 1,520mm gauge railway to Kabul. A combined rail and road bridge over the River Amudarya was completed last year, allowing Soviet troops and equipment to be railed directly into Afghanistan. Next step is construction of a 250 km line as far as Pul-i-Khumri, 150 km north of Kabul.

From Hariatan on the Afghan side of the River Amudarya the route runs southwest to Kholm and then east towards Kunduz and Khanabad. From Khanabad the alignment continues south, climbing through Ab Kul and Bahlan before reaching the Surkhab river valley and Pul-i-Khumri.

Pul-I-Khumri, strategically located in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains, will be the starting point for the final leg to Kabul. This would pose tough civil engineering problems because of the exceptionally rugged terrain, but the Soviet Ministry of Railway Construction has plenty of experience in similar regions within the USSR. Completion of the line through Kabul would ease considerably the USSR's supply problems in maintaining a strong military presence in Afghanistan.

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A correspondent reports that the Soviet-backed Afghan regime is pushing ahead with plans to establish a railway network linking Kabul, Kandahar and Herat with a branch from Kandahar to Chaman, on the border with Pakistan, and from Herat to Islam Qala, on the border with Iran. A Soviet-Afghan agreement already provides for the extension of a railway spur across the Oxus river from the Soviet military supply base of Termez, in Southern Uzbekistan, to the Afghan town of Pul-i-Khumri, and it seems likely that, if the mujahadeen (freedom fighters) are sufficiently subdued, this line too will be taken through to Kabul. It was British opposition to such a rail link with Czarist Russia in the 19th century that led to two Afghan wars. Today, neither Pakistan nor Iran recognises the present Afghan regime and both countries view the latest developments with extreme concern, poor communications in the border regions ahving always been regarded as making an important contribution to national security.

Notwithstanding continued internal unrest and lack of support from its neighbours, the Afghan Government has been in touch with the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) for financial and technical assistance, presenting surveys drawn up as long ago as 1928 by a Franco-German consortium. Two ESCAP missions, including railway experts, have visited Afghanistan.

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The Afghan Government and the USSR have signed an agreement that could lead to construction of the first railway wholly within Afghanistan. The Tashkent-Bukhara line of Soviet Railways (SZD) has already been extended across the frontier to Herat, this section being completed in May 1982. Under the new agreement the line would be continued for another 250 km (150 miles) to Pul-i-Khumri, an important strategic centre at the foot of the Hindu Kush. The final stage would be a further 150 km (94 miles) to Kabul. The project is important in Soviet eyes as a means of reinforcing its troops in Afghanistan but it could not be undertaken without first bringing guerilla activity under control.

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Engineers of Pakistan Railways (PR) are to survey a possible route from the frontier with Afghanistan via Jalalabad and Kabul to Tadzhikstan in Central Asia. The General Manager of PR told the newspaper Dawn that it was in the national interest to opt for establishing links with Central Asian Republics via Afghanistan rather than Iran. The distance between Tadzhikstan and Peshawar via Kabul is approximately 800 km (497 miles) and to Karachi about 2,400 km (1,490 miles).

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Compiled by Dr Ralph Harrington, Institute of Railway Studies, York.


Updated 4 February 2002