EXACTLY 15 years ago today (Wednesday, 1 June 2005) I spent 11 hours crossing the Thar Desert in the Sindh Province of Pakistan aboard one of that country’s last three surviving metre-gauge steam services, the twice-monthly 07.00 service MG-2 Down from Mirpur Khas to Nawabshah Junction.
Hauled by immaculate SP Class loco 138 (Kerr Stuart, 1921) our progress was always going to be pretty slow, with a timetabled arrival at the end of the 81-mile (129km) trip of 13.40. But after being halted in the searing 46C heat of the desert for several hours while the track ahead of us was repaired, we only made it to Nawabshah at about 18.00.
Mirpur Khas is a small city east of Hyderabad that had somehow remained an outpost of steam activity after it had disappeared elsewhere in the country. Its 42-mile (67km) rail link to Hyderabad had been converted to broad gauge (5’ 6”) in 1965, but three routes heading eastwards into the desert remained both metre-gauge and steam-worked.
Track repairs in the desert on 1 June 2005 before SP 138 can continue to Nawabshah
Most important of this trio was a line heading east towards the Indian border at Khrokhropar, where a long-closed border crossing was due to be re-opened, with work already under way to convert this line to broad gauge, a project that was completed when cross-border services resumed early the following year (February 2006).
Services on all three of the metre-gauge lines were a shadow of what they had once been, and worse even than the heavily-rationalised timetable that had been introduced five years before my visit, in 2000. That had seen the Khrokhropar service cut from daily to three times a week, while by 2005 it was down to just one train a week, running out on a Monday and back on a Tuesday.
In the case of the once busy route north to Nawabshah Junction, this had been reduced to a Sundays-only service in 2000, and by 2005 it operated on just the 1st and 15th day of each month, as seen in the timetable above.
Finally a service around the loop-line south-east of Mirpur Khas via Jhudo and Naukot – railways are shown in green in the map above – had been reduced to one weekly journey in each direction in the 2000 timetable change, but by 2005 the clockwise service, running outward via Pithoro Junction, had been withdrawn, to leave just a weekly anti-clockwise service.
Metre-gauge activity in 2005
My organised visit to Mirpur Khas – five hours by road from Karachi Airport – had been timed to see the maximum possible amount of steam working, with the service to Khokhropar running out on Monday (30 May) and returning the following day, the long day trip to Nawabshah Junction on 1 June, then a chance to see and ride the weekly loop line train on Thursday, 2 June.
This was bandit country, and our four mini-buses each carried an armed guard in case of any trouble, while we were strongly advised not to venture out of our modest city centre hotel unaccompanied, although there was not the slightest sign of any trouble and all the local people we met seemed charming, peace-loving and happy to be photographed!
Mirpur Khas shed, to the east of the station and junction, remained home to two classes of British oil-fired locomotives, the 4-6-0 SP and 2-8-2 YD classes, with a total of seven locos on shed during our visits there (SP 138/140 and YD 518/9/20/22/24), four of which were in steam and three of which we were able to see in action over the four-day visit.
Mirpur Khas shed on 1 June 2005 with YD Class locos (from left) 518/519/522
On the first two days of the trip we were able to see YD 519 (Vulcan Foundry, Newton-le-Willows, 1929) on the weekly service to and from Khokhropar, 1 June was the SP Class trip to Nawabshah Junction, then on the following day YD 524 was in action with the weekly service around the loop-line.
YD 524 departs Mirpur Khas Jn. on 2 June 2005 with the weekly 08.00 to Pithoro Jn.
Most of the Thar Desert, through which the metre gauge lines ran, lies in India and it forms a natural boundary with Pakistan, in which it extends to some 12,000 sq. miles, and is the most widely populated desert region in the world.
This is a barren, but somehow scenic area, and as the accompanying photographs show, we were able to photograph the trains at many interesting locations, including a bridge over the Jamrao Canal (above), a mausoleum (below), signal gantries, alongside people and livestock, as well as at numerous closed stations along the line to Nawabshah.
Pakistan’s metre-gauge network
There is a fascinating history to the railways around Mirpur Khas, dating back to the development of Karachi in the late nineteenth century as the closest port to India for sea-borne freight from Britain, mainland Europe and the Middle East.
In the absence of a direct railway route between Karachi and Bombay, freight traffic for India had to travel 750 miles north to Lahore, before heading east towards India, putting Karachi at a considerable disadvantage to Bombay in the case of traffic bound for western areas of India such as of Gujrat, Maharashtra and Rajhastan.
SP 138 at Tando Sarwar, one of many closed stations on the line to Nawabshah Junction
The British Government agreed to construct a 55-mile (89km) broad gauge (5’ 6”) line from Hyderabad to Shadipalli, just beyond Mirpur Khas, and this line opened in August 1892. Eight years later (1900), the Government then built a metre-gauge line eastwards from Shadipalli to Jodhpur, while the Hyderabad-Shadipalli line was converted to metre-gauge to allow for through traffic.
SP 138 pauses on 1 June 2005 at the closed Khan station, 13kms from Mirpur Khas
Expansion of the metre-gauge continued over the next four decades: in 1909 a 50-mile (80km) line from Mirpur Khas to Jhudo was built, and the loop-line was completed in 1935 when this route was extended by 65 miles (104kms) to Pithoro Junction. A northern line opened as far as Khadro (50 miles) in 1912, and finally reached Nawabshah Junction in 1939.
Re-gauging and closure
Prior to the Pakistan-India War of 1965 it had been possible to travel by metre-gauge train across the border near Khokhropar, but this conflict led to a closure of the border and removal of a four-mile section of line between Khokhropar and Munabao in India.
Agreement to re-open the rail link was reached between India and Pakistan in 2004, and after conversion of the Jodhpur to Munabao route to broad gauge it was agreed that the line from Mirpur Khas to Khokhropar should also be re-gauged.
Shortly before my visit to Mirpur Khas (in April 2005) work had begun on re-gauging the line to Khokhropar to Broad Gauge. A connection onwards to the Indian city of Munabao, which had been severed in 1965 when the border was closed, was built and new station called ‘Zero-Point’ was built close to the border to provide immigration services.
YD 524 at Khat Shaheed on 2 June 2005 with the loop-line service to Pithoro Junction
Re-gauging work was completed in December 2005, and after a 41-year gap cross-border services resumed on 18 February 2006, when the Thar Express restored a weekly link between Karachi and Jodhpur, with the 237-mile (381km) journey from Karachi to Khokhropar taking just over seven hours.
But revival was pretty short-lived and just under a year ago, on 9 August 2019, the Thar Express was cancelled until further notice, owing to increasing tensions between India and Pakistan, and all traffic between Mirpur Khas and Khokhropar ceased.
Ours was almost certainly the last organised trip to Mirpur Khas before the metre-gauge network simply faded away, with all activity halted by 2006, and hopes of any revival dashed by monsoon damage in 2007/8, although some remarkable YouTube footage shows YD 520 in steam in 2010 shunting a long rake of redundant coaches through the station at Mirpur Khas.
I would like to offer my very belated thanks to Enthusiast Holidays/Globe Tours for organising a remarkable and unrepeatable trip. Thanks also for notes I have since discovered from fellow tour participants Stephen Mourton and Neil Edwards, which helped fill crucial gaps in my own, and finally thanks to COVID-19 for giving me the time to scan my slides and to research this fascinating area!