Railways through Bolan Pass

Posted on August 23, 2006
Filed Under >Owais Mughal, History, Science and Technology, Travel
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Owais Mughal

One of the greatest Engineering feats of British rule in India was to lay a railway track through the famous Bolan Pass. More than a century old, this railway track still generates an awe among rail enthusiasts all over the world.

Orders for a feasibility survey of Bolan Pass Railway were first issued by the British Government in 1876. Work on the construction of railways through the Pass started in 1880 but was soon stopped after laying of 31 km track due to the occurrence of famous ‘battle of Maiwind’ in the area. Work restarted in 1885 by rapidly laying a rail track in the bed of river Bolan and finally a steam locomotive rolled into Quetta in August of 1886. The present day railway track through Bolan Pass is the third attempt of laying railways through the pass. In 1889 a torrential flood destroyed the track which was first laid on Bolan River bed. A new track was laid at a higher altitude but that also got washed away. In 1890 orders were issued for laying an all season track through the Pass. This new track was inaugurated on April 15, 1897 and it is still operational. At some places along the track one can see the abandoned tunnels and the rail bed of earlier two attempts of laying railways here.

Travelling westward from Sibi, the railway line quickly gains altitude. Following table shows distances and altitude of different stations between Sibi and Quetta.

To get a better perspective of Bolan Pass distances I have considered Sibi as 0km.

0km Sibi 435ft
17km Mushkaf 469ft
50km Peshi 1456ft
63km Ab-i-Gum 2157ft
75km Mach 3246ft
89km Hirok 4552ft
101km Kolpur 5874ft
117km Spezand 5858ft
141km Quetta 5499ft

From Ab-i-Gum to Kolpur the gradient of rail track is 1 in 25 which means the track climbs 4 vertical feet in every 100 feet it travels horizontally. For most trains two locomotives in push-pull configuration are used to bring a train from Ab-i-Gum to Kolpur, which is also the highest station (5874ft) on Pakistan Railway network.

Many of us may know the local habit of people climbing in and getting out of a moving train. Well, during steam days when four steam locomotives used to push a train up Bolan Pass, the acceleration generated was so high that railway department had to put a notice on various stations warning general public to refrain from stepping-in and stepping-out of a moving train. One such warning was at display at Mach station until late 1980s.

While going up the Bolan pass requires extra locomotive power, coming down the pass requires extra braking power. To get this extra braking power freight trains are sometimes coupled with 5 to 10 empty wagons just to have extra brakes available. To get another idea of how much effort is needed to bring a train into Quetta, imagine that a single 2400 hp diesel locomotive can pull 70 freight wagons up to Sibi. From Sibi one locomotive pulls only 14 wagons up to Ab-i-Gum and from Ab-i-Gum two locomotives pull these 14 wagons up to Quetta.

The locomotives that are used in Bolan Pass are also special and come equipped with Dynamic Braking. Dynamic brakes work on reverse principal. The traction motors that drive the locomotives in up direction become generators in down direction and provide extra drag on the locomotives in addition to the regular brakes.

In down direction, all stations on Bolan Pass are provided with a catch siding (track) which ends steeply in a nearby hill. This is done to make sure runaway trains do not enter a station and can be stopped by a raised track in nearby hills. By default the track coming into a station is switched to these catch sidings. When a train approaches a station, it has to stop completely to make sure its brakes are working properly. Only then the track is switched from siding to mainline and a train is allowed to enter a station.

There are 17 tunnels enroute from Sibi to Quetta and the track crosses River Bolan numerous times in a criss-cross journey. The photo to the right shows a section of sequential tunneling through Bolan Pass.

For a tourist who wishes to travel through Bolan Pass by rail, a variety of trains and accommodation are available.

As of summer 2006, there are two daily trains available between Quetta and Karachi (Bolan Mail and Baluchistan Express). One between Quetta and Peshawar via Lahore (Quetta Express), One between Quetta and Rawalpindi via Lahore (Jaffar Express) and one between Quetta and Faisalabad (Chiltan Express). Atleast three of the above five trains have Airconditioned accommodation available on them.

I highly recommend a rail journey through Bolan Pass. It is one of a kind rail experience anywhere in the world.

Before I finish this article, note in the photo to the left, an abandoned tunnel is visible at a lower altitude from the one in which the train is entering. This abandoned tunnel is where the second unsuccessful attempt was made to lay a track through Bolan Pass. First unsuccessful attempt was made by laying a track directly through the river bed which is also visible in this photo.

Photo credits for this article belong to Mr. Umar Marwat, Mr. Andrew Jones, Mr. Iqbal Samad Khan and Mr. Malcolm Peakman.

ATP’s Posts on Pakistan Railway:

1. Khyber Pass Railway
2. Bolan Pass Railway
3. The Trans-Balochistan Railway
4. Changa Manga Forest Railway
5. Lansdowne Bridge, Sukkur
6. Railway Bridge on Indus at Attock
7. Khojak Tunnel
8. Chappar Rift
9. Karachi Circular Railway – Revival gets 1 step closer
10. Zhob Valley Railway (ZVR)
11. How the First Locomotive Reached Lahore
12. 3000hp Iron Horses of Pakistan
13. Karachi Tramway of Yesteryears
14. Lahore Rapid Mass Transit Rail Project
15. A Phoenix Rises From the Ashes of Bakhshapur
16. ek masla hai… A Railway Runs Through It
17. Ava Gardner in Lahore for Bhowani Junction
18. The Meter-Gauge of Sindh
19. Indus Flotilla Company
20. Karachi to Kotri: First Railways in Pakistan
21. Pakistan Railway on the West Bank of Indus

Pakistan Railway Discussion Group:

If you want to learn more about Pakistan Railways, then feel free to join the ‘Pakistan Railway (PR)’ discussion group. Everything and anything related to PR is discussed here e.g. preserving of Pakistan’s rail heritage, steam locomotives, sharing of photos and news, time tables etc. You can join the discussion group here.

33 Comments on “Railways through Bolan Pass”

  1. shbn says:
    August 23rd, 2006 10:16 am

    I have seen some documentaries, video travelogues through the North of Pakistan and always wondered which railway route is being shown here. I think this is indeed a journey worth taking…thanks for the detailed account, although I would have loved to see more pictures :)

  2. Roshan Malik says:
    August 23rd, 2006 1:50 pm

    What in informative post Owais!

    I think the longest rail tunnel in Pakistan is also on this track.

    The trains also go from Quetta to Iran as well as one train goes from Quetta goes to Chamman. The other track, though no more there, goes to Zhob. The government is now planning revive that route.

  3. August 23rd, 2006 3:04 pm

    shbn, if you were watching footage from further North, it coudl well have been from the NWFP … which has a wonderful railways history of its own….

  4. Aziz Akhmad says:
    August 23rd, 2006 4:11 pm

    An informative post. Beautiful pictures. The vast emptiness of the land reminds one of the scenes in the movie, Dr. zhivago.

    On a different note, I do see light at the end of some of the tunnels. I wonder if these tunnels are abandoned now.

  5. August 23rd, 2006 5:51 pm

    The longest tunnel that you have mentioned is called the ‘Khojak Tunnel. It was printed on older Rupees 5 currency note too. It is not in Bolan pass but further west on the route, near the border town of Chaman. It is just under a mile long. I have written an article on it too but I’ll post it after some break. I don’t want ATP dedicated to Railways only :)

    The track to Zhob is not broad gauge. It is narrow gauge and all of its rolling stock is now placed in Railway Heritage museum at Golra near Islamabad. To revive it to broad gauge is just a political statement given by officials. There is no commercial value therefore who is going to pay for it? That track to Zhob however, has a station called Kan Mehtarzai at an altitude of 7300 feet and it used to be the highest station on PR network until the section got closeddown in 1985.

    Aziz Sahib

    All the photos where you are seeing ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ (philosophically or physically) are fully operational at present.

    Khojak tunnel that I mentioned above however is so long that it does not see light of the day. therefore while doing maintenance there working crew uses two huge mirros from either side and reflects sunlight into the tunnel and it lits the whole mile long tunnel. This is how it is being done since 1890s.

  6. Rabia Bashir says:
    August 23rd, 2006 6:27 pm

    Indeed picturesque and a journey worth taken!

    Mehergarh, an old settlement site, is situated strategically near the Bolan Pass. This site has been cited for many archaeological excavations. Pakistan’s Department of Archaeology is supporting extensive research carried out by the French archaeologists. Studies have indicated that this settlement dates back to some 9000 years.

    This site is at a driving distance from Sibi where a museum has also been set up to display the findings of Mehergarh.

  7. Adnan Ahmad says:
    August 24th, 2006 3:03 pm

    Fascinating post. As a side note, it shows yet again that how diligent we have been in not adding anything to the 100+ years old infrastructure left by the British. Visionaries like Sheikh Rahseed (who for all the sounds he has been making, I think, is relatively better than the previous ministers) continue to make policies for the railways. In addition to two highways now there will be a bullett train b/w Islamabad and Lahore. May be they should dig a waterway between Pindi and Lahore and start a ferry service as well.

    At some point can you do a post on the railways locomtives and how they compare and why it is such an issue to build them when they have a facility.

  8. August 24th, 2006 3:41 pm

    Bullet train b/w Lahore-Rawalpindi is very difficult to build (not impossible though). Reason is the steep grades in Sohawa area which may go as high as 1-in-35. Current track is at 1-in-50 but it makes long ciruitous routes to keep the gradient low.

    Sh Rasheed is famous for raising slogans for political gains. A month ago he announced circular railway for 8 cities knowing well that idea is bound to failure from the word get-go. Going from point A to B, the shortest possible route is always a straight line, not a circular railway which travels on the periphery of a city e.g. failure of Karachi Circular Railway. Buses and roads currently provide direct routes from point A to B in cities. I can understand an elevated or underground mass-transit based on Railway through a city can be very efficient but not a circular railway which can easily become a vicious circle. people keep circling around without reaching anywhere :)

  9. August 24th, 2006 10:15 pm

    Guys If anyone wants to further the discussion on PR in general or has a hobbyists or conservation interest in Pakistan Railway heritage then i’d suggest joining a yahoo discussion group which is moderated by me at:


  10. P. S. Seshadri says:
    August 26th, 2006 8:10 am

    The write-up and the photos were superb! Should I say more?

  11. Sridhar says:
    September 12th, 2006 4:22 pm


    A wonderful post about the Bolan pass railway. It is good to see you involved in this blog. I am exploring the various posts here at leisure.

  12. Sridhar says:
    September 12th, 2006 4:27 pm


    One situation in which a circular railway is useful to connect radial routes. Many cities have metro/rail routes radiating out of the city center. This works well when commuting is between the city center and outlying areas only. However, this kind of network is inefficient when commuting patterns are no longer between the city center and suburbs. Then a circular railway/subway line that interconnects these various radial lines is a useful part of the network. There are many such examples of circular railways around the world.

    Having said that, I completely agree with you that construction of circular railways may not make sense as a standalone commuting option.

    The failure of the KCR owes itself to many factors, one of which is certainly that it is circular. But that is by no means the only or even in my opinion, the most important factor.


  13. September 26th, 2006 3:58 pm

    [...] Curtain Raiser. On August 23, 2006, ATP had a post on Bolan Pass. Today I am back with the other famous pass railway of Pakistan i.e. The Khyber Pass Railway. Before we start on our journey, a word about the photograph below. It shows the arrival of weekly Sunday passenger at Landi Kotal in 1975. It is being pulled and pushed by a two engines which signify the effort required in bringing this train from Peshawar, up the Khyber Pass to Landi Kotal. [...]

  14. November 3rd, 2006 10:11 am

    [...] Among many other things at ATP; we have tried to introduce to our readership; the Railway heritage of Pakistan. In the past we’ve had posts on Khyber Pass Railway and the Bolan Pass Railway. Today we will introduce yet another historic and scenic railway route which once existed in the Balochistan province and Chappar Rift was considered as its main attraction. [...]

  15. Nazir Hamdani says:
    February 11th, 2007 7:32 pm

    Shouldn’t we immediately stop this Khyber Pass train and any other such trains that is adding to the already polluted air in the country!

    To my knowledge only one tour operator is minting money with the help of his â€

  16. icerose says:
    February 18th, 2007 11:34 am

    Wondurful and very informative post. Thank you for your efforts. Few years back i did travel on this route but i went to sleep and woke up at Quetta,missing all the fun.

  17. September 8th, 2007 11:00 pm

    [...] delightful train journeys and stations across Pakistan (see here, here, here, here, here, here and here). I myself have wonderful memories of train travel with my family through Sindh, Punjab and to [...]

  18. Owais Mughal says:
    December 15th, 2007 12:02 am

    A beautiful Photo of Jaffar Express negotiating a curve in Bolan Pass here:

  19. Owais Mughal says:
    December 15th, 2007 12:03 am

    Balochistan Express photo in Bolan Pass here:

  20. Owais Mughal says:
    January 3rd, 2008 1:19 pm

    Jaffar Express through Bolan Pass. This photo is courtesy of Agha Waseem. See Here

  21. Zaffer Bokhari says:
    November 12th, 2008 2:25 am

    I have found this Pakistaniat a wonderful site to visit. Since I m lover of Pakistan Railways, therefore, I have visited all literature / material realted to Balochistan especially. This is worthseeing, worthreading and worthremembering material. By the way nowadays there is a single train between Karachi & Qutta (Bolan Mail). To trace out the oldest route laid in the reiver bed of Bolan pass, one can travel by road and see in Abegum plain.

  22. Owais Mughal says:
    January 3rd, 2009 10:27 pm

    A photo of cascaded tunnels through Bolan Pass is here. Photographer is Agha Waseem and colors have been digitally enhanced.

  23. Sajid Parvez says:
    June 9th, 2009 8:33 am

    As a professtional Engineering Geologist engaged in international construction projects for the last 30 years, I fully understand the hardship and difficulties faced during construction of Bolan railway passing thru mountainous train of fragile rock formations. I highly appriciate the Engineers and the workers those who took part to make impossible, possible in old time with no modern machinery and skill as available today.

  24. January 1st, 2010 8:01 pm

    Dear Sir, for me, your art of depiction is no less a marvel than the craft of those legendary engineers who desigened and built the great railway tracks and bridges. I happen to be a lucky soul to have travelled across many of the tracks you have narrated in your series of articles. I wonder if you would consider to cover the Sibbi – Baber Kutch – Spintagi – Harnai – Sharig track which was also quite picturesque & strategic when I travelled there in late fifties !!! Warm regards, Mohmmed Anwar, City of Liverpool, UK

  25. Owais Mughal says:
    January 1st, 2010 8:24 pm

    Anwer Saheb
    Thanks for your comments. We’ve briefly covered Sibi-Harnai-Khost section in our post on Chappar Rift here.

    I also want to invite you to join Pakistan Railway discussion group. The link to join this group is here.

  26. Lindsay Lucas says:
    May 12th, 2010 11:29 pm

    The picture at the top of this page appears to be the Steam & Safaris Ltd charter to Quetta in January 1998. I was a passenger on this train. More pictures can be seen on my flickr site http://www.flickr.com/photos/catchpoints412/ of the trip back down the pass, with the chartered cars (including 50th anniversary diner) attached to the rear of the Chiltan Express.

  27. Owais Mughal says:
    May 12th, 2010 11:45 pm

    Lindsay, you are correct about the title photo’s timing. Thanks for sharing your flickr collection.

  28. Fred Griffiths says:
    August 30th, 2010 4:50 pm

    It was exciting visiting this website and reading about the (former) North Western Railways (NWR).

    My father was an engine driver stationed at Mach from 1955 to 1969. As a child I have fond memories of the adventures on the railroad from Mach to Quetta. We roamed the hills around Mach, and at times, if I missed the train at the station, he would blow the whistle repeatedly for me to run around the hills. I would dangle my father’s lunch and he would reach over the railing of his steam engine grinding and slowly pushing the train and he would easily pick the tiffin out of my hand! The train travelled so slowly up the steep gradient out of Mach that one could get on and off the train with ease.
    Unfortunately, I have not been back to the Bolan pass after I left for Lahore in 1969. The railroad to Quetta is indeed a great achievement.

  29. Owais Mughal says:
    August 30th, 2010 8:23 pm

    Thanks for visiting these pages and sharing with us your memories of Bolan pass. I’ve heard that whoever takes a train trip through Bolan gets bound to this landscape forever.And not to mention the Engineering marvel of railways through Bolan which attracts rail and civil engg. enthusiasts from all over.

  30. Jawaid Islam says:
    January 13th, 2011 2:09 pm

    Extremely informative piece Owais, makes me want to take the trip myself; I wonder if its safe nowadays to take the trip.

  31. January 18th, 2011 12:17 am

    Dear Sir or Madam

    I have an interesting story about the Bolan railway.

    In January 1968 I took a double-decker bus beneath the rail bridge at Dozan with the assistance of the Quetta Tourist Office (Mr Ahmed Nissah Rathore), the railway community and the Quetta Highway department, because the road bridge beneath the railway was too low.

    During the 6 days it took to clear the path we rode on the Inspector´s trolley to Mach, and each day the trains would hoot and wave at us.

    There is a sequel to this story, if you would like it . . . !

    If you view the Albert Tours page of my website – first tab, at the foot of the page is a photo of the bus beneath the bridge.

    I have many more!

    I do hope you can reply,

    Sincerely, Andrew

  32. Adnan says:
    January 23rd, 2011 9:32 pm

    It is a master piece of engineering.For those who want to visit please contact Frontier Corps Wing located at Mach.Securuty,food and a decent bed can be ensured.

  33. January 7th, 2016 1:50 pm

    [...] — part of an endless web of South Asian hospitality — to look after me in Quetta. I spent the train ride in a “family” compartment with an older religious couple, looking out the window at the [...]

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