Khyber Pass - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
Go to content

Khyber Pass

Khyber Pass: Written on 01 April 2019

I’ve just been re-reading a fascinating book I had found whilst browsing dusty shelves in a bookshop in Rawalpindi when I was last in Pakistan (1997). It is called “Adventure Through Khyber” by Victor Bayley, who, 99 years ago this month in 1920, was appointed ‘Executive Engineer in the Railway Department of the Government of India’. His task: to design and supervise the construction of a railway through the Khyber Pass, a railway which would eventually link far off Bombay to the Afghanistan Border at Landi Khana. It seems that Bayley was surprisingly ignorant of the region and the enormities of his task when he got the job. First of all, he had to learn quickly about tribal customs and loyalties. Bayley set up his HQ at Landi Kotal, at the head of the Khyber Pass. Here is a quote from his book:

“I was told the tribes were very restive and hostile. They are a wild crowd and, apparently, they’ve sworn to capture and torture any railway officers who dare to start work in their territory. The temperatures are extreme – below freezing in winter and over 120 degrees (Fahrenheit) in summer in the shade – except that there is no shade! Sand fly fever is bad in the summer.”

Before starting work, Bayley went to see the Political Officer who told him, “The whole of your railway will lie in No Man’s Land where there is no law and order other than tribal custom. Don’t go out after dusk; this is an absolute rule. Never wander far from the road without an escort. The military will not provide escorts, so I’ll arrange for you to have tribal escorts!”

After many disasters, serious illnesses, despair and disillusionment, Bayley completed his task and there was an official opening on 2 November 1925. The Viceroy, the Marquess of Reading, was unable to perform the opening ceremony as planned because his wife was seriously ill. Sadly, Victor Bayley was also unable to attend because a week or two before the Grand Opening he was sent back to UK seriously ill. At the opening ceremony the high officials took all the credit and Victor Bayley, without whose dedication and skill there would have been no railway, barely got a mention.

One report I have found on the Internet suggests that Bayley died in the Khyber 3 months before the opening ceremony but that contradicts the text of Bayley’s own book. If anyone has any further information, please do contact me.

Above: Some of the mainly British regimental badges carved into the side of the Khyber Pass close to the summit. (c) Tony Cunnane 1970
Below: The foreground in this image was the Pakistan Border in 1970, leading to a short-no-man's land and the Afghan border post. Those three casual individuals were from the RAF Central Flying School on a day off during a visit to the PAF Academy. (c) Tony Cunnane 1970

When I was based at the Pakistan Air Force Academy in 1969/70, I went up the Khyber Pass as far as the Afghan Border on three separate occasions, but the railway was not in operation for unspecified reasons.
Back to content