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The Life and Times of General Sir James Browne
Chapter XVI - The Hurnai Railway: (ii) 1883-7


WE may now proceed with the more important particulars of the work, of which we have just given a general sketch: first touching again on that section of that great oval route which was constructed on the narrow gauge and was under Colonel Lindsay’s charge.

Colonel Lindsay’s Bolan Railway was undertaken at a time when the political outlook rendered it necessary to mobilise (a portion of the Indian army. The project was prepared by Colonel Lindsay, R.E., for laying down the rails on the surface of the Bolan Pass, which practically is the bed of the Bolan River, dry for the greater part of the year, but liable to floods. Colonel Lindsay was compelled to surrender charge of the work on account of an accident, and was succeeded by Mr. O’Callaghan, C.I.E., by whom it was carried to its completion under great difficulties, owing to the unhealthy season of 1885. The line runs for the first forty miles with a fairly good gradient, and, although liable to be flooded in the lower part of the Pass, is in ordinary seasons an excellent working railway. The steep gradient in the higher part of the Pass prohibits the construction of a broad gauge line, and the last part is on the metre gauge up a very steep incline. From the top of the Pass, about 6,000 feet, it runs in the level up to Quetta. It is now proposed to substitute for this narrow gauge portion a broad gauge line on another system, a development of that with which visitors to the Righi are familiar, and when this latter is carried out there will be two lines of broad gauge from India to Beloochistan.

To turn now to Colonel Browne’s line. He had joined at Sibi to start the arrangements and work in October, 1883. He had, as above stated, arranged to organise the collection of labour, material, and supplies, and to begin the work itself in the lowest of the sections—Sibi to Nari; to concentrate the labour in the warmer sections and localities in the winter, and to change thence to the higher and cooler spots in the summer. This answered perfectly, except in respect of outbreaks of cholera, which seemed to be affected less by climate than by the large gatherings at various spots from time to time of troops and followers and Commissariat, with their attendants, supplies, and transport for the frontier posts at and about Quetta.

We have noted that in consequence of departmental changes Browne found himself at once hampered by intolerable checks, interferences, and prohibitions. The initial auxiliary works, always customary as conducive to economy both of time and money, such as tram lines, rolling stock, etc., were prohibited, leading at once to an enormous loss, owing to the consequent unavoidable substitution of camel carriage. Even the acquisition and use of the juniper forests, which provided the only wood that grew in those parts, were disallowed, however judicious the arrangement, and however acceptable to the people. In every sort of point, in fact, which should be left to the chief Engineer and in which he should have a free hand, he was dealt with as if only an executive—nay, as if only an assistant—Engineer, and was kept under inquisition and restrained by orders from an unskilled and unqualified control, with the natural results of delay and expense and confusion. There was even much time lost, from the same cause, before he was supplied with instruments or survey appliances, though this surveying (preparatory to designing and estimating the operation) was obviously as essential work as any that there could be, at the start.

After, however, Browne had joined his work and found that his masters were changed, and that he was likely to have to think more of his estimates, he suited his arrangements and work to the state of the case, and sent in the customary “preliminary sketch estimates ” without any avoidable delay. But, at the same time, he stated and showed first that, without any doubt whatever, these were of no value at all; and next that no estimates could, by any possibility, be prepared that would at all be a useful guide to the eventual cost until close on completion.

At the outset, however, the interference described did not last for more than the first three months. In that time, owing to Browne’s energy, good communication was made up to the first point of serious difficulty; and in six months—i.e. by the end of March, 1884, when the weather began to get hot—three tunnels were in full progress, the foundations of numerous bridges had been securely laid, contracts for work and machinery had been entered into, and enormous quantities of rock work had been carried out. But, as will be seen, the interference was afterwards resumed, and with greater virulence.

It has been shown that the arrangements and understanding which were agreed to by the Government before Browne left Simla to start the work of the line included this provision—that he was to push on the line as rapidly as possible without waiting for the estimates. It had all been fully discussed, and there was no sort of doubt about the meaning of the instruction or understanding. There was not to be any omission or neglect of estimating—and, in fact, there were estimates framed from the very beginning, but undeniably these were quite useless—and, under the political exigencies of the case, speed in the construction of the line was the primary and essential necessity, estimates and similar matters of ordinary departmental routine being left to be carried out as speedily as the circumstances of such an exceptional case might admit. These instructions were frequently repeated to him from high quarters, from time to time, as a bona fide, though not official matter.

There was difficulty again raised later on about this preparation of estimates; for the whole nature of the work, and of the route even, when once finally known, with its miles of tunnels, made it quite certain that it must be impossible to foresee at any time what the details of the works with their invisible sites must be, or to prepare, until close on completion, estimates that could serve any useful purpose, or give a clue to the eventual cost. This subject is dealt with later on separately, in order to prevent its interfering with the general narrative of the work. With these remarks we quit here the subject of the estimates.

To turn to the work itself, the Hurnai line was one that involved many classes of engineering difficulties, which have been already indicated, and may be summed up as follows:

The known difficulties lay in the inaccessibility of the sites both generally and in detail; the gravity and variety of the engineer work involved, and the impossibility of examining and realising its details beforehand; the barren, mountainous, and desert character of the route of the line; the wild and warlike character of the sparse population that occupied it; the necessity for importing everything, whether in the shape of supplies, of labour, or of material and machinery; the narrowness and depth of the defiles; the force and fluctuations of the rivers and torrents that traversed them; the want of space; the excessive graduations of height; and lastly, the great variations of temperature, which severely affected the workpeople.

Besides these there were the unknown difficulties that eventually developed and are dealt with at greater length farther on; arising from the excessive rainfall and the consequent floods sweeping away the works and plant time after time, especially in the earlier stages; and then the outbreaks of sickness, such as virulent and continuous cholera, fever, and scurvy. These epidemics were brought about, it is supposed, or at any rate increased, by the great gatherings of Commissariat cattle and of troops and their followers, in the roads and grounds in the near neighbourhood, at and en route to Quetta, in expectation of war.

But engineering difficulties were not the only ones encountered in this great undertaking. On a line which runs from nearly one of the hottest parts in India, only a little above the level of the sea, to a height some thousands of feet greater than that of any railway in the world, great extremes of heat and cold were unavoidably experienced. The thermometer has been known to register in the Nari Valley as much as 1180 Fahr. in the house, while on the higher part of the work it has been as low as 180 below zero in the verandah during the winter. The cold was so great as to prevent the laying of the permanent way, rails snapping from the frost.

Political and military difficulties were also expected, but they did not arise, or at any rate prove serious; which was probably due, in a measure at least, to Browne’s special and mysterious influence with the natives, and especially the Ghilzyes.

To these must be further added those very serious difficulties that were from time to time occasioned by climatic and special causes.

In August and September, 1884, the last months of the first year of work—a very early stage of the enterprise—came, alas! the first great check to progress—in the appearance of a regular plague of sickness, fever, and scurvy (but not cholera) among the workpeople and the staff, of whom large numbers died, while the rest were so prostrated as to be fit for very little work. Sixty per cent., for instance, of the Sappers were in the hospital.

Then in November, the beginning of the second year of work, matters grew from bad to worse, and severe cholera appeared; labour was greatly weakened, and all the Afghans deserted! This cholera reappeared in the following May (1885) and spread severely, Captain Ewen Cameron, R.E., a very valuable officer on the Bolan Road, falling a victim to it. On the Hurnai itself Mr. Sullivan, the bridging contractor, Mr. Phillips, a New York engineer in charge of the tunnelling apparatus, and the platelaying contractor, Mr. Barnes—all these valuable engineers of the line and many others died and were lost to the work. This great sickness continued in June, in which month fourteen out of twenty-four officers were crushed with fever; while some whole classes of employees, such as the telegraph and post office clerks, fled in a body, and work was stopped for the time. After a while these exceptionally serious epidemics ceased; the milder customary illnesses, however, continuing as a matter of course.

But in this same year, 1885, the second year of excessive sickness, there appeared another great and unexpected cause of loss, delay, and trouble, in the occurrence of floods of unheard-of force. They began early in the year, and were due to a continuous rainfall during its first three months, far exceeding any that had been experienced for sixty years. Till then the average of the usual rainfall for four months had been 3 inches. In 1883 it had been 2.28 inches, and in 1884 it had been 4*89 inches; but in this year, 1885, it amounted in those three months to 19.27 inches, or 8J times what was expected! A veritable deluge!

The last of the heavy floods that consequently ensued lasted for six days in April. It swept away several bridges and many miles of temporary roads, caused numerous accidents, and did an infinity of mischief, destroying camping-grounds, giving rise to malaria, and stopping the supply of food.

Then after an interval of five weeks the floods again came down, more severe than ever; the temporary bridges that had been erected were swept away, and the line was cut in two; and this state of successive catastrophes went on without cessation till the end of May. Then, however, it stopped, and nothing so serious ever occurred again.

The Press occasionally showed its wisdom and knowledge, and suggested that Browne might have foreseen these floods—“ The veriest tyro would be expected to know of their annual occurrence! ” Obviously there are floods and floods!

Some personal sketches of the work may now be conveniently given, occasionally including some of Browne’s, but arranged chiefly with regard to the order of the route.

“General Features.—A railway which starts at a level of about 500 feet above the sea, and rises to an elevation of 6,800 feet, must necessarily present great difficulties in execution; besides, the features of this inhospitable region are exceptionally formidable. Just beyond the little village of Nari, a few miles from Sibi, the first of the great difficulties on the line had to be encountered. Here three considerable streams unite to form the Nari, and, although having but little water in ordinary seasons, are torrents in time of flood, filling up the whole gorge for some miles, and involving an immense quantity of heavy embankments, tunnels, and cuttings. Yet for many months the work of the engineers halted, as their half-complete embankments, with the staging and scaffolding of their bridges, were washed away, and until the line could be completed through this gorge, permanent way and other materials could not be carried forward to the upper part of the line. This is one of the most weird tracts through which a railway has ever been carried. The hills, absolutely bare, rise above the valley for many thousands of feet in fantastic pinnacles and cliffs. It is a scene of wildest desolation.

“At Kuchali also a very dangerous tunnel had to be made. So many casualties occurred, owing to the tunnel falling in, that at last no workmen could be got to enter it, except at a rate of wage fivefold that of even the high rate prevailing on the line.

“The Chuppur Rift.—The Nari gorge traversed, the line ascends along a mountain valley presenting no difficulties greater than are ordinarily met with in mountain lines until the Chuppur Rift is reached, a curious freak of nature whicn will certainly before long become a favourite place of interest for Indian tourists. Here the great spurs of a rocky mountain many hundred feet in height cross the drainage of the country and present apparently a perfectly insuperable barrier. On close approach there appears, however, a great rift transverse to the line of mountain, several hundred feet high, and with just width enough for laden camels to pass along the stony bed, through which the waters there, from what might have been an extensive lake, now find their way. In dry seasons the bottom of the rift presents merely the appearance of a very narrow rocky stream, difficult but not impracticable for a horseman; but in floods a grand volume of water rushes through with a depth of from 30 to 40 feet The character of the rock forbids the idea of traversing it by means of a ledge, and the plan adopted was that of two lines of continuous tunnels, one on each side of the rift, ending at points opposite and on a level with each other, where they Ťare connected and the rift is spanned by an iron girder bridge. To have constructed these tunnels in the ordinary way from either end would have involved a great expenditure of time owing to the extreme hardness of the rock, and it was determined to effect the task by means of the combination of a number of adits or approaches or short tunnels from the precipitous sides of the rift, with the interior passages, ana it is in the construction of these that the engineers and workmen were called on to display a degree of physical courage as great as is ever needed in any operation of life. The only way of making these adits or subsidiary tunnels was by letting down workmen with ropes from the top of the cliff several hundred feet above the point of operation. The first man down had to Sain a footing by driving a crowbar into the perpenicular wall; after the first crowbar others were driven in, and then a platform was erected from which blasting operations could begin. So singular and difficult a piece of engineering has probably seldom or never been accomplished before, and the name of the gallant officer, Captain Buchanan Scott, who led the way in this perilous task, deserves perpetual record in connection with the work. Six openings were made on one side of the cliff for one tunnel and six on the other, and galleries driven into them till points were reached from where the main tunnel could be constructed right and left, so that the work could be carried on by fourteen separate gangs; and in this way the whole tunnel was blasted out in a few months.

“Louise Margaret Bridge.—The tunnel completed, there remained the erection of the girder, and this is about 220 feet above the bed of the gorge. The erection of it was not the least of the difficulties overcome by the ingenuity and energy of General Browne and Captain Scott. This is the bridge which was opened by H.R.H. the Duchess of Connaught, the first lady, we believe, who ever visited the spot, and was named “ Louise Margaret ” in her honour. The elevation of the Chuppur Rift is about 5,300 feet or one mile above the sea; from thence the line rises with a ruling gradient of 1 in 45 till the summit level of 6,800 feet is jeached, first, however, passing through another very difficult point known as Mud Gorge. Here the difficulty is not rock, but a mountain mass which is little better than hard mud, which had already made several bad slips carrying away the whole of the line, and threatening more slips in the future. It will be some time before the regime of Mud Gorge will be thoroughly established, and the line attain a tone of durability.”

Another sketch runs thus:

“From the summit level of 6,800 feet the line descends to the rocky pass or gorge of Garkhai, 5,700 feet, where it emerges on the elevated tableland of Pesheen, and thence proceeds on a fairly level line to the foot of the Khwaia Amran range, which separates Pesheen from Afghanistan. At Bostan, twenty miles from Garkhai, a branch runs back to Quetta twenty miles, and on the top of the Bolan Pass twenty-five miles farther on.”

A third sketch is as follows :

“The greater part of the country traversed is almost without inhabitants, who do not grow enough food for their own consumption. For miles ana miles there is no scene of vegetation, so that the whole of the workmen had to be fed by supplies brought from a distance, and the feeding of the large gangs, who averaged about 30,000 men on the works for many months, had to be arranged for. The popular notion that malaria is due to vegetation in tropical countries is dispelled on learning that these desolate tracts, without a bush or blade of grass, have been the scene of fever surpassing in virulence anything within ordinary Indian experience. The whole line of the work is dotted with stones to mark the graves of the unfortunate wretches whom the high wages offered have attracted from their homes in India or Afghanistan. In one gang of 200 workmen the deaths from fever for a long time were recorded at the average rate of ten per day. In other words, the whole gang would have died out, if not renewed, in about three months. It is almost needless to add that the European engineers have had no immunity from illness; many have left with shattered constitution, and those that remain are all more or less worn out by sickness, fatigue, and climate."

Further remarks are not needed in regard to the construction of the line, and we may therefore now revert to the subject of the estimates, which have been already touched on.

On this subject “it would,” Browne had said, “be as impossible for me to estimate what the Humai Railway would cost as it would be for Lord Salisbury to estimate what it might cost England to go to war with Russia.” Having examined the route and considered the nature of the ground and localities involved, he had come with perfect justice and sound wisdom to this conclusion and announced it boldly.

The subject is too technical to deal with fully in these pages; but it may be said at once that, as in spite of all Browne’s statements and their support by his professional superiors some of the very high officials were not satisfied with the absence of any estimate on which they could rely for guidance, an inquiry was instituted in 1886, and the experts engaged made a report which, instead of censuring, led to commendation, and to Browne being honoured with the K.C.S.I.

The worry and anxiety all this had entailed on Browne, when already burdened with the tremendous difficulties of his task, cannot be adequately described, and would probably have crushed any one else. To those who were then cognisant of the state of matters it was a marvel that he could bear up against it as he did.

But a few further remarks regarding the estimates so persistently demanded, in spite of Browne’s statements and explanation, may perhaps be usefully added. The estimates which he said he could not then prepare are what are technically called detailed estimates, in which the cost of each work or item is shown, arrived at by giving the dimensions and then multiplying the quantities of work involved by the rates at which it is assumed such work can be carried out. This is simple and straightforward when the dimensions are certain and the rates well known or settled by contract; but it is quite otherwise when, as in the present case, the sites of the individual works, their details, their foundations, the character of the rocks to be tunnelled, and all such data for guidance in the engineering were entirely wanting at first and could become known only as the several works progressed. In addition to this were

the repetitions of work that were made necessary by the floods and similar causes. In such circumstances it does not require an expert to realise that no estimates could be prepared on which reliance could be placed. All that was possible was to send in “completion reports” showing the actual cost of completed portions of work.

Browne’s case, it may be said, reminds one, as to the inquisitor’s pressure put upon him, of Keats’s lines—

Half ignorant, he turns an easy wheel,
That sets sharp racks at work to pinch and feel.

The worry was continuous. Browne had submitted in December, 1884, an approximate estimate for 2611 lakhs, and urged that, with work going on at high pressure, no more detailed estimates could be drawn much before the actual completion of the line. The reply of the Government was, “The prosecution of the railway is of the first importance. Consequently the works must not be interfered with by the preparation of estimates” In spite of this, the pressure from his immediate superior was maintained, while all the time frequent commendations were bestowed by the Secretary of State and the Government of India on General Browne and his staff for the rapid progress made.

It was admitted that if war had broken out in 1887, the line would have more than compensated for any excess of cost. Short staff for the special non-engineering duties caused most of the difficulties complained of—no local auditor, inadequate account office, staff for stores inadequate. The conclusion of the report was, “ Great credit is due to the Engineer-in-chief and his staff for the rapidity with which they have pushed on the work, notwithstanding the difficulties of every description.” Such was the judgment of the highest officials of the Government of India, who thanked them for their able and comprehensive report.

Some further pertinent facts bearing on the undue departure by the officials from the bona fide understanding on which Browne’s work was being conducted may be now given. These are the outcome not of any statements from Browne, but of the investigations of the most cognisant and capable Engineer officials under the Government. The circumstances, if they did not altogether account for such irregularities as had occurred, at any rate very largely excused them. The extreme urgency of the case was evidenced by the action of Government, and by its orders clearly anticipating the immediate commencement of work. It was not surprising that after reading the letters General Browne thought more of progress than of estimates. If he set to work forthwith to align the road and start operations, he would have no time for estimating. At first, too, Browne had under him few but inexperienced officers, ignorant of the language, etc. In April, 1884, the Secretary of State had telegraphed instructions for pressing on the work, and the Government had replied so as to show that they regarded it as of pressing necessity that the lower section of the road should be completed in the next six months. In November, 1884, the Secretary of State wired, “When will the line be completed?” to which the answer sent (Browne’s) was, “ With money freely granted, in two and a half years ”—a promise, it may be noted, redeemed by the fact that the engines ran over the line in two years and six months.

As time progressed, the fame of these stupendous works attracted the attention of tourists and others of eminence, who could speak with weight, and the works were much visited in 1886. Browne’s old friend and commander, Sir Donald Stewart, had seen and been much interested in them, and had shown himself greatly pleased at the splendid health, physique, and high spirits of the men, as well as their military smartness and discipline. One of the visitors was the correspondent of a leading London journal; and he, after five days of close inspection of the works, commented on the contrast between what he had before heard and what he had now seen of the line, especially of the Chuppur Rift, which “completely exceeded his wildest imaginings of what human skill and energy could do.” Another visitor was Lord Rosebery, who, besides examining and discussing the railway, referred to frontier questions, about which his eyes (as he seemed to admit) were opened in a way which he had not expected; and who also appeared to be specially struck with the interest and enthusiasm of the officers and men in the work—“Their soul seemed to be in it.” Just so!

During 1886 the sickness and difficulties that had been troubling the work were not so mischievous as before, and it had now progressed rapidly. Towards the end of the year it was hoped that the line might be opened on February 14th following—Jubilee Day in India—but the opening ceremony did not come off till March 27th, when the Chuppur Bridge was finished, and an engine ran over the whole line from Sibi to Quetta.

A very distinguished company, including the Duke of Connaught and Lord Roberts, were present to witness that ceremony, and it was performed by H.R.H. the Duchess of Connaught, who named the bridge, and after presiding over a very pleasant meeting desired Browne to address the natives for her, and express her gratification with the great work—the grandest in India.

The story which has now been told of the construction of the Hurnai Railway has included such matters as the overwhelming floods, the devastating epidemics and pestilence, and other material difficulties —some of them "quite exceptional and unexpected— with which Browne had to contend; and it will be recognised how severe a task it was to deal with them and how great a feat to overcome them so successfully as he did But, in addition to these, he was further oppressed by the official troubles, as explained. We have now to deal only with the concluding episodes, which lay in the clearing up of the misunderstandings that still existed in the mind of the Viceroy, and with the authorities in England; all due primarily to the error that still prevailed— respecting the exceptional arrangement on which the enterprise had been started—having never been properly corrected.

The Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, had never seen the work, but had been much troubled with the apparent muddle in its official management, and it was primarily essential to disabuse him of any erroneous impressions he may have formed. The work had been started before he entered on the viceroyalty, and it was therefore possible that he was quite unaware of the special features of the case—particularly those of its earlier days; he was, moreover, deprived latterly of the sound guidance of Sir Donald Stewart, who alone had a correct and thorough knowledge of the circumstances and understandings on which the work had been started, but had left India, and joined the Council in London, when Browne’s difficulties were becoming serious.

Browne’s furlough had been sanctioned, but before taking advantage of it he turned off immediately after the opening ceremony to interview Lord Dufferin, whom he found in a very dissatisfied state of mind. Learning that he had been very seriously misled as to the facts, Browne at first caused much irritation by affirming this to be the case; but remaining cool and firm, he was at length enabled to state specifically the initial and crucial circumstances of which the Viceroy had evidently had no knowledge whatever. Browne had carefully kept all demi-official letters, and now produced those he had received telling him to adopt the very line of action for which he had been latterly taken to task. This was a startling revelation, and at once swept away the mistaken ideas that Lord Dufferin had formed. With his eyes thus opened, having arrived at a true understanding of the case, he corrected the tenour of his former communication to England, and supported very warmly the representations Browne made to the home authorities on reaching London.

Browne’s arrival in England was at a happy epoch —the first jubilee of the Queen. He was heartily received at the India Office, and his services and those of his staff were warmly acknowledged. He was now a persona grata in high quarters, and received the K.C.S.I.

The Gazettes testified to the great self-sacrifice displayed, the grave and disheartening difficulties successfully overcome under circumstances which have seldom had a parallel, and tendered the thanks of the Government to Browne and his staff.

During all 1888 he enjoyed his well-earned holiday —and had a thorough rest, though not an idle -one. He was ever engaged on some subject of public interest; and then, in 1889, he was selected by Lord Roberts for the post of Quartermaster-General of the army in India—the first officer of his corps who had ever been admitted into that very close borough, the army staff at headquarters in its highest posts.

Lord Dufferin afterwards went over the line himself towards the end of the year, having till then been prevented from doing so by other engagements.

While engaged on his work, Browne, it may be remarked, in continuation of what has been already said about his double, was being constantly greeted as the Mukkur hajee, the old assumption being continued by his Ghilzye admirers that it was not for them to comment on his having become a Sahib. In fact, their original ideas had become more and more strengthened and confirmed by the apparently permanent disappearance of the real Mullah himself from Mukkur and that neighbourhood.

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