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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

Appendix III — 3 Section, 9 NZ Railway Survey Company, and the Wadi Halfa Extension, 1941

page 731

Appendix III
3 Section, 9 NZ Railway Survey Company, and the Wadi Halfa Extension, 1941

(By Major T. H. F. Nevins

To relieve the concentration of shipping at Suez supplies were coming in through Port Sudan. From here they were transported by Sudan Railways to Wadi Halfa and then by barge down the Nile to Shallal, where some were again loaded into railway wagons. Engineering and other stores for Qassassin and depots on the Ismailia Canal went through the Aswan Dam locks and completed the journey to the Delta by water. During low Nile, trouble was experienced with sand banks below Wadi Halfa and the first part of the river journey was unreliable for about three months each year.

Orders were therefore received to locate a railway downstream from Wadi Halfa to Toshka, a river distance of about 63 miles. In addition a ‘recce’ was to be made for a line to link the 3 ft 6 in. gauge Sudan Railways with the standard gauge Egyptian Railways at Shallal. This link was to be preferably on the eastern side of the river, but an alternative route was also to be investigated on the west bank where the terrain was easier. The key to the western route was the bridge over the Nile near Wadi Halfa and for this purpose a detailed survey was to be made of the Second Cataract some seven or eight miles above the town.

No. 3 Section, less Lieutenant Rushton and with Captain Dibble and Lieutenant Miller attached, was to proceed to Wadi Halfa to locate a line to Toshka following the river flats along the Nile. It was also to survey a bridge site at the Second Cataract so that piers could be located on islands of rock.

No. 1 Section was then nearing the end of the Qena-Safaga job and Captain Halley and part of the section were withdrawn to start work with Lieutenant Rushton at Shallal. Here the difficulty was to break out through the Nile escarpment into the more or less open country of the Nubian Desert. A feasible route was found, Lieutenant Rushton rejoined 3 Section at Wadi Halfa and Captain Halley carried out a rapid ‘recce’ of the remainder of the route on the eastern bank to Wadi Halfa. He then had his vehicles ferried over the Nile and returned along a possible railway route on the left bank to Aswan. The page 732 greatest difficulty he encountered was obtaining permission from the Egyptian authorities guarding the dam to allow his party to cross the Nile by the roadway over the dam.

At Wadi Halfa Captain Dibble and three sappers camped at the Second Cataract and proceeded with the bridge survey. This seemingly difficult job Dibble turned into a simple one by establishing a vertical base line and triangulating onto the rocks below from the top of Abu Sir, a high promontory overlooking the Cataract. A possible bridge site was found where all piers could be founded on rock above water level but the bridge would need to be built on a curve.

In the meantime the rest of the section had been laboriously locating a line through the intensively cultivated plain. Not only had villages to be avoided but irrigable land was so scarce that it also had to be disturbed as little as possible and much of my time was consumed in placating the civil authorities in this respect. The line was therefore mostly located along the foot of the escarpment where it had to avoid extensive burial grounds on the outskirts of each village. The final straw that nearly broke the camel's back was when the Sudan Antiquities Department arrived and insisted on deviations to avoid ancient tombs and the remains of an early Christian church.

At GHQ it had been envisaged that the railway would follow the almost continuous narrow bench of flat land along the river all the way to Toshka, but detailed examination revealed that, from the Egyptian border northwards, this land was under water when the Aswan reservoir was full, what is known locally as ‘high dam’. After passing Debeira therefore, the route had to be taken up the escarpment onto undulating desert at grades that would be regarded in New Zealand as normal but which were twice as steep as the Sudan Railways ‘mountain section’ in the Red Sea Hills. About this time Captain Dibble returned to Cairo and Lieutenant Miller was evacuated to hospital. A more promising route was found starting from a passing loop some 30 miles south of Wadi Halfa (Station 4?). Lieutenant Rushton took command of this work and I went to discuss the situation with the Sudan Railways authorities.

I wanted to know why we had to go to Toshka and if some nearer point would be equally satisfactory. The Traffic Manager told me he had been asked what would solve the low Nile navigation trouble and had replied that it would be nice to have rail as far as Toshka. I therefore set out to find what were the limits of the navigational difficulties. In this quest I received much willing assistance from the railway authorities, who also operated the river steamers and barges. After days on the river in a launch and much questioning of river pilots and village Omdahs, I found that the worst length was the first 15 miles page 733 from Wadi Halfa and that after that, navigation at low Nile gave little trouble.

Politically the railway extension was not popular and I was called to an interview by the Governor-General, Sir Herbert Huddleston. He said a rail connection with Shallal was most undesirable as it would increase Egyptian participation in the Sudan administration, and he was not even happy about the limited penetration into Egypt as far as Toshka. He was also very concerned about the cultivated land that would be occupied by the railway. I was able to tell him that I believed a railway to Faras would solve the navigational trouble. This was an accostage in the Sudan just south of the Egyptian border. As for loss of cultivated land, the reports were much exaggerated and only about 10 acres would have to be sacrificed.

Reactions to the suggestion of a terminal at Faras were not encouraging. GHQ tersely told me to do what I was told and locate a line to Toshka. Lieutenant Rushton by then had completed this but it involved 120 miles of new construction on steep grades and without the watering facilities available at Wadi Halfa. However, the sceptics agreed to inspect the Faras proposition; first the Sudan Railways officials, then Q from HQ Sudan and finally D. Tn from GHQ. Each was won over and the men were brought back to complete the 20 mile Wadi Halfa-Faras survey. Most of this had been located during the first abortive survey down the Nile and the work was completed in time for Lieutenant Rushton and the ORs to return to Almaza for Christmas. I remained at Wadi Halfa to assist the Sudan Railways with the construction.

In surveying their line across the high desert to Toshka Lieutenant Rushton and his men put up some phenomenal performances. Most days five miles were traversed and levelled and on good days over eight miles were covered. This was done during the hot weather when light conditions precluded surveying after about 1300 hours. Work was organised so as to reduce walking to a minimum and staves and instruments were moved on by vehicles which kept up an almost continuous movement along the line. At Toshka and at Faras, where contour surveys were required for the accostages, the men carrying the levelling staves were mounted on donkeys and galloped from point to point like knights of old, or perhaps more truly like Don Quixote on Rosinante.

A year or so later Colonel Simner told me that, when settling up Transportation finances in the Middle East, it was found that Sudan Railways had made no claim for their expenditure on the extension to Faras. They said they had had experience of one season's operation and were so satisfied that they proposed to take it over as a part of the permanent railway system.