Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Decline of Pakistan Railway

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The Pakistan Railway has been destroyed on purpose. The bus mafia is so strong, it has so much money, it can do what it wills. Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, the Railways Minister is the biggest transport tycoon in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, there is no major town in the province from which he does not have buses plying to Karachi. He never wanted the railway - even the vestige that was left of it by the turn of the century - to survive. He nicely put paid to it.

Bridge on the Soan River on the Rawalpindi-Daudkhel line. The Soan Bridge Railway Station is the white-washed building to the right. This is one of the most dramatic railway bridges still existing
But Bilour was small fry. The malaise began more than forty years ago. After taking over, Ayub Khan, the military dictator, instituted the huge subsidy on diesel reducing its price to less than half that of petrol. Several rich Khans from North and South Waziristan then controlled the truck business of Pakistan and this was to mollify them and keep them aligned with the dictator. The result was that much of the freight that railway (then still called North Western Railway to be shortly thereafter renamed Pakistan Western Railway) hauled was stolen away from it by the suddenly expanded truck fleet.

At the Lahore Cantonment Railway Station

The railway began its long journey to decline. But it was that accursed Zia who put the still living body into its coffin by establishing National Logistic Cell (NLC). That huge fleet of lorries and trailers running with clockwork took away the remaining freight from the railway. Now, there is no railway, not even in ultra-efficient Japan, that can earn profit simply by hauling passengers. Revenue comes from freight haulage. In the case of a long and narrow country like Pakistan, this was the best way of moving cargo: after the first 300 km, the cost of hauling by rail falls to less than 50 percent that of road haulage.

The ruined station of Alam Reg on the Lonely Line

But NLC was making money for the army, so the undermining of one of our great national assets was disregarded. Few will remember that this business was overseen by one General Saeed Qadir who was Zia's Minister for Railways - Bilour's old counterpart. If the US government wants to revamp Amtrak to make it preferable over air travel, they can surely do it. But in Pakistan I do not see the railway ever making a comeback. For one, we have antiquated tracks, most of which have not been renewed since they were laid down nearly a century ago. The transport mafia is far too strong for the country's politicians whose own lack of rectitude gelds them leaving them unable to take any significant nationalistic initiatives.

A nameless and ruined station east of Isa Tahar

Ah, what wouldn't I give to be able to get on, say, Khyber Mail from Lahore at 8.00 AM, watch the countryside slide past, eat a leisurely meal in the dining car and sleep in the comfort of the air conditioned coupe. The next morning, get into the toilet, shave and shower and be ready for business in Karachi! I remember a time, only twenty years ago, when I at the fag end of a journey would be somewhere in the middle of the country like Sadiqabad or Rohri. I would go to the railway station and there would be seven or eight (possibly more) trains headed for Lahore before the day was out. Getting on Awam Express from these places was ideal because it put you in Lahore at 5.00 the next morning. You slept comfortably and had the full day to work. By the way, this was after the trains were reordered: from the seven-bogey trains, they were turned into, I think, twenty-three bogies. Suddenly, there was enough room in the trains and tickets were easy to get. The 1990s were like the final dying gasp of the Pakistan Railway.

The Narrow Gauge loco shed at Hindubagh that became Muslimbagh in 1960 or ’62

As for the infrastructure, the less said the better. We have lost tracks in the Zhob Valley, Kohat-Thal and Bannu-Kalabagh (Narrow Gauge), the Mirpur Khas-Jhudo loop in Sindh (Metre Gauge) and several bits of Broad Gauge because these lines were abandoned long ago. The saddest is the loss of the Khyber Pass train.

The Muslimbagh Railway Station has been taken over to become a private home

The Lonely Line, running between Quetta and Zahedan (Iran) is virtually defunct. It is in such bad shape, probably never having been upgraded since 1914 when it was first laid, that trains virtually have to crawl along at about 20 km/h. No one now takes the Taftan Express between Quetta and Zahedan because passengers are in very real danger of being on the train for days on end. Even the freight trains take several days for the journey. In March 2009, I saw some railway staff at the ruined station of Isa Tahar and stopped to chat with them. They were waiting for some train en route to Zahedan. It was about 10.00 in the morning and the train should have passed through sometime the previous evening. We drove on to Quetta and after about 150 km we saw the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't getting anywhere near Isa Tahar for another couple of days! On this beautiful historical line, you find lengths of track with no ballast underneath and the sand blown away by the infamous sandstorms of this region. The Lonely Line, a name given it by the British builders because of the sparse population of the region its traverses, could have been one great attraction for train buffs. And don't forget the Zhob Valley Railway when you speak of attractions: this line has the beautiful Kan Mehtarzai railway station sitting at 2224 metres (7295 feet) which used to get snowed under. Years ago, I have heard such tales from Station Masters who served on this line when it ran until 1986.

Also bring to mind the destroyed bridges of the Nari River Gorge by which the daily Sibi-Khost service operated. The bridges were destroyed by the Baloch after the dastardly killing of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. It wasn't the fault of the railway that Nawab Sahib was laid low by a cowardly dictator.

Rare northbound freight train negotiates the siding at Jhalar Railway Station on the Rawalpind-Daudhel line

This was the Baloch people's own asset, but once wily leaders misguide ordinary folks, they see no reason. Three bridges were dynamited and the service to that magical place Khost brought to an end. This total disregard for an important asset has resulted in the destruction of some of the most picturesque railway stations. Oh, how much we have lost. But no tears were wasted, no sleep lost. No one fretted. We simply let the once great railway system hurtle down the dark tube.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

12 Comments:

At April 22, 2013 at 11:50 AM, Anonymous Malik Sadiq Awan said...

Everyone knows where Mandra-Chakwal-Bhun rail track has gone? I use to commute on that route when I was working in Rawalpindi. Now I keep thinking who will pull the bricks from the railway buildings on the route.

 
At April 22, 2013 at 5:34 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

The post make me cry. I have been using trains all my life. I use to take trains when I can because it used to be cheap, safe and easy. But, alas, the railway is dead. No one can salvage it. What to talk of adding some thing and improving with development in technologies, we have wasted what British left for us. Balore and General from Chakwal and all other involved are answerable. No?

 
At April 22, 2013 at 6:03 PM, Anonymous Qasim on Twitter said...

I'm hoping that the Railways and PIA get turned into a public corporation, as Imran Khan outlined in his policy papers.

 
At April 26, 2013 at 5:54 PM, Anonymous Nayyar Hashmey on Twitter said...

What a fantastic thought. Our railway is not overtaking air travel. Khota rehrhis are taking over Pak Railway services

 
At May 6, 2013 at 5:04 PM, Anonymous sa said...

PIA will be dead by December, as the MD of the corporation has declared recently. The railway now runs only about five services. These will very likely cease about the same time as the last PIA flight lands. The bus mafia is victorious, the corrupt governments of Pakistan have once again submitted.

 
At December 19, 2014 at 5:46 PM, Blogger Muhammad Imran Saeed said...

Sir, a wonderful piece and I could sense the emotions attached here. It's sad that we negligently lost and are losing this asset, more pathetic is the fact that the people sitting on the helm of affairs are cold hearted. I bet they have never tasted this romance of Railways as if they never boarded a train in their life; what a pity!

 
At December 20, 2014 at 5:03 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Much emotion is truly attached to all my work on the railway. I spent my childhood riding steam locos at the Garhi Shahu steam shed. Fond memories of Kharian to Karachi trips by Khyber Mail.

 
At March 22, 2015 at 9:55 PM, Blogger Mudassar mushtaq gill said...

we all should struggle to restore our glorious Railway and PIA romances.

 
At March 23, 2015 at 11:36 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

However, nothing is being done Mudassar.

 
At November 1, 2016 at 10:42 PM, Blogger Kaliunis Fernandez said...

Thank you for your eloquent piece.

My study of the NW region of the South Asian Subcontinent is embryonic, having been ignited by my Ethnographical promptings.

No other area in the world has witnessed such a crisscrossing of cultures for centuries in such a slim corridor; its patrimony is a Global treasure.

How wanting is the vision for a cohesive sustainable railway logistic for the Region. Perhaps we must wait with confidence for the Chinese-supported Gwadar rail artery to tempt Vision 2030 to think again about the serviceability of the National Railway.

The Region is so precious. Let's keep optimistic, with Herculean patience.

 
At March 29, 2017 at 12:03 PM, Blogger Suhayl Shah said...

I have spent my childhood in the railway town of Samasatta. Back in the glory days of steam engines, i used to spend entire days at the railway station. Being a junction and having a loco shed, the station used to be town on its own. Unfortunately today non of the glory remains. The platforms lie empty with hardly any passengers.

Mr Salman Rashid has done great research into the death of the PR. I really appreaciate your travelogues and the way you have written about the dismatled lines and bridges.

I think there is still hope. There is a chance of rehabilitation of the PR under the CPEC. It might perhaps become something modern.

 
At April 5, 2017 at 2:57 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Suhayl Shah, I am now a complete cynic. I don't think anyone is really interested in regaining the railway's lost glory. Not until there is plenty of money to be made from any such act.

 

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

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Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

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