Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Last of Pakistan Railway

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Time was when the trains of Pakistan actually departed and arrived as scheduled. There were sometimes delays, but short ones. And of course we were also 'before time' as the conductor guard would tell passengers. In such cases the train would not be permitted on the platform and would be stopped at the inner signal. Travellers would alight, take their baggage and walk out of the station.
 
The Third Class compartments may never have been something to get excited about, but the second (non-a/c) and the air conditioned sleeper cars were very good. Time was when the toilets in the Khyber Mail sleeper car had showers! MY favourite fantasy these days is to relive that long lost glory: getting on the south-bound Khyber Mail at Lahore and as the train draws past Jungshahi east of Karachi, getting into the toilet to shave and shower. Ah, what incredible luxury that was and I still feel myself doing it when I think of it hard enough.


And the Tezgam (lovely name) that never, never, never was late. If I was standing beside the track and a train went by, I could tell it was the Tezgam simply from its breathtaking speed. My childhood memories of this train thundering into Lahore station platform 4 where I stood with an older cousin to receive relatives coming down from the northwest, have a steam engine hauling. As it entered the vast corrugated iron roofed platform, the 'woof-chug' of the steam in the flues and smoke stack would suddenly be magnified by the closed space and for my childish mind this was the greatest sound and the most wondrous sight in the whole world.

Then came those ALCO (American Locomotive Company) snub-nosed diesels with their loud ship's horn and barely audible thrum until it was right by you. Great machines that hauled some great trains across a landscape that few countries can boast of outside the subcontinent. The country was young, barely 15 years old, and the hangover of the Raj kept us going - a sort of inertia from past good governance: police were corrupt all right, but they were very circumspect and secretive about asking and receiving bribes; the bureaucracy worked with just a bit of efficiency; folks obeyed traffic rules and were afraid of law enforcers if they committed an offense; there was no street crime other than the famous pickpocket who one only heard of, never actually saw. And in unison, trains ran on time. And there were trains. On any given day no fewer than thirty passenger trains passed through Lahore Junction in every direction. The station was hive of activity.

The country was still intact; there were no cracks. Then came our disastrous involvement in the Afghan War. For purely personal gain the dictator and his cohorts sat in the lap of Western jihadists. These were non-Muslim jihadists of American and Europe fighting the holy war for Islam. The first cracks in the seams of Pakistan began to appear shortly afterwards. The dictator and his railway minister (another general) created National Logistic Cell to ostensible help the railway haul freight but actually to ferry Western arms to Peshawar and into Afghanistan. The railway's freight was stolen all right and with it the once great institution went on its fast journey into the long, dark night. Remember, not even the most efficient railway system can earn revenue by hauling passenger - even stuffed trains - alone. Revenue comes from freight haulage.

Today nothing works. The country blunders from crisis to crisis and the railway only just trundles along like a wheelbarrow without the wheel.
 

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:30 AM,

14 Comments:

At May 29, 2013 at 11:58 AM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

I don’t know why I would still prefer to board Karakoram Express at 4 PM at Lahore Railway Station and arrive Karachi next morning. This is the only transport I can travel while sleeping. And now I am also hoping for bullet train

 
At May 29, 2013 at 2:14 PM, Anonymous Javeria said...

I do hope Pakistan Railway gets back its lost glory. This indeed is a poor man's travel mode.

 
At May 29, 2013 at 2:37 PM, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Now we can easily narrate and quote the pre-Ballor and post-Ballor era of the deceased Railway after the fair name of our greatest railway minister.

 
At May 29, 2013 at 3:01 PM, Anonymous Umer Jamshed on Twitter said...

I share your sorrow at the state of PR. Someday, I'd love to travel across width & breadth of Pakistan on a train. One day.

 
At May 30, 2013 at 7:12 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Let us see what the new government does in the next five years. There is time, and there are things to do. So, let us just wait and see.

 
At May 30, 2013 at 8:22 AM, Anonymous Mahwish Shaukat on FB said...

To me there has always been a kind of romance attached to train travel. Specially those Old Steam Engines.... down the memory lane, I still remember some of my memorable trip to Karachi from Lahore by train , the bellow of the engine and the whine of the whistle ... me , my family specially my baba (my best friend) , few nice story books & songs ... traveling was fun than..... I used to count all the big stations and small junctions ... still so fresh in my mind .....

 
At May 30, 2013 at 8:24 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Mahwish, Do you remember watching the telegraph poles go by? The wires went up and down, up and down as they sagged between the poles. Even as a grown up, I have sat by the window and been mesmerised by the wires.

 
At May 30, 2013 at 7:49 PM, Anonymous Mahwish Shaukat on FB said...

Oh yes Salman sahib those swinging wires..... ah name anything which I don't like or admire while watching outside the window.... tracks, wires, those dry bushes in the desert, life in small villages oh yes and those lights in some far flung areas at night... or it could be another train passed by..... last I traveled when I was in my early teens.... longgg ago.

 
At May 30, 2013 at 9:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Railway changed the world in the 19th century and it can change your world now.

But for that Pakistan Railways has to change first. Who will change this. Another Balor?

 
At May 31, 2013 at 10:13 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, We don't know right now, but I have some faith in Nawaz Sharif this time. He might yet turn the railway around.

 
At June 1, 2013 at 11:49 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

There is nothing like the sound of the big steel wheels on the rails; the clickety-clack that becomes Beautiful Noise in Neil Diamond's song of the same title. Even without the romantic sound of steam trains, the heart-warming thrum of the big diesels was fun enough, especially if you got a chance to ride in the locomotive as I did several times. And nothing beat the magic of lying down on the berth at, say, Multan around 10.00 pm and being roused by the sound of the vendors crying breakfast at Rohri. Magic. My greatest dream is to get on a train at Howrah station (Kolkata) and disembark at Victoria in London. What a journey that will be!. The last time I attempted a train was three years ago. Departure was late by over ten hours and I just gave up.

 
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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days