Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

End of an Era

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When, in the 1880s, the British laid the great railway network in Punjab, one busy junction was to be at Wazirabad. From here travellers coming up from the east or the deep south could change either for Peshawar on the frontier, or for Jammu nestling below the Western Himalayas. Those were the days of steam, and it fell to the lot of the small town of Malakwal (in present day Mandi Bahaudin district) to be the repair and maintenance depot in this region.

Those were the days when those black behemoths went steaming and clanking the length and breadth of the subcontinent. By the 1960, however, they were settling into graceful old age as they gave way to the faster, sleeker diesel locomotives. Towards the end of the 1980s Pakistan Railways were still operating with steam on a number of sections, with the Lala Musa-Shorkot haul (314 km) being the longest regular steam worked passenger service in the country at that time. The Malakwal facility was servicing over three dozen steam locomotives at the time.
When I first visited in 1994, Malakwal was managed by a railway man of rare capacity: Iqbal Ghouri, the Foreman, was in love with steam locomotives and committed to keeping the twenty-six aging workhorses in his charge running. The oldest locomotive operating through this yard then was No. 2966 manufactured in 1911 by Vulcan Foundry of Newton le Willows in Britain; shipped out and pressed into service with the North Western Railway the same year. In 1994 it had clocked just under seven million kilometres and was still doing well. Moving up through the scale of age and number of kilometres run, the newest was still a veteran of thirty-five years. All of them looked prim, almost new. No surprise then, that the magazine World Steam listed Malakwal as an efficient steam yard with some of the finest locomotives in the world.

‘Steam buff’ being an unknown term in Pakistan, Malakwal, outside of railway circles, is very likely be unknown in the country. But the yard was regularly visited by camera toting steam enthusiasts from Europe, Australia and North America. Not entirely comprehending this excitement over some ancient locomotives, the staff nevertheless looked upon the Westerners with curiosity and tolerated them with benign generosity. But when I was recently again in Malakwal things had changed dramatically.

The locomotive shed was empty, the various offices running along its side closed and locked, Iqbal Ghouri transferred elsewhere. On the siding outside the shed, a line of freight wagons were loaded with three broken up steam locomotives. The boilers, still in their casings, sat on the wagons; their driving wheels, parts of the cabin and water tanks waited to be loaded up: the last of the grand old workhorses of the once great North Western Railway (and then the Pakistan Railways) were finally dead. And I had arrived as if to sing their requiem. I was later to learn that these locomotives were to be transported to the railway workshop at Moghulpura (Lahore) where they are to be cut into pieces and sold off as scrap iron. Even as you read these lines, some of the most valuable pieces of our railway heritage will be under the cutter’s torch, while slavering, rapacious foundry owners wait to bid for them.

The only steam working in the yard was a 1922 Ransomes and Rapier crane hoisting the black cadavers onto the wagons. Ghulam Mohammed, working the crane, recognised me from my last visit and came down for a chat. It was a sad time for him, he said. All his forty years with the railways he had worked with steam in Kundian, Khanewal and, for the past many years, in Malakwal. Now just the crane was left. But even that, he said, would go perhaps in the next few months. What would he do then, I asked. He did not know, but he was grateful that shortly after that, in December 1999, he too would reach the age of superannuation. Wistfully the man pointed out that now Malakwal will never again be visited by foreigners interested in old steam engines.

With the death of the Malakwal Steam Locomotive Shed an era has ended. Now the only working steam locomotives are the two left in Peshawar to haul the tourist train to Landi Kotal and back and those (number not known) on the Mirpur Khas, Nawabshah and Khokhrapar lines. While those in Peshawar are Broad Gauge machines, the ones in Sindh are of the Metre Gauge. There are also four Narrow Gauge locomotives at the Bostan (Pishin district, Balochistan) railway station. Of these latter, two have recently been revamped and their boilers tested in the hope of revitalising the Narrow Gauge service from Bostan to Zhob that has lain derelict for the past thirteen years. There is, however, currently little hope of the line ever running again.

The saddest part of the scrapping of the Malakwal locomotives is that most of these machines, especially the older ones, were priceless museum pieces. The act of discarding them at this point in time seems all the more injudicious, even sinister, when Railway authorities know well enough that World Bank is on the verge of funding a multi-million dollar project to preserve railway heritage in Pakistan. As it is we are several steps behind neighbouring India where the Railway Museum at Delhi draws great crowds of tourists, both local and foreign, and earns good money.

The World Bank funding was held up awaiting re-structuring in Pakistan Railways. With that being in place with effect from the first day of September, the organisation is now a step closer to the release of funds. But for some strange reason the authorities acted with unholy haste in getting rid of pieces that could have gone into the Railway Museum proposed under the preservation scheme. It cannot be claimed that railway authorities were not aware of the value of these priceless pieces of engineering: a mere two years ago, one of the locomotives from Malakwal was purchased for 1.2 million rupees by a party from Great Britain. Their purpose was not to smelt it and turn out iron grills, but to restore and run it again.

If at all the locomotives were to be sold, they should have gone as complete machines and not as pieces of scrap iron and steel. That railway authorities acted with this profane speed in their disposal underlines some sinister motive somewhere. In a society as corrupt as ours, this cannot mean anything but personal gain for someone. With no broad gauge steam locomotives available to adorn the museum proposed under the World Bank scheme, will the Bank at all go ahead and release funds for preservation of railway heritage in Pakistan?

For an insignificant personal advantage someone has thwarted a greater national gain. But that has always been the story of this unfortunate land. As before, there will perhaps be half-hearted inquiries but only when the damage is irrevocable and as before the guilty will go scot free. But if the railway museum is ever set up, it will never be complete and comprehensive. Posterity will never know there was once a steam locomotive numbered 2966, built in England in 1911 that had hauled travellers across the length and breadth of Pakistan for seven million kilometres. And that instead of being on proud display, it ended in ignominy, very likely as iron grills.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 3 August 2013 at 10:33, Anonymous Anonymous said...

اچھا ہے

At 3 August 2013 at 11:07, Blogger Adnan Alam Awan said...

A painful story,,even most of our railway stations present the scene of some historical/archaeological site. Lets hope

At 3 August 2013 at 11:55, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

This small little market town off the beaten track held so much of Railway heritage. I never knew. Does Karachi bound Chenab Express still pass from here?

At 4 August 2013 at 21:51, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Baqi sarian gallan chaddo, I love your diction Salman

At 6 August 2013 at 13:13, Anonymous Kausar Bilal said...

Nice to know about the history of Pakistan Railway.Wish we have responsible and professional leadership in our country at all levels.

At 7 August 2013 at 12:48, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nayyar, sadly there is no Chenab Express now.

At 7 August 2013 at 12:48, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Kausar, it will take more than just a few responsible railway officers. We need politicians in the loop too.

At 6 February 2015 at 12:44, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yesterday I was there, at the abandoned, almost in ruins Steam Locomotives Yard at Malakwal Railways. I was on my way to explore Chillianwala as I took the route from Bhera towards Mandi Bahauddin those strange structures on the outskirts of Malakwal intrigued me and an inquiry from locals indicated these as the remains of a Locomotive Shed. Being a fan of railways I visited the attraction that came my way almost as an impromptu target.
An internet search today put me across this piece as almost every search put me across your articles containing a wealth of information that speaks of the painstaking research and your love for this land, may these be Waters or Wheels of the empire or your expeditions to explore the amazing beauty of the land itself.
Keep writing and keep inspiring, Sir!

At 8 February 2015 at 09:21, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Imran. But all my efforts have gone waste. Not one bit of our heritage has been saved.

At 12 March 2016 at 06:36, Blogger Sameer Khan said...

My grand father and later 4 uncles used to drive steam locomotives in Malakwal. Now I have only one cousin working as fireman. I have spent my whole childhood in that Locomotive Shed and on trains. I am still a steam locomotive freak but sadly so hard to find them around. Absolutely amazing piece of information. I don't have enough words to appreciate your work.
Would you happen to have any photos of Malakwal steam locomotives by any chance? If yes would you be able to share with me?


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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

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