Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Romance of the Railway

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The greatest adventure ever devised by mankind is, without any doubt, the railway. Aircraft might get us from one place to another in much less time but that’s no way to travel. With the landscape spread out like a map below the traveller never gets to know the lands being traversed. The landscape, the people, the colours of life, all remains unknowable and unseen from that high vantage. But trains are another story.

Trains have come a long way from the time they chugged along at a sedate fifty kilometres or so to where some of the newest lines in Europe and America can shoot you along at a dizzying two hundred and fifty kilometres an hour (even faster in Japan), but if you ask me, I would prefer the former. And the journey of my dreams is a slow train around the world. In a way, Pakistan Railways remain rooted in the past when it comes to speed and so, until about eight years ago, I did most of my long distance travelling within the country by rail. But then with endless delays and trains running up to five or six hours behind schedule between, say, Karachi and Lahore, I gave up. Gross mismanagement and what seems to have been an evilly advertent plot to destroy a fine establishment, put paid to a great system that the country had inherited from the British.

I remember the time until the late 1970s when all air conditioned sleeping cars had showers in the toilets. Imagine getting into the Khyber Mail at Peshawar late one evening and turning in comfortably for the night. Waking up at Lala Musa the next morning, you could have stuck your head out the door to grab a cup of tea and perhaps a newspaper. Then you could have leisurely-like attended your ablutions shaving and showering in the cubby-hole toilet of your sleeping compartment. For myself I have several times enjoyed this incredible luxury as my train (Khyber Mail again) approached Karachi in the early morning. But like all good things, this did not last and today there are no showers anymore – sometimes there is simply no water either.

When the British laid down sub continental railways, they established the facility of ‘breaking journey,’ that is, a twenty four hour break after every three hundred miles of travel. The facility to stay at the railway waiting room for such a break was an integral part of the romance of train journeys. Today scarcely anyone in Pakistan knows that buying a ticket from Peshawar to Karachi or Quetta entitles the traveller to this facility. Worse still, even fewer have time to enjoy this luxury.

Now, there was once a time when railway waiting rooms with their old-world atmosphere of turbaned attendants, gorgeous mosaic floors and quaint furniture were great places. Of this last, my all time favourite is the one the inventory (hanging in all waiting rooms) lists as ‘Chair, Long Arm’ in which one can sleep comfortably with one’s feet propped up on the arms and upon waking rest one’s tea and cake on the same arms. Great piece of furniture this, which some masochistic British playboy re-named Bombay Fornicator.

That is one thing we've lost entirely through our callousness and inability to appreciate and keep a good thing going. The other thing that we lost to the march of technology was the most glorious and romantic part of railways: the entirely magnificent steam locomotive. Gone is its heart-warming chug, hollow as it thundered across the plains but rich and booming as it pounded up such awesome lines as that in the Bolan and Khyber Passes; gone too the whistle that could send a thrill of romance through the most blasé of hearts. Forever lost is the facility of winter travel where one could commandeer a bucket, request the locomotive driver for a fill of boiling water and bathe to the heart’s content in the toilet even as the train went sweeping past misty landscapes.

Now if trains were, by some strange miracle, to start running on time again, and if, by that same miracle, the waiting rooms were to be restored to their old glory and if, miraculously again, Pakistan had a network of trains somewhat similar to what, say, Germany has, there would be some wonderful train journeys to undertake.

For myself, I dream of travelling down from Peshawar Quetta and thence to Karachi, not by the main but by branch lines. How great it would be to stop at places such as Mundi Sadiqganj to swap tales with retired railway old-timers, tales of the glory days when through trains from Delhi to Karachi via Bhatinda stopped here to take on a fresh load of water for the furnace. Or to break journey at Rohri to walk in those streets steeped in a thousand years of history. Better still, to be able to avail my twenty four hours in Rohri to take a side trip to Ruk railway station. In oblivion on an un-busy section, Ruk is a tonga ride away from Habibkot station (on the line to Quetta) and had fortune favoured the railways Ruk would have been a active junction for trains originating in Kolkata or Yangon en route for Victoria station in London. Oh, what a journey that would have been, something to outdo the Trans-Siberian train.

Few train travellers in Pakistan may have experienced the thrill of a journey up the Bolan Pass: the relentless pounding of the diesel engine counter-balanced in intensity by the easy clickety-clack of the wheels jumping across the expansion gaps of the rails as the train rolls slowly uphill. Even fewer may have been in the cockpit to hear tales of the time your driver suffered brake failure on the downward journey and had to run up the catch siding to avoid serous mishap. I have been in the cockpit on three occasions up and down the Bolan and in all those hours, never for one minute was I without goose bumps.

That is high adventure of another dimension which seems, sadly, to be a chapter from the past. But now there is talk of the great oil line coming through from Merv and Kushka in Turkmenistan to Herat in Afghanistan on to Nokkundi on the east-west track between Zahedan (Iran) and Quetta. From there, it is said, the oil line will carry on south across the salt pans of Balochistan, through the Siahan and Central Makran mountains on to Gwadar. Through eleven degrees of latitude, over three thousand kilometres, and terrain varying from desert to high mountains to desert again, salt pans and most arid mountains (of Makran) in all Pakistan onto the seaboard. What a journey that would be!

When that happens it will open up the possibility of another great train journey: dinner at Merv, a midnight cuppa at Kushka, through the dark tunnels of the Feroz Koh to Herat for a breakfast on the wheels in the western foothills of Safed Koh. Then across the bleached sands of the Margo desert of southwest Afghanistan and into Pakistan en route to Makran. The romance of railway journeys may yet not be over for us in Pakistan.

Related: Wheels of Empire - Book of Days 2012

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 11 December 2013 at 08:12, Anonymous bahrul alam said...

nice post .... good luck OK

At 11 December 2013 at 10:08, Anonymous omar said...

I remember one journey from Quetta to Gujrat and many from Hasanabdal to lahore and Lahore to Karachi. The only times I was in the cockpit was from Gujjar Khan to Jehlum, but while that was no Bolan pass, it was an unforgettable thrill all the same. Sad to see the demise of the Railway. Maybe when the Khalsa returns to run things in Punjab, we can link up with Indian railways and things can improve? one can always dream...

At 12 December 2013 at 13:00, Anonymous Mahwish Shaukat said...

Nothing like a train journey , the trains still roll & the engines roar in my childhood memories .... Very much alive .... I wish if i can re-live those moments again n again .... Thanks a lot Salman sahib , for reminding ... Scenic route ...

At 12 December 2013 at 13:54, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I don't think I'll be able to ride another train in the next 30 yrs. Perhaps in your lifetime and only if another country annexes Pakistan will the railway work.


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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