Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Riding Steam

Bookmark and Share

On the eleventh day this past April, a train steamed out of Lahore Cantonment railway station after thirty-four years. No, I have not taken leave of my senses, as you may suppose when several trains go this way and that every day. A train literally, physically, steamed out of the station, as in being powered by steam, Not by diesel.

The West values its steam heritage. In Pakistan we have been unkind to it. On a trip to Britain in December 1997, friends took me to Loughborough to see steam locomotive No. 71000, known as the Duke of Gloucester, undergoing maintenance. It was told that only a few years earlier, this magnificent locomotive was spotted in a junkyard by a railway buff. Word got around, steam buffs came together, raised the money and purchased the machine before the cutter’s torch could destroy it.

Thereafter, people from different professions but with the mechanical bent of the mind got together on weekends to completely refurbish the Duke and put it back on the rails. Since then it hauled tourist trains up and down the English Midlands. However, because it was then half a century old, it required required regular and meticulous maintenance after every trip.

Mike Yeadon, who shares with me a love for derelict machinery, was the one to take me to Loughborough. That one blessed day out there was crowded with railway talk and I got Mike to return to Pakistan so that I could take him out to the steam loco shed at Malakwal. He visited in September ’98 and I drove him to Malakwal telling him stories of one man called Iqbal Ghauri who kept our steam going.

I had been there only a year and a half earlier, but this time around Malakwal was a heartbreaking disappointment. Iqbal Ghauri was gone. Transferred, so they said, to Multan. There were no working steam locomotives, only several cut up machines. Among them, one that had been manufactured by the famous Vulcan Foundry in 1911. This had clocked over, if memory serves, five million miles and I was madly, madly in love with it.

The only steam in order at Malakwal in September 1998 was a Ransomes and Rapier steam crane that was loading the cut up machines into freight cars for transportation to Mughalpura in Lahore. Steam, the man on the crane said, had been phased out. Mike and I returned to Lahore, totally devastated.

Sometime after that I was at Bostan railway station some ways northeast of Quetta. To my delight I found three Narrow Gauge steam locomotives freshly repainted sitting under the shed. The station master told me that the railway minister of the time had ordered for the Zhob Valley Railway (ZVR) to run as a tourist train. But knowing of the condition of the line to Zhob, I had reservations. Like all the best laid plans of our political mice, nothing came of it.

Still there was some hope for the Khyber Steam Safari to continue to keep some vestige of steam power alive in Pakistan. As time went by, the lawlessness of misguided Islamists killed any hope for the tourist train in the Khyber. And just when I thought we had turned all our steam engines into railings and grills, I was invited to join the first steam train from Lahore to Changa Manga.

Early April is scarcely the time for a joy ride on a steam train. Yet my friends Akhtar Mammunka and Nadeem Khawar were not the only ones on board. There were television crews and women with children. the latter, I suspect, were families of railway officers.

If regular trains in Pakistan run hours (even days, perhaps) late, a special train being an hour late was no big deal. We got underway and trundled along southward at about thirty kilometres an hour to make Raiwind in about an hour and a half. The three of us had imagined we would be in Changa Manga in that time, but when Ashfaq Tabassam of Pakistan Railway said lunch was scheduled there for four in the afternoon, we got a trifle worried.

Nevertheless, we decided to see this caper through to the end. The two coaches that made up our rake are specially designed touristy things and, even without air conditioning, not uncomfortable. But four hours for a sixty kilometre journey was rather long.

At Changa Manga we had two of those toy trains to take us through the forest to the lakeside restaurant. The forest of my memory from 1966 is just that: a memory. Since that time, I have returned several times but the dense tree cover of the past is now sparse and I would hardly call it a forest. The excitement of riding through a tunnel of trees was therefore not to be.

But some little bit of excitement we did have: our train derailed. Thank heavens for these toy trains that go at no more than five or six kilometres an hour, it only jumped off the track and did not topple on to its side. Presently one of the crew came along with a stout wooden club, and using it as a crowbar hefted the locomotive single-handedly back on the track.

At the lake, it was still two hours to lunch which was scheduled at four. But since nothing happens on time in Pakistan Akhtar, Nadeem and I were convinced it would not be laid before five or even after. That was when we bolted.

Now, this was a great endeavour. Young Ashfaq Tabassam who is the brain behind this stream safari has to be congratulated. But this first one of what will hopefully be a weekly affair was somewhat the mismanaged. For one, it should not have taken four hours from Lahore to Changa Manga. And then lunch should have been at a proper hour, not at tea time. We bolted, but those who were stuck with the train would not have been back at the Lahore cantonment station until before ten at night.

Then again, Akhtar Mammunka who knows what tour operations are all about, had his doubts about anyone being able to pay the hefty Rs 300,000 for the safari to Changa Manga.

Labels: ,

posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 27 October 2016 at 20:55, Blogger Ravi said...

You should board the toy train in Ooty. You can find the same in Chayya Chayya song from Dilse movie.

At 25 November 2016 at 19:35, Anonymous Joydeb Dasgupta said...

This was a great job done.The young geeration would get to know howw steam locos of yester years worked

At 25 November 2016 at 19:37, Anonymous Joydeb Dasgupta said...

This was a great job done .The young generation would learn how steam locos of our times worked.Hats off


Post a Comment

<< Home

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