Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Our invisible trains

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Accidents between trains and motor vehicles trying to run across approaching trains are very commonplace nowadays. Decades ago when we had horse drawn rehras and tongas to transport people and goods and bicyclists instead of crazed moped riders, one read of fewer chance meetings between road transport and speeding trains.

The thing was that a bicyclist or a rehra driver knew their respective limitations and they never crossed speeding trains. But by the mid-1990s, motor vehicles and drivers had grown exponentially. In fact, their numbers grew so fast that our industrious traffic police being unable to cope with the rush of applicants simply dispensed with the driver’s licence formality.

Men who earlier had to pedal hard to get around or trundle along slowly as their emaciated, ill-fed nags towed their carts were now capable of speed with the twist of the handle bar or a little pressure of the right foot. With the help of the phrase ‘Allah malik hai’ – God is my Preserver – our trains suddenly became invisible to fatalistic man who relies equally on God as on the power of his rickety machine.

In August 1985, at the level crossing in Muridke Town, as the speeding train approached, two youngsters on a motorcycle not amenable to waiting at the closed crossing manhandled their machine under the iron rails that extend to about a hundred meters on both sides of gate to discourage just such capers. Then with both astride the dinky little moped, they tried to negotiate the rails. With great difficulty, the rider got both wheels of his moped between the tracks and was unable to go any further. By now the train, which had until then been invisible, was upon them.

Barely in time the boys jumped out of the way of speeding metal packing millions of foot pounds of force. The result was that the moped turned into toothpicks. As soon as folks got their wits back after the accident, they began to stone all passing trains. And in those long ago days there were trains once every few minutes.

Now, if trains are invisible, most Pakistani reporters seem to have no clue that a train of such huge mass travelling at, say, 80 km/h can just not be brought to a halt by pressing some brake pedal.

Consequently news items covering such accidents always scream: Train crushes young motorcyclist etc. It is always made out to seem that the fault lies entirely on the engine driver. The report always ends with recounting how protesters then block the track disrupting rail traffic. Double whammy for the railway if the site of the accident is an unmanned level crossing. In which case protesters demand it be manned.

It should be known that for a level crossing to be manned, it has to fulfill a certain criterion of so many trains in a certain period of time. Given the state of Pakistan Railway these days, there is hardly a level crossing that passes this criterion!

Had I collected cuttings of such accidents from the mid-1990s, I would have had a sizeable wad of them. I still read them with considerable interest and I now note that reporters have of late begun to change nuance: trains no longer crush innocent jaywalkers. However, reporters are still not explicit in placing the blame squarely on those who die.

This is only because our trains are invisible and the poor dead have no way of detecting their approach!

The most recent case was this accident as reported in this paper about a month ago. A serving soldier driving with his relative riding pillion tried to dash across the path of an approaching invisible train somewhere near Raiwind. The inevitable occurred. Both were killed instantaneously.

Thereafter passing trains were stoned; the track was also blocked for a while. And if one is to go by the Dawn report, protesters said that the train driver could have averted this mishap! As if the poor man could have steered the train off the tracks and into the ripening sugar cane fields.

Since trains are invisible, a man in the street has never looked inside the cockpit of a modern diesel locomotive to see that there is no steering mechanism. But if they would, they will at once conclude that without such a device these machines are inherently dangerous.

The next demand after the road-rail crossings are manned would be to fit all locomotives with steering wheels and drivers trained to steer them off the rails upon seeing jaywalkers. Not much else to do for those with a death wish running across the tracks of invisible trains.

Also in Dawn

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:32,

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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