Until June 2007, the Landi Kotal Railway station was always busy, and the trains were full of passengers, reminisces 28-year-old Ibrahim Khan.
Every Sunday, he drops by at around 11 am for old time’s sake, even though now the station has been deserted for years. But back in 2007, Khan was present every Sunday, waiting for the train with tourists, so that he could offer his services as a travel guide.
It’s difficult to believe now, but the area attracted many holiday makers. Close by are Ali Mosque, Shagai Fort, the Torkham Border and a Buddhist Stupa. “I was very happy because of my job; I used to earn Rs 3,000 on Sundays,” Khan adds.
Landi Kotal is a tehsil of Khyber agency which is the highest point on the Khyber Pass, situated near Torkham border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1925, British colonisers constructed a 52-kilometre railway track through 33 tunnels and 92 bridges and culverts between Peshawar and Landi Kotal for the movement of troops and supplies in emergencies. It is the only track in the world, which passes through an airport (the runway of Bacha Khan International Airport of Peshawar).
Khan says hundreds of tourists would travel on the ‘Khyber Steam Safari’, which would run between Peshawar and Landi Kotal once a week.
Those were different times. In June 2007, large parts of the railway track were destroyed by floods. The Safari service was then closed by the authorities. “If the British rulers could construct a railway line between Peshawar to Torkham in 1925, then is it difficult for the government to reconstruct it in 2013?” he asks bitterly.
It wasn’t just tourists who took advantage of the bustling train line. According to Khan, local businessmen also used the train for Pak-Afghan trade purposes – the Torkham border is only eight kilometres away from the Landi Kotal railway station. “The train was a source of income for the local residents of the Khyber Agency,” he adds.
Hakeem Shinwari, a local trader and former senior vice President of Tribal Areas of Chamber of Commerce and Industry told Dawn.com that without the train, traders have to pay large fares for transporting material by road from Karachi to Torkham, which is seriously affecting business. Shinwari says that the cargo train between Karachi to Peshawar has also been closed, since February 2010 – due to a shortage of locomotives.
Although the government has taken steps on paper, progress is yet to be seen. Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the construction of a rail link between Peshawar and Jalalabad in July 2010, under which Pakistan was responsible for a Peshawar-Torkham rail link. This has not been built yet.
The trader says that the reconstruction of a railtrack between Peshawar and Torkham, and restarting cargo trains from Karachi to Peshawar would help increase the export of its products to Afghanistan and other Central Asian states – potential major markets for Pakistani products.
Arooj Ahmad Ansari, a member of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PAJCCI) and a Peshawar-based exporter, told Dawn.com that the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan set a target to enhance bilateral trade from 2.5 billion US dollar to 5 billion US dollar by the year 2015.
According to Ansari, if a rail link between Peshawar and Jalalabad is successfully built, Pakistani products will be available in the markets of Central Asian Republics “while the volume of trade will be increase by more then 10 billion US dollars if a conducive atmosphere is provided to both the business communities.”
In addition, the rush of containers on roads, and the cost of road maintenance will be decreased. “If we trade through trains, the expenses of traders could be decreased by up to forty per cent,” he adds.
Ansari said that the PAJCCI President Muhammad Zubair Motiwala had already demanded the governments of both countries to initiate the project of the construction of a rail link between Peshawar and Jalalabad. The project is likely to have 35 million tonnes of cargo capacity annually. “Pakistani traders are exporting rice, cement, vegetables and meat and importing Iron, scrap and dry fruits,” he adds.
Responding to a question regarding the security of the railway between Peshawar and Torkham, Ansari says that the security situation is better in the areas of Jamrud and Landi Kotal due to the presence of security forces, adding that Pakistani traders are already using the road for trade through Torkham border.
Former Caretaker Finance Minister and Economist Dr. Salman Shah on the other hand, says focusing on the north of the country is tougher right now. In order to invite foreign investment, the government is focusing on linking Pakistan from Gwadar to China through the railway system. “The economic and political situation of Afghanistan will be clear in 2014 after the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan,” he explains.
Meanwhile, former railways minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour told Dawn.com that he had wanted to reconstruct the rail line between Peshawar to Torkham during his tenure but due to a shortage of funds, it was difficult for his ministry to take initiative.
Current Minister for Railways Khawaja Saad Rafiq said that the government led by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is committed to reviving Pakistan Railways by converting it into a corporation managed by board comprising professionals from public transport, engineering and management through an Act of Parliament.
He said that the government has allocated Rs 31 billion for railways in the budget of 2013-14 while a feasibility study for linking Pakistan through a rail line from Gwadar to Afghanistan and from Gwadar to China will likely be initiated soon. Responding to a question regarding the reconstruction of a rail line between Peshawar to Torkham, the minister said that the government is considering all its options for the revival of Pakistan Railways while the government will also consider it on priority basis.
But while the government brainstorms ways of kick starting an ailing institution, Ibrahim Khan continues to run his shop in Landi Kotal hopeful of a day when the tourists return on trains to his town.