Dawn News

Trainspotting!

Thank heavens! Karachiites’ romance with railway stations is not done and dusted. Although it may not be a Romeo-Juliet kind of a situation anymore, it continues to be a fling which has all the potential for rekindling the flame of passion. The fact that not many people visit them any longer is a different story.  The few that do like to sit comfortably on wooden (or hard-as-rock concrete) benches sparsely placed on platforms still have that gentle urge in them to soak up the sun on chilly winter mornings or read a newspaper as a train whizzes past them. (These days, trains rarely budge from their stations leave alone whizz by or roll along.)

The railway stations which were constructed in Karachi in colonial times had a great utility value. They were built at a careful distance from each other so that travellers did not have any trouble in opting for Shank’s pony for a longer distance. Smooth, unhindered transference of goods was also kept in mind. For effective functioning of the system the staff was provided with decent facilities, including small but useful buildings made of stone. Some 60 years onwards, after independence that is, these squarish buildings need to be revisited.

Drigh Road (a large stretch of the thoroughfare which is now called Sharea Faisal) is as prominent a Karachi space as let’s say the city’s Bunder Road. Space, because it is not just a road: it is a landmark that hardly any citizen would be unfamiliar with.

Heading towards the airport, if you wish to look in on the old Drigh Road Railway Station, stop at the curve which connects Rashid Minhas Road to Drigh Road. On your right Drigh Road Railway Station with its creamy boundary walls is alive and kicking. Actually it is more alive than kicking! A train has just stopped for a short period. It would be better if the facility is looked at after Malir Colony or Malir Halt Railway Station, which is a couple of kilometres ahead of Drigh Road Station. Why? It rarely has visitors and appears to be lonely and deserted.

A bunch of pushcarts and a bevy of auto-rickshaws at Malir Colony bus stop can prove to be a terribly off-putting sight. The spot is dirty as hell and stinks like foul intentions of a scheming man. Do not be dissuaded into not passing through the narrow opening in the boundary wall to get to Malir Colony Station. The thick shrubbery and a cluster of trees paint a green, contemporary picture. It is the smallish station building, made of stone, constructed to monitor and give the go-ahead (or show the red-signal) to locomotives which smacks of historicity gone awry.

The stone staircase, connecting an incommodious store and the first floor, is no more. A metal stairway has replaced it. The station master performs his duties in the upper storey, which is a room and basically the main part of the structure, with all the necessary tools, gadgets and yes, those jet black telephones. “I don’t know how old the building is. It was definitely made during British rule,” says the station master. A young man sitting beside him chimes in, “There used to be a date inscribed at the back of the building. I don’t think it’s there now. As for old, historical bits, the track that you see right next to the platform was laid by the British. The rest are new.”

Stepping down from the building to the platform can be a pleasantly surprising experience. How often do you see an old man at a railway station, wearing a sweater and woolen cap, perched on a bench, reading a newspaper? On another bench three men are immersed in a heated political discussion. None of them are passengers. They cannot be because no train stops at this juncture. They live nearby. Only if the ambience around the station could be improved along with a weenie bit of refurbishment of the building, this part of the city can be a crackerjack of a sight.

It hardly takes five minutes to be at Drigh Road Railway Station from Malir Colony’s. The condition is a little less to worry about at this facility. The building is marginally bigger than Malir’s and much better maintained, largely because trains often take a breather here. The entire structure has been painted off-white, so much so that the thick layers of the paint have concealed its date of construction, which according to an employee, was written on top of the entrance. He claims the building is nearly a century old.

In 1855 the idea of coming up with a railway from Karachi to Kotri was put forward to the then government by Bartle Frere.

After four years of research and surveys the first part of the line was laid and in 1861 the very first line (between Karachi and Kotri) was opened for public. It is quite possible that the above-mentioned two stations were built at the time.

Architect Arif Hasan says: “The buildings around the Drigh Road area were constructed in the latter half of the 19th century.

These stations, including the one in Landhi, were nicely built. The Drigh Road Station is better maintained than the Malir Colony one because trains occasionally stop at the former. It is up to the railway department to make efforts to preserve these buildings. They should consult the relevant experts for the purpose.”

A train which began its journey from Cantt Railway Station and stopped at Drigh Road for a prolonged period for technical reasons has started to move. In a trice it will cross Malir Colony Station without looking at it twice, making the old station building feeling unwanted.

mohammad.salman@dawn.com


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