Dawn News

Pakistan serves up first-class rail luxury

Passengers sit in a newly launched Pak Business Express train prior to departure in Lahore on February 3, 2012. — Photo by AFP

ABOARD THE BUSINESS EXPRESS, Pakistan: A security guard pointing a gun at your chest may not be a perk of first-class travel in the West, but it's all part of the service on Pakistan's gleaming Business Express.

Thirteen carriages have been lovingly restored into a sleek sleeper to ply the 1,200 kilometres between Pakistan's two biggest cities, Lahore and Karachi, on an 18-hour journey that once used to take upwards of 30 hours.

Presided over Friday by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, perhaps keen to front a good-news story as he faces contempt charges, and waved off by excited crowds it is Pakistan's most luxurious and expensive train.

For 5,000 rupees one way, or 9,000 rupees return, passengers are waited on by a bevy of attentive stewards, as they settle down to watch films on flat-screen TVs or power up laptops.

Afternoon tea and piping hot dinner — courtesy of chefs at five-star hotels are borne into cabins as uniformed guards carrying rifles in the corridors are a reminder of a country troubled by kidnappings, Taliban and Al-Qaeda violence.

Then as night falls, stewards come round with crisp bed linen to turn slightly hard green bunks into inviting beds.

It's all part of a first private investment of millions of rupees in the ailing state railways, billed as the last hope of preventing a much-loved relic of British rule from falling into ruin.

Corruption, mismanagement and neglect have driven Pakistan Railways to the brink.

Since Gilani's government took power in 2008, the group has retired 104 of 204 trains in a country larger than Britain and Germany combined.

It relies on handouts of $2.8 million a month just to pay salaries and pensions, and faces expected losses of $390 million in the current fiscal year.

But the new train pulled away five minutes early and customers boarded from a brand-new business lounge at Lahore station. Decorated in tinsel, the engine then ground to a halt 10 minutes later to pick up more passengers.

Mariyam Imran, a strikingly beautiful young advisor for cosmetics firm L'Oreal, is delighted. A frequent traveller and terrified by a recent emergency landing on increasingly precarious state airline PIA, she is an avid convert.

“It's beautiful. It's relaxing, compared to the trains before. I'm so happy and very comfortable. The staff are good. It's a marvellous train,” the 22-year-old young mother told AFP.

Travelling with her businessman husband, three-year-old daughter and sister-in-law they are heading to Karachi for a short break before returning to host a Valentine's Day party at home in Lahore on February 14.

“I hate PIA. Oh my God, that emergency landing. Compared to the plane, this train is best. The service is very good.”

Gilani congratulated staff on what he called a “deluxe” and “state of the art” service that would serve as a trail blazer for future private-public partnerships capable of turning around Pakistan's depressed economy.

“It's a big, big initiative from the private sector, which we have welcomed with open arms,” Arif Azim, the chairman of Pakistan Railways, told AFP.

Years of decline saw customers flock to airlines and luxury coaches.

Azim hopes that if the Business Express, and a similar service to be rolled out on February 20 between Lahore, the textiles centre of Faisalabad and Karachi, are a success then investors will sink millions more into saving the railways.

“The sky's the limit because we're in a pretty bad shape. We need a totally new fleet. Seventy-five per cent of our wagons can be described as vintage,” he said.

Retired journalist Ishtiaq Ali is taking his young, second wife home after a two-week holiday to show her snow for the first time in Murree, a resort in Pakistan's foot hills of the Himalayas.

“Oh my goodness, what the hell are you talking about,” he jokes when asked how the new train compares to the best rail services in the West.

“It's impossible. There's no education, there's no security, there's no insurance. In Pakistan, you can go outside and you can be held at gunpoint.”

It may not be a bullet train. It may not be the Orient Express, but his young wife smiles as she edges out of Lahore, speeding past clapped-out carriages shunted onto sidings.

Comments (39) Closed

Feb 04, 2012 11:33am
A luxury that takes 18 hours to reach, and at a price which is much more than teh average Pakistani monthly salary.
Anwer Kirmani
Feb 04, 2012 12:02pm
Well done Pakistan Railways . This is creative and lateral thinking. It also makes travel possible for many who cannot afford air travel due to reasons other than financial. Rs9000 return is still too high for many. Perhaps the authorities would contemplate introducing other service levels that are both comfortable , affordable and above all secure. There should be exclusive ladies compartments for women travelling alone. Compared to advanced countries and China this service and the rolling stock seems to be good at the price being charged. Railways are for common man and the price should reflect that. We should not try to make it 'Orient Express'. Everyone should be able to afford it. The challenge is to maintain the level of service, price and above all punctuality. If it is done then Pakistan Railways has a very bright future indeed. We are 180 million now and the sky is the limit for us. The Government of Pakistan deserves to be congratulated. I am no fan of the People's Party but credit must be given where due.
Feb 04, 2012 01:13pm
At last a good step by private sector even though it was not such a big event that the prime minister had to inaugurate this event.
Feb 04, 2012 01:20pm
Something is better then nothing !
Feb 04, 2012 01:45pm
Something atlast, though not for common man as usual.
muhammad aslam
Feb 04, 2012 02:48pm
Please pakistan railway maintain this services atleast.
Feb 04, 2012 05:24pm
Looking forward to the Karachi - Lahore train trip on my next visit to Karachi.
Asad Kemal
Feb 04, 2012 06:25pm
Ameen! to that.
Feb 04, 2012 06:26pm
Well according to the Govt. there is no such thing as average Pakistani. everyone is rich...
Feb 04, 2012 06:32pm
Now we know why PR is being destroyed - to give it to private investors - who in turn will give benefit to the "higher ups".
Feb 04, 2012 07:10pm
Feb 04, 2012 07:15pm
In any other country this would just be an ordinary first class, barring armed guards of course.....whats with the seat in the alley.I sure would not want to sit there.
Mohammad Ali Khan
Feb 04, 2012 08:08pm
The entire Pakistan Railways and PIA should be privatized.
Agha Ata
Feb 04, 2012 08:30pm
Please introduce a similar DELUX quality example in every department to resuscitate the dead economy and dead spirit, in hospitals, in schools, in police, filthy cities (starting from vegetable markets) , and in every other department. That might kick start a mini renaissance in Pakistan.
Feb 04, 2012 09:06pm
This adventure will not save Railway at all. PR has 450 non-functional engines. What will save Railway when it provides good service, is corruption free, high ROI, and provides safe and reliable tracks, trains and stations for ALL pakistani passengers. Not for those who can afford to pay 5000 rupees for a 750 mile trip. Lets get real.
Feb 04, 2012 09:10pm
A positive development for PR. Inside looks nicer than the London-Paris bullet train I took last year. I hope there is running water on this train as there was none in the bullet train's washroom.
Babar Saeed
Feb 04, 2012 10:03pm
Very good initiative. We, as a nation, do not lack in new initiatives, we miss to maintain these new initiatives to same or comparable levels of quality and service. Lets establish a maintenancce culture as well.
Feb 04, 2012 10:20pm
It is really a fantastic move to introduce a luxurious and comfortable train for people of Pakistan but I am afraid it may not maintain its standard after a specific time as we have seen the fate of other services in our country.
Feb 05, 2012 01:49am
18 hrs!! 25 years ago,shalimar express that was all airconditioned, took 15 hours or less from Karachi to Lahore. What a progress!
J. Siddiqui
Feb 05, 2012 03:27am
How many common Pakistanis can afford this luxury? It’s a smoke screen to cover up the corrupt practices? Why not build the PR and PIA as institutions! Who is gaining by destroying these institutions? It is a great blessing for nations to have visionary leaders like LKY and MS, who do not have Swiss bank accounts, and their only accountability is to their people. In Pakistan leaders are not only corrupt to the bone and they have no vision either. No understanding of rule of law, conflict of interest, and accountability. The feudal mindset is destroying everything!
Feb 05, 2012 03:46am
After 95% distruction of Pak Railway system, how the railway department making fool to 170 million Pakistani by operating one and only one train service with the help of private party. This govenment has destroyed 112 trains and train routs in 3 year time. They disable 95 % of railway engins. Introduced corruption in as culture in Pakistan. In these three years we at least expect total electrification of railway system, as so called poor India did 20 years before, so you do not need to depend diesel engine to run the train. You can save 80% of fuel, Million dollars of maintenance cost of engine every year. Dear Pakistani how you can expect to run run a power plant by mini bus drivers? Think over it. Thank you Mr. Biloor.
Feb 05, 2012 04:16am
forget about the railway. Pakistan should be privatized
Feb 05, 2012 07:07am
It is really a fantastic move on the part of government to provide luxury and comfort journey to masses of Pakistan.I wish such step should also be taken to overcome serious energy crises,sky rocketing prices and deteriorated law and order situation in the country to ease the life of common citizen of Pakistan.
Feb 05, 2012 07:51am
I would be afraid of the track conditions, instead of luxury trains, invest in better tracks, and faster trains, place lots of chairs for the second class, the beds should only be in the first class just as in Europe. The problem is we neglect basic services, then when we do something, it has to be over the top, incredibly fancy, luxurious, expensive or we feel we havent done anything. Instead of all these fancy trains, (nothing wrong with fancy trains) we should in tandem bring in clean, trains for the masses with clean bathrooms and attendants who clean them constantly.
Feb 05, 2012 09:08am
Although this sounds really good, I dont think it will continue beyond a few years. It is easy to launch ventures in Pakistan. But as soon as something becomes successful and profitable, the vultures from all corners start hovering aroung demanding their share or bhatta. And if they dont get any benefits then they do whatever they can to make sure that no one else gets any benefits.
Punjabi Mundda
Feb 05, 2012 09:45am
its not even a bullet train! - its not even a high speed train! - its just a first class service on an 18-hrs train ride for just 800-km distance!
Feb 05, 2012 10:58am
this is all rubbish, it is only a glimpse of first class service, all these private investors will steal every penny of our peoole and escape from the country and all of us will watch.
S G Khan
Feb 05, 2012 01:47pm
Its good initiative, but first things is, its very slow... 18 hours to Karachi...at least it should run with 100 Km/H , 60Km/H is not enough at all...So modernizing does not mean just put beds and blankets inside and nice paints... 2ndly train should be for every body, not just for elite class...it should help you get home every day after work with comfort and affordability. I cannot understand, how railway could be in loss in a country where one is not able to find an inch space on the train, so crowded....
Asif Shaikh
Feb 05, 2012 01:55pm
its all about to target a class of customers.that's great i think. if people love to spent money for comfort and facility then why should not any government department offer them a desired service. no one pointed finger to DAEWOO services.... they are most expansive coach service in this country ,same scenario with educational institutes's self finance admission policy. this generates more funds and supports the whole organisation. but when it comes to government departments i-e PIA or Railway people become critics.
Feb 05, 2012 02:50pm
Hope this is the beginning of journey towards total privatization of PR - the sole solution to make it a viable entity by ridding it of mass corruption and inefficiencies.
Manjunath Anchan
Feb 05, 2012 04:19pm
Its very nice to See the Train , its a hope for the Good future of Pakistan , Indians hope this type of improvement will be shown in all departments of Pakistan & more Improvement in the relationship with India .
Feb 05, 2012 06:52pm
It should be need here for starting such trains in Pakistan because here Minister for Railways said that There is no Rail in Afghanistan even so there is no need of it in Pakistan. In this situation, Business Trains is good idea for Pakistanis.
Yogesh Pednekar
Feb 05, 2012 08:02pm
I am an Indian and it feels nice to know that things are turning around in Pakistan..Railways the world over rely on container and cargo traffic for profitability. Maybe its time to have a look at that too...good effort though..
Khalid Ali
Feb 06, 2012 05:15am
Some of the comments above lament the fare being charged for the Business Train. Well, rail journey is quite expensive in Europe, Australia and many other western countries. In fact, it is more expensive than air journey. I would urge the private management of the Train to consider introducing online reservation through credit/easypaisa mechanisms. A frequent traveller scheme based on production of original CNIC of the traveller should also be introduced to give incentive to those travellers who are 'loyal' to the train.
Feb 06, 2012 07:04am
Good job PR. I wish you run many more like this train. I also wish that the fresh and crisp linen does not end up in railway official homes.
Feb 06, 2012 11:08am
Good initiative.. I wil travel by it soon with my frndx..
Muhammad Ikram
May 04, 2012 05:17am
I am an American Citizen of Pakistani decent, and currently residing in a rural area of Illinois. I am really proud of your comments and your well wishes. I pray that one day India and Pakistan become as close friends as USA and Canada. We should make an effort to create a WIN Win situation for both Countries. United We Stand, Divided We Fall.
chicago limousine
May 23, 2012 06:47am
Wow... It's so awesome luxury rail..
Jul 31, 2012 10:46am
hang the dirty officers of Pakistan railways.................