Dawn News

Pakistan Railways: End of a journey?

Steam engine on display at Karachi Cantt. Station. -Photo by Vaqar Ahmed

Railway stations and rail journeys are stuff dream, fantasies, adventure and endless stories are made of.  Rail journeys are an apt paradigm for life itself; there is a beginning, then as you progress both the scenery and the fellow travelers change.  Some that you yearn to stay, step off too soon at their own destinations; and some that you have to suffer on pain of death stay with you for the rest of your long journey.

Some fellow travelers become friends for life, some other just a fleeting snapshot in time. At each stop there is the anticipation of new itinerants.  During all this, the landscape changes from flat lands to plateaus to lush green fields to wastelands, to high mountains and fearsome black tunnels.  Sometime when you are brave enough to lean out of the window you can see both the head and tail of the train.  For a moment, things fall in place only to hurtle you moments later into the darkness and confusion of a pitch-dark tunnel.  There is endless anticipation, endless mystery: life running fast forward in time.

Quetta Railway Station 1890. -Photo courtesy Wikimedia Common

A Bridge on the Chappar Rift in Balochistan Circa1890. –Photo courtesy Wikimedia Common

A charter train (with engines at both rear and front) about to depart from Shahgai and descend out of the Khyber Pass to Jumrud, near Peshawar (1993). -Photo courtesy Wikimedia Common

Sukkur Barrage Bridge over the mighty Indus. According to folklore the graves (in the foreground) belong to the seven female friends who lived together and decided never to marry. –Photograph courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I remember well the journey I undertook as a child from Quetta to Rawalpindi. The train cut across the barren mountains and through bone-dry places with chilling names like “Aab-e-Gum” (Vanished Water), charged headlong into the dark, unending, fearsome, Sibi Tunnel – the longest in Asia.  Three black as night steam engines, one in the front and two at the rear, worked their heart out to pull the carriages through the steep mountains.  The night was spent rocking through the icy cold deserts with the staccato of the wheels on the rails as a perfect lullaby. The silence was broken only by the shrill sound of the train whistle warning all to move out of the way or meet certain destruction.

After crossing the mighty Indus on the steel behemoth called the Sukkur Barrage Bridge, the train whistled through the green plains of Punjab, adorned in places by the bright yellow sunflowers, over shimmering rivers and finally curved through the endless rolling plateaus and ravines to reach Rawalpindi. This was a childhood adventure that will stay in the realm of my fondest memories, never repeated but forever told to my jet setting children.

The Mazar-e-Railway. No trains, no passengers. –Photo by Vaqar Ahmed

Fast-forwarding from1968 to 2012, the dream world of railway travel has turned into a nightmare. No whistling, chugging, screaming, black monsters called steam engines; these have been scrapped and melted down for steel.  One stands silent and still at the Karachi Cantonment Station as if mourning the passage of an era of mystery, reveries and hope. Tracks and locomotives are rusting away or pulled out of service due to a lack of maintenance. The few that work often stand idle due to a lack of fuel.  The journeys start late or never.  And if they do start, they end mostly late or never.  Passengers are sprawled on platform, waiting, forever waiting.  The schedule information board is turned off, as even the pretense of any schedule is pointless.  The waiting game has started and who knows when it will end.

No train, no passengers, no work for the boys in red. –Photo by Vaqar Ahmed

When will the train leave and when will they get home? God only knows! –Photo by Vaqar Ahmed

Those who take the train are considered by those who have never seen the inside of a train carriage to be cattle, and since cattle are never in a hurry to get anywhere except to the abattoir, it does not matter if their 24 hour journey takes 76 hours.  The non-cattle variety shuns the rail and travels by air only to sometimes find their cocoon crashing head-on into the Margalla Hills or plunging to the ground in a ball of fire.  It is a not so subtle reminder that when the malaise of mismanagement, corruption and sheer indifference spreads, it makes no distinction between sheep and humans and trains and planes.

Uncomfortable and more dangerous bus travel has replaced the dead railways. –Photo by Vaqar Ahmed

OK, don’t worry take the bus a.k.a sardine cans, a.k.a death traps, where your knees keep your chin intimate company through out the journey.  After all, we started our lives in a fetal position.  So what if some of these decorated tin cans with wheels end up in a deep ditch or a river or are crushed into an undefined jumble of steel, flesh and bones in a head-on collision.

Unreliable and Reliable modes of Transport (the later in the foreground). –Photo by Vaqar Ahmed

I say bring back the horses, the camels, and the hardy donkeys that so loyally served our great forebears for centuries. Reliable, low maintenance and low fuel cost.   And why even this dependence? What happened to traveling by foot?  It is just a short jaunt of six months from Karachi to Khyber.

Travel tiredness or life tiredness? An old man sleeping at Cantt. Railway Station. –Photo by Vaqar Ahmed

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, “You cannot step in to the same river twice”. I am sure if he had seen the Pakistan Railways of yesteryears and that of today he would have said “You cannot step into the same train twice”. Well, because that train is no more.


The author is an engineer turned part-time journalist who likes to hang out at unfashionable places like shrines, railway stations and bus stops.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Vaqar Ahmed is an engineer turned part-time journalist who likes to hang out at unfashionable places like shrines, railway stations and bus stops.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (60) Closed

Oct 09, 2012 08:42am
What an eloquently written post - beautiful photographs. You've captured the whole sentiment perfectly, thankyou!
Oct 09, 2012 06:33pm
I understand Pakistan Railways has serious problems, but what I have trouble understanding is, why it can not be fixed. Is it money, fuel prices, electricity shortage or all of the above. I am sure if they really want to fix this problem, it will get done. I feel apathy is the biggest problem. Am I right?
Oct 09, 2012 06:05pm
common man, do u mean China ? because i am from India and i agree there is a definite progress but come on its million times worse than the norther neighbour China, which again started at same time !!
hajra ahmed
Oct 09, 2012 08:13pm
a well written article with great pictures that i am sure will invoke nostalgia in old and wonder in young in Pakistan.
Ahsanullah Syed, City of Saskatoon, SK, Canada
Oct 10, 2012 02:20am
Unforgettable memories rich with peace, love, affectionate and sincerity to people and country. May Allah bring back same a.s.a.p.
Cyrus Howell
Oct 10, 2012 10:53pm
Train watchers from Britain used to travel to India and Pakistan to ride the old steam locomotive driven trains and to look at them in the railway yards.
Oct 11, 2012 04:15am
Some one tell me PLEASE What happen to my p a k I s t a n.
Oct 09, 2012 07:53pm
The name of the railway bridge the picture of which is shown above is Ayub Bridge (completed in 1960) and behind this bridge is an old bridge named Lensdowne bridge and is a marvel of ninteenth century. The name given as Sukkur Barrage Bridge as pictured is irroneous. Sukkur Barrage is actually a Indus river irrigation project and has a narrow bridge too and located some kilometres away from these two bridges.
Oct 09, 2012 09:24am
Have read several articles like this about the Pakstani Railways of old -- esp those of the Jamrud Railway etc in parts of the old NWFP and Balochistan. Even as an Indian, I feel that it would have been a wonderful feeling to experience what it would have been like to travel in those good ol' days. Now, like a lot of things written about Pakistan (by this author, NFP among others), these days are never to return.... even in spirit it would seem. What a shame indeed...
Cyrus Howell
Oct 10, 2012 10:56pm
Not to worry. The old engines will be put back after the revolution :O)
Cyrus Howell
Oct 10, 2012 10:55pm
Wouldn't that be dishonorable Mr. Bilour?
Oct 09, 2012 10:02pm
When politicians are busy plotting against each other, how will they have time for national assets and the people.
Oct 09, 2012 12:09pm
Its a real shame that Railways as being one of the nation most important asset has been devoured. Especially thanks to Mr Bilour and his team. Anyways there no experience as journey by the rail but in this country for petty gains this institution has been slain. For nations who have excelled just see their railways networks, and why shall we be looking far as the British ruled us for 2 centuries and where ever they went railways was not far behind as it was the lifeline of their reign.
Kamran Asdar Ali
Oct 09, 2012 12:15pm
For those of us who grew up in the 70s, railways was the only affordable way to travel from Karachi to up country. Summer vacations meant getting a student concession form that allowed us literally to reach Lahore under Rs 26 and change (albeit on Awami Express in 3rd class, but we had a berth). The excitement of seeing the country and being informed at Khanewal that we would were on the electric grid was fascinating. Thank you Vaqar bhai for sharing your memories, views and photos with us. On the last idea, either restore the railways or bring back the camels and donkeys...or try walking.... healthier, less dangerous and environmentally sound. I am with you. Kamran
Oct 09, 2012 02:41pm
Although I grew up in 80s but share veryu similar experience. I remember to this day my train trip to up country with my brother, cousin and one of our friend during our summer break from school. It took lot of convincing for our families to let us go by ourselves, then, we had to get concession forms for our respective schools to get discounted tickets. We took Tezgam to Rawalpindi from Karachi Cantt. During the journey, we saw mighty Indus, lush Punjab plains and the hills of northern Punjab. We went on to see Islamabad and Muree. We had new found admiration and appreciation of beautiful country and its people. That was the trip of lifetime for all four of us. Thirty years later two of us are in US and one in South America and my cousin is still in Karachi. For one reason or other, whenever we talk to each other, the fun memories from this trip still become the subject of our conversations! Rail travel to country side is an experience to have. I am planning on reliving my childhood memories with my kids when we take our next rail journey so that they can remember their childhood experience when they grow up.
Oct 09, 2012 09:26pm
A true picture of Pakistan Railway painted by Vaqar sahib.From early 50's to 67,I traveled many times from Rawalpindi-Quetta and back by railway..Excellent food served within the cabins.Exciting hustle at railway stations.No question of delays and arrivals always on time.Very confortable first class waiting rooms.Journey exactly as explained by Vaqar Sahib.A dream world,Pity is that all over the world,railway has progressed further,taking them above 200kmp and our railway stations are deserted.Ghapay Pakistan Ghapay Pakistan.
Oct 10, 2012 12:07pm
ask Mr. Bilour the railway minister , who has enough money to give away for the cause he likes and thinks important . may be he doesn't know how bad the situation of Pakistan Railway is and it really needs some money to run and good administration.
Usman Ajmal (@dodgy_helmet)
Oct 10, 2012 01:28am
We needed to learn this lesson, feel the pain of failure, of ruining our own country. I hope in the past 65 years and 5 years in particular we've learnt some lessons. Otherwise, the next 65 years will be worse.
Nusrat K
Oct 09, 2012 12:28pm
Fine, evocative travel writing, keeping some of our history on track.
arif ali khan
Oct 09, 2012 12:44pm
Vaqar I too have really fond memories of train travel and can easily relate to your description of shimmering rivers. I also recall fields of mustard swaying in the wind and blue skies (also rare now) as well as stops along the way where we had the "chai garaaam" and boiled eggs. :-)
Oct 09, 2012 10:41am
As ex Railwayman I feel the pain in the decay of Railways
Oct 09, 2012 10:46am
Things were bad with the railways but now they have hit rock bottom. Khapay ! Khapay ! Khapay !
Oct 09, 2012 01:47pm
Why not take some tips from your friend(?) next door which still manages to run the railways which both the countries inherited.
Oct 09, 2012 01:50pm
Pakistan railways has run to the ground. If the country wants a reliable affordable mode of transport they should improve the railways as other countries are doing
Oct 09, 2012 08:44pm
pakistan was very well connected with railways even more than india at the time of independence. give them the credit, at least they've maintained the same standard. Pakistan railways are much better than their indian counterpart today.. hehehehe
Agha Ata (USA)
Oct 09, 2012 01:54pm
Waqar Sahib, "chalti ka nam gari hey, mager na chalti ka nam "Pakistan Railway" hey. Isn't it simple to remember?
Oct 09, 2012 11:25am
Sorry Shehzad77, I mistakenly clicked on the "thumbs down"!
s ahmed
Oct 09, 2012 11:34am
such nice photos, esp the jamrud one. sad to see what PR has become.
Oct 10, 2012 11:06am
Train is one of the most romentic way to travel in hills & planes. Necessary steps must be take for the revival of paksitan railways.
Garolian Mazdon
Oct 09, 2012 11:20pm
A strong metaphor for the country
Oct 09, 2012 04:21pm
What to think of future in this country when past was gloroious, present is bleak and future looks creepy to all of us.
Oct 09, 2012 10:29am
We have so much to mourn about. Great piece of writing sir. reminds me of my childhood days.
Oct 10, 2012 09:03pm
So many pleasant hours on NWR, then PR, in the 50s, 60s and 70s...so go the railways, so goes Pakistan, sic transit
Vaqar Ahmed
Oct 10, 2012 09:57am
Thank your for pointing out the correct name of the bridge.
Oct 09, 2012 10:07am
Really good.
Oct 09, 2012 11:58pm
great article. coming from a railway family i know what u mean. good work buddy
Oct 10, 2012 09:35am
Trains are a such a great way to connect & build a nation.It is surprising how Pakistan Railway has come to such a sorry state.
Oct 10, 2012 07:50am
There is simply no reason why Railways shouldnt be successful in any country. Moreover Pakistan had the luxury of an existing railway infrastructure in 1947 so no major investment was required. The demise defies all logic.
Jamshed Khan
Oct 10, 2012 07:46am
I am great railway enthusiast and it breaks my heart to see the current state of Pakistan Railways. I have been using rails for several decades but things have never been this bad. Someone should have a bounty of some kind on Mr Bilour...
taranveer Singh
Oct 09, 2012 08:19pm
nice writing :-)
Oct 10, 2012 07:23am
Hi, Are there no/minimal railways in Pakistan? How then people travel across different parts. Or I didn't got the correct msg from this article?
Oct 10, 2012 06:41am
what can i say about our administrations credibilities, and in this case how much can we criticize or even abuse Mr. Bashir Baloor, nothing works for them & they r on a stage that they'r immune of everything....Such small petty things don't mean anything to them.... And about the future of our institutions & Pakistan, i see it as a failure, as the fault is not in a specific group of people like the ruling class, nearly each and everyone of us is corrupt..... And as much as we get our chance, we don't miss it.... But just keep criticizing the big crocs....
Oct 10, 2012 06:10am
Shame on hounarable Mr Bilour for completely destroying an asset and backbone of infrastructure. This makes him either extremely corrupt or extremely incompetent.
JP Singh
Oct 09, 2012 05:06pm
I still love train journeys - they help you see your country and the people. I always looked upon them as educative and learned a lot about the country. My father as a young Lieutenant of the the Army of undivided India recounted fondly of the train journeys from the North West Frontier down to the plains of the Punjab as being the most picturesque.
Cyrus Howell
Oct 10, 2012 10:49pm
The steam locomotives have been retired in India as well.
Oct 10, 2012 05:46am
The present Pakistan Railways represent the true picture of present Pakistanways! Shame on those who brought it to the present condition but who cares. Anyway those who are responsible never bother to travel by train because it is below their status and dignity. The past trend predicts the future unless something brings a revolution in minds and actions of those who can make a difference.
Cyrus Howell
Oct 10, 2012 10:50pm
Where does all that money come from?
Oct 10, 2012 05:31am
Railways are the life line of any country. THey could learn the management of it from their neighbours who have an extensive network system. third largest in the world.
Oswald Saldanha
Oct 09, 2012 04:04pm
Thanks Vaqar for a very interesting piece and taking your readers down memory lane. As a student of Karachi's St Lawrence's Boy's School, our Scout Troop would travel by train for our summer holiday's, up country. A group of approximately 25 scouts, four scout masters and a priest. I am not sure of the sequence of the journey, however we travelled to the following cities by train, Peshawar, Landkotal, Bara, Sialkot, Lahore, Jhelum, Murree, Nathiagali and Ziarat. . At some points, our train bogey would be shunted away from the main platform and parked away at the station, while we would take the bus trip up north. This was possible, due to the cooperation of Pakistan Railways ( PR ), every aspect of these trips went without a hitch. Pakistan Railways were efficient, never screwed up. The bogey was huge, cooking of meals was done on board the train. My most memorable trips of my life, simply incredible, the people of the tribal areas were great. The historical city of Lahore was a friend of the camera, while Jhelum a clean cantonment city. Murree, Nathiagali, Ziarat the jewels of Pakistan's tourism industry .These trips were done approx 42 years ago. This Dec, our class of 1972 is staging it's 40th graduating aniversary in Karachi. These were the golden years of " Our beautiful Pakistan ", while the chattering classes receeded into their drawing rooms, deciding not to take on religous bigots encouraged by Gen Zia, the religous fanatics have taken over the country. Pakistani's elect Imran Khan and take back your country. Pakistan has the capability and capacity to be a South Korea in 10 years. ELECT THE RIGHT PEOPLE.
Oct 10, 2012 05:09am
The description is so heart touching.. Pakistan Railways has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Now, thanks to some corrupt politicians of Pakistan, the railways have virtually come to a standstill. What can be more pathetic than this? As a well-wisher Indian, I can only hope and pray that Pakistan Railways manages to chug along in the days to come. Pakistan's citizens must ensure that they vote for the best people in the coming elections.
Oct 09, 2012 09:26am
What a great country, a great culture and a great Railway system we shared! In short six decades we have managed to make a complete mess out of our common inheitance, What a pity!
Oct 10, 2012 04:30am
What an article that brings tears in every rail fan.In India where modern technology has taken over most of the lines having fast trains that run on high tech engines and locomotives, one misses the old days when trains were simple, ran on steam and gave plenty of time to explore places while waiting for the connecting train.While no one has the time nowadays PR must bring back train connectivity all over the country.How can there be a country w/o railways which is so much of fun to travel?
Oct 10, 2012 03:36am
Anyone who has not traveled with the Pakistan Railways so far must do so ASAP because PR is an endangered species. Also, the govt. is requested to change its name to BILOUR Railways. In future, you will visit ruins of PR and find an engine like you see one in Madain Saleh ( 300 km north of Madina Munawwara ) of the Hijaz Railways from Turkey to Madinah in the early 20th century.
Oct 10, 2012 03:32am
in the 1800s the British knew that sub continent needs railway and canal system. Its a shame that after centuries our leaders still don't know. When i was a child i use to imagine traveling in train as i use to watch it on TV in remote Gilgit city but now i live in Lahore and i even won't go to see the train. There is nothing left except the scrap.
Oct 09, 2012 04:50pm
Nice nostalgic article Mr.Ahmed.I would strongly recommend your trying out the Palace on wheels in India to recapture that sentiment and possibly create a revival of the railways in Pakistan.I for one would be delighted at the opportunity to visit Pakistan in the safety and reliability of a well planned train journey.
Oct 10, 2012 01:36am
Beautiful prose, absolutely magnificent photographs. Please keep contributing more thoughts and photos of the railways and other places you have been. Thank you so much. Quite a remarkable mind.
Oct 09, 2012 06:46pm
I feel every railman to be equally responsible for the railway debacle.
Parwaiz Abidi
Oct 11, 2012 04:59am
Also ask him why is he running a fleet of buses. How can he hold an important ministry when his personal businesses are in direct conflict with what he does. How can he make railways successful and also maintain a fleet of buses. Conflict of interest plain and simple.
Cyrus Howell
Oct 10, 2012 10:59pm
Lovely photos these.
Oct 09, 2012 04:31pm
At least the Indian Railways is running and expanding.