Footprints: A railway station steeped in history

Published January 23, 2015
A narrowgauge steam engine at the Golra Sharif Railway Heritage Museum, located on the outskirts of Islamabad.—Photo by writer
A narrowgauge steam engine at the Golra Sharif Railway Heritage Museum, located on the outskirts of Islamabad.—Photo by writer

"CHAI garam, garam chai.” The call echoes in my mind as I walk around the Golra Sharif Railway Station even though there is no tea for visitors here. An old signboard under a tree advertises tea in five languages — English, Urdu, Gurmukhi, Hindi and Bengali.

The Golra Sharif Railway Station, located on the outskirts of Islamabad, provides a glimpse into the past. A tarmac road leads to the station but in the end you need to ask your way around.

The station welcomes visitors with its panoramic view of old banyan trees, steam engines, a small Victorian-style building and serene environment.

Established in 1881 and upgraded to a junction in 1912, the Golra Sharif Railway Station has been used by the residents of the surrounding villages for over a century.

Though the number of people using the station has declined in recent years, according to Ather Munir, the assistant stationmaster, “more than a hundred passengers still travel through it daily”. This number rises during religious festivals such as an urs in Multan “as many people travel on the Multan-bound Mehr Express”, one of the only two trains that still stop at this station, even though about 20 pass through the line daily. The other one is Havelian Passenger.

“This station is located on the main railway line which connects Peshawar to Karachi,” says Munir. Connecting Punjab to the north-western areas of the country, the station was built by the British as a logistic artery during the ‘Great Game’ days and military campaigns in Afghanistan. It also served as one of the major trade routes.

Today, the Golra Sharif Railway Station is known more for the Railway Heritage Museum it houses than for being a stop for travellers. Established in October 2003, the museum is truly one of its kind. Not limited to a closed hall, it includes old locomotive trains, steam engines, and lifters stationed at the platform.

Visitors can walk around four old engines with coaches. Two of these engines are narrow gauge steam engines, and the other two broad gauge engines. One of the broad gauge engines is a Canadian-assembled steam engine while the other is an electric engine which was once used on the Lahore-Khanewal track.

The coaches also have rich history and are said to have belonged to Viceroy Lord Mountbatten and Maharaja of Jodhpur. In addition, a German postal coach and luxury coaches from the British period are also an attraction for the visitors.

The old passengers’ waiting room now houses valuable pieces of railway history. Relics and railway tools from as far back as the 1880s are displayed along with some railway equipment captured by Pakistan during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. These include old guns, dresses, oil lamps, lights, crockery, bells, telephones, train models, stoves, heaters, fans, medical equipment, furniture, documents and photographs. Most of the artefacts are from the period of British rule in the subcontinent, when Pakistan Railways was known as North Western Railway.

“The items displayed in the museum were collected from all over the country,” says Fareedul Haq, a staff member of Pakistan Railways who also works as the museum guide. “Many of them are still in working condition.”

Haq points out that the waiting room was built in 1882 and claims that it has been maintained in its original condition.

According to Haq, between 20 and 30 people visit on weekdays while weekends are busier, with the number rising to a hundred people. Schools also bring students. The museum charges 10 rupees as entry fee, which is actually a platform ticket.

A special train from Golra to Taxila, called a safari train, was also started but has not been active regularly for the past few years, says Haq. “It is now only available through booking. Usually schools or colleges book it, or advertisement agencies for shoots.”

The station-museum is among the few recreational places in Islamabad, yet many residents of Rawalpindi and Islamabad do not know much about it.

Zulqarnain Abbasi, a resident of Rawalpindi visiting the museum with his family, says that he found out about the place when a friend shared pictures on social media. Comparing it to Hasan Abdal and Taxila, he says that the museum is “very well managed. I really appreciate that the railway staff here is very cooperative”. He feels that it needs to be better advertised.

Another visitor, Muhammad Mudasir, says that he could not have imagined such a peaceful and historical place existed in Islamabad. “All I miss here is a cup of tea,” he says looking at the tea signboard, adding that it would be “lovely to enjoy a cup in the shade of these old trees, near the steam engines”.

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2015

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