Updated February 11, 2018


Handsome as handsome can ever be: Victoria Bridge on the Jhelum River between Malakwal and Haranpur
Handsome as handsome can ever be: Victoria Bridge on the Jhelum River between Malakwal and Haranpur

Time was that I went around the country riding steam trains. From the narrow-gauge toy train connecting Bannu with Mari Indus to the metre-gauge trains of Sindh and the magnificent broad-gauge workhorses of what was once the North Western Railway, I rode quite a few. The last one I ever rode was the steam-hauled passenger train R-474 from Malakwal to Gharibwal. That was August 1994.

On that trip I met Iqbal Ghauri, foreman at the steam shed at Malakwal. Speaking only sparingly, and then unhurriedly, he kept his voice low, but exuded the air of a man who knew his job and was proud of it. All his life he had worked on steam locomotives and even as Pakistan Railway was phasing out steam, he was hopeful of keeping his engines going. It was clear he was terribly in love with those dark beauties. His commitment and dedication was remarkable and one could not but like the man.

A few years later in Britain, my steam buff chum Mike Yeadon took me to Loughborough to see ordinary everyday men (having nothing to do with railways) crawling all over a handsome old locomotive. Having started service back in the late 1940s, No. 71000, christened the Duke of Gloucester, hauled passenger trains across Britain. It retired in the 1970s, was abandoned in a railway dump and forgotten. Nearly two decades later, a postman and hobby steam buff, discovered it cannibalised and a mere skeleton of what was once a grand machine.

Within 50 years of independence, we shut down some priceless railway lines bequeathed to us by the Raj

The man made the right noises and got other steam buffs interested. The dedicated bunch acquired the hulk from the government and set to restoring it on their own. When I saw the Duke in January 1998, it had shortly before done a tourist run and was then being prepared for the next one.

Among the men working on the Duke, I saw the many other faces of Iqbal Ghauri of Malakwal. I told Mike about him and the love he put into the running of our own steam beauties. Right there, the plan for Mike to visit and be shown Malakwal and its Ghauri materialised.

Mike came out in August 1998. As we pulled up in front of Malakwal railway station, one of the Lala Musa-Sargodha passenger trains clanked in. It was hauled by diesel not steam. As we ambled on to the platform, I assured Mike the diesel was rare on this line and soon there would be a steam locomotive coming in.

But even before our wait for the next steam engine could begin we espied on the siding beyond the platform a line of freight wagons loaded with boilers and wheels of steam locomotives. We walked over to find a Ransomes and Rapier steam crane loading the cut-up cadavers of old steam locomotives. The man working the crane said the locomotives having lived out their useful years, were on their way to some foundry in Lahore.

‘Pakistan Railway has finally run out of steam,’ I noted wryly. Little did I know that this was almost prophetic because within the decade the railway would be but a shadow of its once glorious self.

Those locomotives based at Malakwal that Ghauri had so lovingly kept steaming were the last of broad-gauge steam and their phasing out almost made me cry. Among those dead machines was No. 2966, manufactured in the year 1911 by Vulcan Foundry of Newton le Willows in Britain. When it went under the cutter’s blowtorch, it had clocked just under seven million kilometres. I only knew its number, wishing we had a tradition of naming our locomotives as they do in some countries. Then No. 2966 would very likely have been Maharaja of Multan or something.

Of course, even then the railways planned to save a couple of locomotives for a couple of steam safaris here and there. But actual steam haulage had effectively come to an end. It was the end of a magnificent era. Some years after the end of steam, these branch lines, among many others, were shut down.

Gharibwal Railway Station
Gharibwal Railway Station

Several times in the intervening years, I have been along the line, not in a train but by car. I have stopped at the lovely little station of Chalisa with its beautiful signal box. I have crossed and recrossed the handsome Victoria Bridge across the Jhelum River on foot and by motorcycle and I have been to the stations of Khewra and Pind Dadan Khan. But I never returned to Gharibwal where our R-474 terminated on that lovely August day years ago.

Recently, after an outing to Malakwal, several weeks ago, I resolved to go across the river and check out Gharibwal. Malakwal was quiet. The old steam crane was still there, idle on its carriage, and Ghulam Mohammad who had been working it back in 1998 had since retired. The resthouse where my friends and I had overnighted in 1994 was unchanged, however.

Young Salman Ali and I made the first stop at Haranpur, set in a misty landscape amid bare, leafless trees. The sight of a couple of motorcycle rickshaws, some men on the platform and the open door of the Station Master’s office surprised me. I had been telling Salman we’d be visiting abandoned railway stations on a line that was no longer running. The bearded master bustled about because a train was due from Malakwal en route to the salt depot of Khewra. As he went about his business, he said they had a couple of services daily. And these were not just salt trains; they were hauling passengers as well.

I could scarcely believe my ears. Did the trains go up to Gharibwal for cement, I asked. But that was a negative. Cement went out by lorry, said the master. Sometimes it came down to Khewra and was brought across the river by rail.

The master in 1994 had told us that Haranpur was a name given to the locality by Jahangir, the fourth Mughal emperor, whose deer hunts in the area were legend. True, that both Jehangir and his father Akbar periodically descended upon this area and the adjoining hills near the village of Baghanwala (named after a garden established by Akbar and of which now only a gateway remains) to hunt. But these hunts were a disgrace, if you ask me: while the hunters waited in hides, game was driven in from all sides by beaters.

The royal diaries list the several hundred Punjab urial and ravine deer killed by both father and son in their own times. After a few years of this slaughter, Jahangir’s diary dryly noted that the bag was not as large as it used to be. Strangely, the king seemed incapable of connecting the dwindling bag and royal thirst for wanton killing.

The old Ransomes & Rapier steam-powered crane I have known since 1994 | Photos by the writer
The old Ransomes & Rapier steam-powered crane I have known since 1994 | Photos by the writer

We drove north on the highroad to Jhelum, took the turn left in the direction of the dark loom of the Salt Range to Rawal village. The station was a few hundred metres west of the road and, strangely, named after Gharibwal, kilometres further up. From my train trip of 1994, I had kept a mental image of a tree-shaded biggish building looking pretty under the loom of the salt hills. But we came upon a station not very different from the one at Haranpur. The trees were there all right, but the white-washed building was nondescript. And the hills behind were obscured by fog.

We poked about the unlocked interior and were soon joined by a man. Sad-faced, he said he was an employee of the once great railway and was still receiving his salary, but the station had been closed for almost a year. He repeatedly invoked God for the reopening of the station so that he could return to work. It was as if he expected one of us to say that we were there to see how quickly we could bring it back to life.

When the Victoria Bridge was commissioned in 1887, engineers swiftly pushed the line through to Pind Dadan Khan and south-west to Khushab and Kundian. The Great Game was at its most feverish and the hope was to take the line across the Indus to connect with Dera Ismail Khan and Zhob in the hills. As Raj authorities saw it, that would bring the flashpoints of Kandahar and Kabul within a couple days’ journey for the army headquartered in Punjab.

But that never happened and the line never crossed the river to Dera Ismail Khan. However, it did cross over at Kalabagh to reach Bannu and, at Khushalgarh, to connect Rawalpindi with Kohat and subsequently with Thal in Kurram. It also went across the Sindhu River at Attock to make Peshawar and Landi Kotal.

But the dreams that Raj engineers dreamed were of no consequence for the captains of Pakistan’s destiny. Within 50 years of independence, we had shut down some priceless lines bequeathed to us by the Raj. Thal, Bannu, Zhob and Landi Kotal were just a few of the scores of stations across the country no longer connected by the steel wheel. If such important — not to mention scenic — lines could be relegated to oblivion, it is a small wonder that regular trains still clatter across the magnificent steel structure of the Victoria Bridge between Malakwal and Khewra.

The tragedy is that no one in Pakistan considers the railway a tourist attraction. If this were another country, the old steam workhorses would have been kept in good fettle to haul tourist trains and lines like the Gharibwal or Peshawar-Landi Kotal or the Bostan-Zhob narrow-gauge ones would have offered regular weekend services. But Pakistanis suffer from other priorities.

The writer is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
He tweets @odysseuslahori

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 11th, 2018