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The derelict route to Iran

Updated June 19, 2018

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IN Karoduk, gang-men are busy removing sand from railway tracks. In Karoduk and elsewhere in Chaghi district, freight train, which transports goods between Pakistan and Iran, usually gets stuck for days and weeks.
IN Karoduk, gang-men are busy removing sand from railway tracks. In Karoduk and elsewhere in Chaghi district, freight train, which transports goods between Pakistan and Iran, usually gets stuck for days and weeks.

THE sandy area of Karoduk is situated approximately 33 kilometres from Dalbandin, the headquarters of Balochistan’s largest district, Chaghi. The place used to be lush green and had a school, tube wells and residential quarters that housed employees of the railways department. It now wears a deserted look, and due to the government’s negligence, has lost its once charming facade. A very few railway officials inhabit the isolated quarters, and they too talk of leaving soon.

Towards the beginning of Ramazan this year, railway workers at Dalbandin collected money and sacrificed two black goats. They prayed for a miracle that freight trains bound for Iran would not get derailed because of sand dunes at Karoduk, and get stuck. The hot sand-strewn abandoned expanse, situated near the RCD Highway of Dalbandin, is not a place where workers can conveniently rescue trains jammed on the tracks.

Sadly though, the prayers of these workers did not work out. Last week, a freight train bound for Iran found itself stuck on the tracks at Karoduk, where it remained jammed for hours.

The gang-men — members of the track maintenance team of the railways — most of who were fasting, were sent to remove sand from the tracks in Karoduk — the hottest area of Chaghi district.

“Our railway officers do not stay in Dalbandin,” says a gang-man, requesting anonymity. “They soon talk of getting transferred after a month or so. Some succeed, some do not. By sheer bad luck, we are always stuck with the rotting trains that cannot move themselves.”

The angry railway worker goes on to tell Dawn: “Sometimes I think of collecting wood and setting fire to the whole train, because we are more than fed up of rescuing the trains stuck in this deserted area.”

The freight trains travelling between Quetta and Zahedan (the provincial capital of Sistan and Baluchestan in Iran) usually transport cement, bitumen, sulphur, rice, and oranges between the two countries.

“We stopped exporting oranges to Iran ages ago because of the shabby condition of our rail track... the oranges would rot away on our side of the border before reaching Iran,” laments an office-bearer of the railways department in Dalbandin, who does not want to be named, adding, “As a result, we dropped the option of transporting oranges.”

According to reports, the current freight rates charge Rs800 per tonne for imports and Rs500 per tonne for exports. The option is far cheaper than private vehicles which charge anywhere from Rs1,800 to Rs2,000 per tonne. The fuel for the freight trains is provided by both countries — 6,000 litres of diesel by Pakistan and 4,000 litres by Iran.

The entire stretch of the Quetta-Taftan railway line on our side covers around 732km. The entire area of Chaghi, in general, and Dalbandin, in particular, is sandy and dusty, and trains passing through can get stuck for weeks, especially when the winds blow sand around in summer.

“In Chaghi district, by and large, trains get stuck due to accumulation of several feet of sand on the tracks,” says the railway official.

An area of around 250km to 301km — the distance between gang 16 and gang 19 — in Chaghi is covered in sand. It is in this stretch of rail track that trains find themselves stranded, sometimes for days or weeks. “We either have to remove the sand with the help of 15 gang-men or by private tractors who we have to hire,” he adds.

In January, railway officials of Pakistan and Iran had decided to resume a fortnightly passenger train service between the two countries using the old railway route. As I bring up this topic, nearly all the gang-men break into peals of laughter.

One of them says: “You talk of passenger trains, first look at the condition of freight trains. Even the drivers of such freight trains stick out their dried tongues and ask us for cold water when their trains get stuck in sandy spaces.” Sarcastically, he adds that if passengers travelled by the same route, they would have to carry along shovels with themselves to clear the sand off the tracks. “Otherwise, they will die of thirst and hunger over here.”

Background interviews with railway officials suggest that the freight train operating between the two cities does not bring in much profit.The department operates it at a loss.

By one account, the late Faiz Mohammad Bugti, former divisional superintendent of the railways, wanted to keep the freight train running despite the loss incurred, because if it stopped once, it would be dumped forever.

There has not been a single appointment in the railways department here since 2009. This is why, according to various railway officials, the department here is 70 per cent understaffed. Not surprisingly, the gang-men are elderly. Despite the obvious shortage of staff, the government does not seem interested in filling these vacancies.

After the arrival of the British in Balochistan around 1885, this section of the railway track was laid out “on an emergency basis”. The track appears to have been forgotten since there has been no upgrade work on it since then. It is the gang-men and railway officials who end up bearing the brunt of it all. They remain on duty on Eid to remove the sand from the tracks in Karoduk and elsewhere in Chaghi district. “This is our fate — suffer endlessly, even on Eid,” a gang-man concludes. “There is no way out.”

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2018