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Travelling on the Thar Express

February 20, 2006

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THE resumption of the rail link between Sindh and Rajasthan is definitely a good thing. For one, it will go some way in rebutting arguments that the peace process between the two countries is not benefiting Pakistan’s smaller provinces, especially Sindh. For example, Lahore has two bus links and one rail link with India, in addition to an air connection with New Delhi while Muzaffarabad and Srinagar are connected by bus. In the south of the country, till the restoration of the rail link, the only means of travel was by air, from Karachi to either Mumbai or Delhi.

Having travelled on the inaugural service of the Thar Express, some points need to be made.

While the service is called the Thar Express, it does not make any stops in the Tharparkar area to take on or drop any passenger. There is a stop at Hyderabad and at Mirpurkhas, coming and going, but passengers coming from India or heading to India are not allowed to disembark. This means that a person living in Mirpurkhas – which is a 4-5 hour train journey to Zero Point, a furlong from the Indian border post – will first have to travel to Karachi to board the train, which means a train travel time of around five hours, and then head back in the opposite direction, towards his hometown, and then on to Munabao. This means adding 10 hours to his travel time.

Also, the Munabao-Khokhrapar link has been practically rechristened the Munabao-Zero Point link because the Thar Express does not even stop at Khokhrapar (eight kms before the Indian border post) anymore. As time goes on, both the governments of India and Pakistan need to realistically look at this issue. As the peace process deepens, perhaps allowing visas to more cities should be considered. In the case of the Thar Express, this could be, Mirpurkhas, Umerkot and Hyderabad from the Pakistani side in exchange for, say, Jodhpur, Ahmedabad and Jaisalamer.

One happened to meet two residents of Malir in Karachi who had taken the train to Zero Point to see off and receive relatives. The latter were coming from Bhuj in Gujarat which is a mere 300 kms southeast of Karachi on the map. However, because of the travel arrangements in place their travel time took almost two days, from Bhuj to Jodhpur by train, then from there to Munabao, across the border and on to Karachi.

Also, Pakistan Railways needs to consider the possibility of running a local service as well, since a track is now in place. On the day of the service, villagers and other locals thronged the PR ticketing counter at the Zero Point railway station which means there is demand for a local train as well.

Two, in any kind of travel service, especially when it’s done the first time in over 40 years, there are bound to be teething problems. However, in the case of the Thar Express launched by Pakistan, some of the problems seemed very basic and should have been avoided. For instance, the Zero Point station, which has been built from scratch unlike Munabao in India, did not have a single stall selling tea, water or cold drinks. Besides, the restrooms were only for passengers once they had entered customs, but there were none for passengers in the waiting area or relatives who had come to see off or receive passengers. There were two taps of running water but these were also at the farther end of the platform meaning that only intending passengers could use them and that too once they had been cleared for entry into India. There were no – and this seems to have become a hallmark of such government initiatives – trash cans anywhere. On the first day of the service, the Thar Express left behind a sea of paper containers, plastic bags and litter as it left for Karachi with 260-plus passengers from India.

There were other issues as well. The train reached Zero Point at nine in the morning but did not enter India till 1.30pm. It came back to Pakistan by 4pm (meaning that Indian authorities managed to clear the arriving passengers and processed the departing travellers in that time) but did not leave for Karachi till ten past nine. It took the customs and immigration staff over five hours to process 260 passengers and one can only wonder what will happen when the load increases.

One saw that the immigration form given to arriving passengers was in English and Urdu but no option for Hindi. It was clear that many of the passengers would have been unable to write in either.

The customs and FIA staff also left with the train (since there are presently no facilities to house them) and this naturally adds to the delay. Upon asking, one official said that there were some discrepancies in the number of passengers that were arriving and hence the delay. Hopefully, as time goes on these matters will be sorted out. Pakistan Railways will also have to improve things. For instance, on the train journey back from Munabao to Karachi there was no running water in the train and this meant that only those with the dullest possible sense of smell could make it to the toilets.

The train also made what seemed an excruciatingly long stopover in Mirpurkhas on the way back. The train reached there at 2am, en route to Karachi, and was there till 3.15am till which time the bogies were thronged by young boys and men, milling around with the passengers trying to shake hands with whomever they could. Not only is this a security hazard, it is plain cruel to force passengers to go through such torture. All this time, songs eulogizing the MQM and PML were being played at an unbearably loud volume along with announcements. Surely, this needs to be stopped forthwith.

The train also has no AC coaches. As the weather gets hotter, this will probably need to change. Journalists who went to Zero Point were told that AC bogies were technically not possible. However, the chairman of Pakistan Railways, who came to see off the Thar Express at Zero Point came in his own train, which had an air-conditioned saloon.