Train through Pakistan

Coming together of its different strands and the fight of its people against the odds

Written by New York Times | Ruk | Published: May 21, 2013 2:05 am

The decline of the country,the coming together of its different strands and the fight of its people against the odds — told through the once-mighty Pakistan Railways

Resplendent in his gleaming white uniform and peaked cap,the stationmaster stood at the platform,waiting for a train that would never come. “Cutbacks,” Nisar Ahmed Abro said with a resigned shrug.

Ruk Station,in the centre of Pakistan,is a dollhouse-pretty building,ringed by palm trees and rice paddies. Once it stood at the junction of two great Pakistani rail lines: the Kandahar State Railway,which raced north through the desert to the Afghan border; and another that swept east to west,chaining cities from the Hindu Kush mountains to the Arabian Sea.

Now it is a ghost station. No train has stopped at Ruk in six months,because of cost cutting at the state-owned Pakistan Railways. Abro led the way into his office,a high-ceilinged room with a silent grandfather clock,mopping sweat from his brow. The afternoon heat was rising,and the power had been down for 16 hours — nothing unusual in Pakistan these days.

Passenger numbers have plunged,train lines have closed and the freight business has crumbled. The last time the rail system turned a profit was in 1974.

Opposite Abro,Faisal Imran,a visiting railway engineer,said this was about more than just the once-mighty state railway service. It was about Pakistan itself.

PESHAWAR: The scarred city

Policemen wielding AK-47 guns guard the train station in Peshawar — one of about 40 such checkposts in the city. Since the first Taliban attacks about six years ago,the city has faced a relentless barrage of suicide bombings. Until a few years ago,the tracks stretched up to the storied Khyber Pass,30 miles to the west,where one of the last steam trains chugged through the tribal belt. Now that line is closed,its tracks washed away by floodwaters and too dangerous to run even if it were intact.

Khyber also gave its name to the country’s most famous train service,the Khyber Mail,immortalised by travel writers like Paul Theroux. It recalls the heyday of Pakistan’s railway raj,when the train was an elegant,popular mode of travel.

But the Awami Express,which waited at the platform,had little of that old-world charm. The carriages were austere and dusty. Only one class of ticket,economy,was for sale. The train company,lacking generators,could not offer any air-conditioning.

“We are in crisis,” said Khair

ul Bashar,the Peshawar stationmaster. “We don’t have money,engineers or locomotives.”

The decrepitude of the 152-year-old railway system has,in recent years,been attributed largely to a Peshawar native: the previous rail minister,Ghulam Ahmed Bilour. A classic product of Pakistan’s patronage-driven politics,Bilour,73,faced regular accusations of cronyism.

More recently,though,Bilour has become emblematic of another aspect of Pakistani politics. When Peshawar erupted in riots last October over a video clip that insulted the Prophet Muhammad,enraged protesters attacked the city’s movie theatres,including one belonging to Bilour’s family. A day later,the minister offered to pay $100,000 to anyone,militants included,who killed the offending filmmaker. In Peshawar,people viewed it with irony: The Bilour cinema was notorious for showing racy films that the Taliban surely would not appreciate.

But the cinemas represented more than just Western culture; they were a rare form of public entertainment in a city that is closing in on itself.

In the recent elections,Bilour lost his parliament seat to Imran Khan — the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf leader who has said the government should negotiate with the insurgents,not fight them.

In the seat of the train engineer aboard the Awami Express,Hameed Ahmed Rana,a taciturn man in a neat white shirt and a baseball cap,tugged gently on a brass handle and grumbled. The Japanese-built locomotive wheezed and shuddered. “There’s a problem with the pressure,” he said. “Not looking good.” On paper,Pakistan Railways has almost 500 engines,but in reality barely 150 are in working order.

Rana guided the train into Rawalpindi,headquarters to Pakistan’s military. Then it pressed south,rumbling past the rich irrigated fields and orange groves of northern Punjab,the heartland of military recruitment.

Inside the train,fans hung inertly from the ceiling as the day’s heat pressed in. A group of jolly Islamic missionaries squeezed into a long seat,offering a foreign visitor smiles,a snack and an invitation to convert to Islam. “We’re not on this world for long,” said Abdul Qadir. “People have a choice: heaven or hell.”

LAHORE: CLASS,CORRUPTION

Almost on schedule,the Awami Express panted into the grand old station at Lahore. A Hollywood movie starring Ava Gardner was shot here in 1955; today the yard is cluttered with empty freight vans.

Lahore is the centre of gravity for Pakistan’s cultural and military elite,a city of army barracks,tree-lined boulevards,artists and chic parties. It is also the headquarters of the 152-year-old railway empire. In the 1960s,Pakistan Railways was said to own one-third of the city’s land. The company is still run from a towering colonial-era palace.

Up close,however,there is evidence of decline. At the Mughalpura rail complex — stretched across 360 acres with 12,000 employees — workers were operating at 40 per cent capacity,managers complained. Electricity cuts bring work to a halt,while entrenched unions,a rarity in Pakistan,stridently oppose any efforts to shed jobs or cut benefits.

The misfortune of the railways has,however,benefited Lahore’s elite. Traditionally,the city’s wealth has stemmed from the surrounding countryside,where feudal landlords live off the rents of poor peasants. Of late,the landlords are being nudged aside by a new elite,one that has found a home in a gilded country club built on railway land.

The Royal Palm Golf and Country Club,a lavish facility with an 18-hole golf course,gyms,3D cinemas and cigar rooms,opened in 2002 at the height of the military rule of Gen Pervez Musharraf. The club,which costs $8,000 to join,has become a showcase for new money.

The Royal Palm’s glittering social functions are a staple of local society magazines. The opening of a local Porsche dealership was celebrated here in 2005 with a dinner featuring exotic dancers flown in from Europe.

But the Royal Palm was also built on the bones of the railways. The rail minister at the time was Lt Gen Javed Ashraf Qazi,an ally of Musharraf’s and a former spy chief who leased the railway’s land to a consortium of businessmen.

“It was not a clean deal. Absolutely not,” said Nasir Khalili,chairman of the Gardens Club,an officers social club with 1,400 members that had to surrender

its property.

The National Accountability Bureau,which investigates official corruption,concluded last year that the Royal Palm deal had cost the government millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Back in the 1980s,military ruler Gen Mohammad Zia ul-Haq had diverted train freight business to the National Logistics Cell,a military-run road haulage company. “With freight gone,the railway was doomed,” said Salman Rashid,a travel writer who has specialised in the train network.

One evening,a raucous concert took place on the Royal Palm driving green. Thousands of teenagers crowded onto the grass to see Atif Aslam,a popular singer.

To a foreigner,many posed a rhetorical question. “Do we look like terrorists?” asked Zuhaib Rafaqat,a 21-year-old computer student. “Look at us — we’re just enjoying ourselves,like anyone else.”

SINDH: SEPARATIST UNREST

Charging across lush fields of wheat and cotton,the train crossed into Sindh province,where it halted at Sukkur,on the Indus River. South of Sukkur,waterlogged fields mark a modern calamity: the 2010 floods,which inundated about one-fifth of the country,affected 20 million people and caused up to $43 billion in economic losses.

In the Awami Express’s grimy dining car,a cook named Amir Khan stirred a greasy chicken broth over an open flame. He gestured to the flood-scarred landscape. “Zardari will show this to America,so that he can get some money,” Khan said with a cackling laugh,referring to President Asif Ali Zardari,who comes from Sindh. “Maybe if Benazir were alive,things would be different.”

Sindh is the hub of Pakistan’s Hindu community which,like other minorities,has suffered from deepening intolerance in recent years. Stories of forced conversion of Hindu women at the hands of Muslim zealots have caused media scandals.

At Hyderabad,a train branch line jutted into the desert,toward the border with India. This was Thar,a desert region where Hindus are predominant. A rural commuter service — a train with open doors and a handful of seats — ambled through irrigated farmland toward the desert. On board were farmers,small traders and pilgrims returning from a Hindu shrine.

At the district’s main town,Umerkot,the local colony of snake charmers lives in the shadow of a fort. The chief snake charmer produced a government certificate attesting to his ability to perform a dangerous act of passing “three-foot snake from nostril and mouth”. “Half of our people are in India,” he said. “But we feel ourselves 100 per cent Pakistani.”

KARACHI: THE SLUM PATRIOT

Land is gold in Karachi,Pakistan’s tremulous port megalopolis: a city of migrants,filled with opportunity and danger,where space is at a premium. Political parties,mullahs,criminal gangs and Taliban militants all battle for land in the city. The railways offer an easy target. Slums crowd the train lines that snake through the city.

A short walk from Karachi’s main train station lies Railway Colony Gate No. 10: a cluster of rough shacks,bordered by a stagnant pool of black,putrid sewage.

Among its residents is Nazir Ahmed Jan,a burly 30-year-old and an unlikely Pakistani patriot. Jan,known to friends as Janu,is from the Swat Valley,where fighting erupted in 2009. After the Taliban arrived,his family fled Khwazakhela,a village “between the river and the mountain”. He makes his money selling “chole” on a pushcart. It earns him perhaps $3 a day.

But Jan is an irrepressible optimist. At least Karachi was safe,relatively speaking,he said. And it had other attractions.

In the corner of his home was a battered computer,hooked up to the Internet via a stolen phone line. He uses it to write poetry. He had contacted TV stations,and even the army press service,to get his work published,he said. But nobody was interested. “I just want to express my love for my country,” he said.

From the distance came the sound of a hooting train,pulling into the station. It was surely late.

(Declan Walsh,NYT Islamabad bureau chief,was expelled by Pakistani authorities on the eve of elections)

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