Zhob Railway no more
There was plenty of talk of revitalising the line, especially as a tourist attraction, but that never happened
By Salman Rashid
Railway engineers of the Raj laid the line in the 1920s and called it the Zhob Valley Railway (ZVR) after the river and the town they later renamed Fort Sandeman. It was a Narrow Gauge line taking off from the Broad Gauge station of Bostan on the Quetta-Chaman track, for Zhob 320 kilometres to the northeast. En route it was to pass along the highest part of the Balochistan plateau.


Hoteliers in Swat reeling from losses suffered from the military operations and floods have received support from an unlikely source. The US government has decided to provide cash and goods to 300 hotel owners in a bid to rehabilitate the tourism industry.

In the first phase, an amount of $4.5 million equivalent to Rs425 million was approved. According to Zahid Khan, President of the All Swat Hotels Association, the money has started reaching the affected hoteliers and brought happiness to them and all those connected to the hotel industry.

Hotel owners would receive the compensation amount in four instalments while the goods would be provided lump sum. The hotels have been categorised according to their services and hotel status.

However, the hoteliers felt that they should have been compensated on the basis of the damages sustained by their hotels due to militancy and floods. At present, they said the compensation amount was calculated on the basis of the number of rooms in each hotel.

According to a survey, out of a total of 850 hotels, about 60 were damaged due to militancy and another 107 were either swept away or severely damaged by the floods last July. The remaining hotels ran into loses, as tourists stayed away from the valley because of the law and order situation. From 2007 onwards, Swat”s tourism industry began to report major losses.

Zahid Khan credited Richard Holbrooke, President Obama”s Special Adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan, for proposing the compensation package for Swat. “When Holbrooke visited Swat after the July 2010 floods, we apprised him about the losses suffered by the hotel owners. Later, I was invited to the US embassy in Islamabad to brief the officials about the hardships faced by the hoteliers,” he said.

However, Zahid Khan felt the survey conducted on the hotel damages in Swat was flawed. He argued that about 850 hotels were affected in one way or the other and the assessment survey and compensation package needs to be reviewed.

Known as the Switzerland of Pakistan due to its forested mountains, streams and rivers and pleasant summers, Swat was a princely state ruled by the Wali of Swat till 1969. It was in 1994-95 when the black-turbaned militants of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), waged an armed campaign in Swat and rest of the Malakand region. The movement, led by Maulana Sufi Muhammad, ended when the government agreed to implement Islamic law in the area. It was again in 2005 that Maulana Fazlullah and his men gained power and eventually took over most of Swat and parts of the adjoining districts.

In peaceful times, tourism was the third major source of income in Swat with an estimated half a million people directly or indirectly attached to the sector. According to the All Swat Hotels Association, about 15,000 people used to work in 885 hotels and restaurants while another 40,000 were indirectly linked to the hotel industry as stock suppliers and transporters. Skilled men and women making handicrafts lost their livelihoods when tourism collapsed from 2007 onwards as violence engulfed the valley and scared away tourists.

After Pakistan Army”s successful military operation that drove out the Taliban from power in the summer of 2009, the All Swat Hotels Association along with the Upper Swat Hotels Association and Kalam Hotels Association in an effort to revive the hotel industry offered a 10-day free stay to couples and families visiting Swat to enjoy the winter snowfall in late 2009. About 800 tourists from all over Pakistan responded and availed the offer.

The hoteliers, however, complained that the government and its tourism corporation failed to help them in putting the hotel industry back on track. They also claim that the provincial government forgot its promise to pay Rs5, 00,000 to every destroyed hotel.

The July floods caused further damage to the hotels and destroyed all hopes of revival of the hotel industry. To make matters worse, the road from Madyan to Kalam, a stretch of land comprising the most popular tourist destinations in Swat, was swept away by the floods to make all these places inaccessible.

In the twin towns of Mingora and Saidu Sharif, some revival of the hotels and restaurants has taken place, but the most important tourist spots such as Malam Jabba, Miandam, Madyan, Bahrain and Kalam are inaccessible or still not fully ready to receive tourists.

The skiing resort of Malam Jabba that was damaged at the hands of militants and during military action needs major repairs. Miandam escaped damage and could be reached and its hoteliers are expecting to receive more tourists this summer. Kalam, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Pakistan, is home to nearly 150 hotels and restaurants sited on the banks of river Swat. Its revival would give a major boost to the tourism industry in Swat.

Hoteliers in Swat are pushing for repairs and reconstruction of the major roads and other infrastructural development to make tourist spots in the valley once again accessible to the people. Nobody is expecting foreign tourists to come to Swat in the near future, but the improved security and road repairs would revive domestic tourism.

Government functionaries, military officials, analysts, hoteliers and the common Swatis are all convinced that revival of tourism would not only generate jobs and help revive the economy but also send the message that Swat once more is peaceful and worth paying a visit to.

Zahid Khan asked the government to declare tourism an industry, build roads to more than 12 alpine lakes in Swat and develop parks and picnic spots to facilitate tourists. “This will not only attract local tourists but also foreigners, who would help us in building Pakistan”s foreign exchange reserves,” he said.


Zhob Railway no more

Railway engineers of the Raj laid the line in the 1920s and called it the Zhob Valley Railway (ZVR) after the river and the town they later renamed Fort Sandeman. It was a Narrow Gauge line taking off from the Broad Gauge station of Bostan on the Quetta-Chaman track, for Zhob 320 kilometres to the northeast. En route it was to pass along the highest part of the Balochistan plateau.

When Pakistan inherited it, the line still ran four services per week -- two out of Bostan to Zhob and two back. Now, passenger haulage is a losing proposition, even for the most efficient railway system in the world. Railways run by hauling freight. And so, ZVR was actually meant to haul chrome from the mines near Hindubagh that we duly Islamised under the Ayub dictatorship and have since known as Muslimbagh. It was chrome haulage that paid for the passenger service on which no one ever purchased a ticket.

The roads were bad in those days and trains were a much surer way of getting around. Even in those days, chrome haulage was tedious business: beaten up old World War II trucks brought the ore from the mines to the Muslimbagh station where it was loaded on the chrome hoppers for transportation to Bostan. There the freight was transhipped once again, either on Broad Gauge rolling stock or lorries for farther transportation to the steel industry.

But by mid-1970s road improvement began. Trucking picked up and soon there were lorries operating directly from the mines to the final destination. Chrome haulage quickly dried up thereafter. With the only source of revenue gone, the train started grinding to a slow but inevitable demise. By 1985, the service to Zhob was stopped; only a couple of chrome trains every fortnight or so operated between Muslimbagh and Bostan. Two years later, even that was over.

In its 1920s heyday, the line”s extension from Hindubagh (as they then knew it) to Zhob was executed on speculation that one day it would descend into the plains of Dera Ismail Khan, link up with the Narrow Gauge terminus at Tank and thus be connected to the rest of the North Western Railway (NWR) network by way of Kalabagh and Mari Indus. What a grand dream it was. And that is what it remained -- a dream. With Partition and NWR becoming part of Pakistan, this unbeatable organisation, like everything else, set a steady course for perdition.

In 1987 with my head filled with ideas of travelling on lines that few people even knew of, I reached Quetta only to learn that I was a couple of years too late for the ZVR ride. In P. S. A. Berridge”s priceless book Couplings to the Khyber, I had read of trains being caught in the snowdrifts of Kan Mehtarzai railway station. And my mind was flooded with the wildest images of a station in a mountainous country blanketed with mid-winter snow with tiny Narrow Gauge steam engines of 1920s vintage chugging and chugging to free themselves from deep snow. I simply could not get the idea of travelling by ZVR out of my head and hoped to be on the first train that ran again after they restored the service.

There was plenty of talk of revitalising the line, especially as a tourist attraction, but that never happened. In November 1993, I resolved to see ZVR -- even if I had to do it by road. And so that was my first acquaintance with these most priceless of all Pakistan”s railway heritage.

The Steam Loco Shed at Bostan was then delightful crowd of five Narrow Gauge steam engines and three or four dozen passenger carriages of various classes. There were also freight cars and chrome hoppers all gathering dust. The station master told me tales of the blizzards of 1972 when he was stationed at Kan Mehtarzai and how they had fought to free the train caught in the snow.

Incidentally, these locomotives were revamped and shining new in 1999. That year, word was that the railways minister, Yaqub Nasir, had taken it in hand to operate the ZVR for tourists. I had my doubts, though. And sure enough, despite the man”s best efforts, nothing happened.

Oh, what anxiety-making journeys those would have been… To think of having to wait in a freezing carriage, cocooned in my sleeping bag to ward off the cold and hoping to be rescued. And now, blasé from years of traipsing around this county, the very thought of the possibility that I could have been on one such train still raises goose bumps and brings a tear to these old eyes. The tear more for the rot of a system that was once so well-oiled and efficient -- and which we could not nurture.

The highpoint of this trip in 1993 was Kan Mehtarzai station. The elderly Pathan in the bazaar was shocked out of his chappals when I asked for the station. Instead of telling me the way, he solicited the information that trains had not been running for some time and shook his head sadly when I still insisted.

The architecture was beautiful. Mud-plastered building with an octagonal ticket cubicle, high walls for security with pitched roofs and windows barred and sealed. This was standard architecture on ZVR with Muslimbagh and Qila Saifullah being two exceptions. At 7222 metres above the sea, Kan Mehtarzai was the highest station in Pakistan and the second highest Narrow Gauge station in the subcontinent. It loses by a mere 60 metres to one on the Darjeeling line. But while we let this jewel in our crown go to pot, India proudly runs that service where tourists throng by the thousands.

Muslimbagh was the next stop. In a shed it had a quaint machine to defreeze furnace oil. Since engines hauling freight trains refuelled here, an underground oil tank stored the necessary furnace oil which routinely froze hard in the winters when the machine came in handy. There was also an antiquated coal crane which I saw on display at the Golra Railway Museum several years ago. The station was deserted.

Qila Saifullah, drab and uninteresting but for a beautiful Raj-style building that served as the Assistant Engineer”s residence was quickly passed by. All along, I was driven alongside a railway line that was clearly forgotten: at every unmanned level crossing, the line was covered by tarmac of the newly upgraded road. Some bridges still bravely held on; others had been swept away by raging floodwaters with the lines hanging forlornly across empty space.

The Zhob railway station was, even in 1993, taken over by a family and turned into a private home. On its façade, a fading sign still proclaimed it as Fort Sandeman.

On another errand in the area in February 2005 when it had snowed after a long drought, I paused at Kan Mehtarzai only to photograph it in its winter setting. I returned for the last time in March 2009. All along the line, the steel fixtures were gone. Muslimbagh, Qila Saifullah and Zhob railway stations were private homes. The line was dead. Only the forlorn buildings remained.

Sooner than later, these buildings will all be pulled down. Then the ZVR railway will live only in the pages of my book Prisoner on a Bus or in this paper. The accompanying images may well be the last to ever be taken on this line.


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