miserable journey by train
Travel by trains these days has become more of a misery than the pleasure it was just a few decades ago
By M. Waqar Bhatti
A couple of weeks ago, when I planned a Lahore trip by train to visit my ailing grandmother, I was very enthusiastic about the journey. I was going to board a train after a lull of over 13 years and memories of my childhood travels by rail were still fresh in my mind. What I hadn't realised then was that like most other government organisations and departments, the Pakistan Railways too had reached the verge of collapse.
Travel by trains these days has become more of a misery than the pleasure it was just a few decades ago. As soon as I entered the Cantt. Railway station in Karachi to get my tickets and seats reserved, I noticed the same filthy conditions and chaos that is the hallmark of Pakistani railway stations. And these chaotic conditions are the same at all the major railway stations in the country, whether you are in Karachi, Multan, Lahore or Rawalpindi.
A friend of mine who accompanied me to the reservation office had advised me to travel to Lahore and back on the Karakoram Express. Following his advice, when I approached the booking clerk at the upper class booking counter for the tickets for the train, the booking official told me that no seats were available in the train for the next two weeks in the business class that has recently been introduced by the Pakistan Railways in place of the lower AC and AC parlours.
The friend of mine, who is also a journalist and reports on issues of the Pakistan Railways, then made a phone call to some higher railway official. After listening to the directives from his boss, the booking clerk agreed that two seats could be arranged in the Karakoram Express that was scheduled to leave for Lahore three days later. I later learnt that merely a hundred extra rupees could get me as many seats reserved in the business class for the next day's trains as I wanted. Many booking officials refuse to provide seats without extorting extra money from aspiring travellers.
The Karakoram Express leaves Karachi Cantt. Station at around 2:30 pm for Lahore. Being declared a 'VIP' train by the railway officials, it usually starts its journey on time, my friend had told me. He had also asked me to be at the railway station at least an hour before the train's departure so that I could get on board the train on time.
Keeping in view the advice given to me, I, along with my six-year-old son Faruq, reached the station at 1:30 pm. To my astonishment, I was informed by a porter at the railway station that the Karakoram Express that was supposed to reach Karachi from Lahore at 12:00 had not yet arrived and so it was expected to leave for Lahore at approximately 4:00 pm provided it reached Karachi within the next half an hour.
And with this news of a delayed departure, my miserable journey with Pakistan Railways began for me and my son. There was no other option left but to wait at the platform for the arrival of the train. Platform No.1 presented a chaotic scene as usual with only a few wooden benches that were already occupied by passengers. Owing to presence of hundreds of people waiting for their trains, there was hardly any space to keep our luggage and wait in peace for the arrival of the train. How my son and I spent three-and-a-half hours waiting for the train's arrival is another traumatic story. It was at around 5:00 pm when the train finally arrived at the platform and passengers who were anxiously waiting, rushed towards their respective bogies to get on board the train.
Our bogie was parked at quite a distance from where we were sitting and I had to take a long walk to reach the train compartment to enter it. The first door of the bogie in which I had my seats reserved was locked from inside and a person told me that I should use the farther door to get into the train. I still didn't know the rationale of locking one of the doors of the bogie but soon found out that the door was permanently locked owing to malfunctioning of the lock, and passengers were compelled to use the other door that was located quite far away for passengers having seats deeper in the bogie.
As soon as I boarded the train and found my seats, other passengers started arriving. And soon there were four more persons in my compartment who had to travel with us till Faisalabad. The Karakoram goes to Lahore via Faisalabad and adopts the same route for its journey back to Karachi.
While settling in the train compartment, my son started checking different gadgets on board. He anxiously pointed out that although the train's AC was functioning, the fan on the wall was just a showpiece while the light switches were also not functioning. This meant that we could not turn off the lights when we decided to sleep at night. At around 6:00 pm, the train finally started moving slowly on the tracks and the passengers heaved a collective sigh of relief. However, I soon started worrying when we would be able to reach Lahore. The train's departure was delayed by almost four hours and the delay had ruined all our excitement of travelling by train.
When the train started its journey, I started having a chat with my fellow passengers. My son, meanwhile, decided to climb to the top berth to have a little nap. I helped him to get there but within minutes I had to help him get down because he had started screaming after seeing cockroaches on the top berth.
While I was helping him get down, I myself witnessed a few tiny cockroaches freely moving on the top berth and then I realised that how much importance is given by the railway staff to keep the trains clean and maintain hygienic conditions for the travellers.
Later I found that it was not only us that were blessed with the presence of cockroaches but they were present everywhere in the train. Even the train's lavatories were full of the creatures. It was obviously their breeding place from where they were spreading and moving freely across the entire train. At one stage when my son asked me to accompany him to the train's toilet, I noticed a baby girl of my son's age who was refusing to enter the toilet. When I asked her mother why she was not going inside, she said there was a cockroach near the toilet seat and that's why she was hesitating to enter the toilet. I had to kill that cockroach with my boot to let her use the toilet.
The toilets of the business class of the Karakoram Express were also reflected the neglect of the Pakistan Railways. Neither was there any 'Lota' present in any of the toilets nor could their taps be closed properly. The running taps soon emptied the water tanks of the bogie and anybody who wished to go to the toilet had to take water with him or her in their own plastic bottles.
At night when the train was passing near Kotri railway station, everybody in our compartment, including myself and my son, managed to go to sleep despite being unable to turn off the lights. But hardly a few minutes had passed when I noticed that train had stopped at some small but deserted junction deep in the interior of Sindh. I came out of my compartment following other passengers, stepped onto the station platform to smoke a cigarette and to inquire as to why the train had stopped. But soon I learnt from other passengers that the train's locomotive had developed some fault and it would take around three hours for it to be fixed. Finally, the train's locomotive whistled and it started sailing towards the Punjab again. Our miserable journey had resumed.
The Karakoram Express reached Khanewal the next morning and also spent around two hours at the station, when it started to move towards Faisalabad slowly once again. My fellow passengers told me that by the time the Karakoram had reached Khanewal, it should have been in Faisalabad but owing to its delayed departure from Karachi and the fact that it had remained motionless for five to six hours; the train was now around 10 to 12 hours behind schedule.
From Khanewal to Faisalabad, the train took around another five hours although my fellow passengers had told me that usually it was roughly a three-hour journey. When the train finally reached Faisalabad, it was around 3:00 pm. It was almost 26 hours since I had reached Cantt. Railway station in Karachi to board the train and even after spending an entire day, there was still no sign of Lahore.
While ending their journey at Faisalabad, my fellow passengers advised me to get off the train along with them and use a bus to reach Lahore as it would take me there far more quickly than the train. But I decided otherwise and when the train finally reached Lahore, it was 6:00 pm. When I came out of the station, I had lost all the sense of thrill and excitement to travel by train. Unfortunately, I had to return to Karachi on the same Karakoram Express as I had reserved my return seats to Karachi.
A week later, when I boarded the train again for the trip back to Karachi, it started its journey right on time at around 2:30 pm. Perhaps this was because Lahore was the Pakistan Railways headquarter and the railway officials were more prone to run the train on time. But the journey from Lahore to Karachi was also a somewhat similar reflection to what I had experienced while going upcountry.
During my journey to Lahore and back to Karachi, I noticed that cooked food, tea and other edibles being sold at different railway stations were substandard despite the claims of railway officials that they had improved the quality of food being sold at railway stations. Although I had taken some prepared meals along with me, I had to buy tea at two or three places. I found that what I was getting in the name of tea was some hot, mud-coloured sweet water that was being sold to train passengers at various railway stations.
Even the bottled water sold at the railway station was of some unknown brand and by merely looking at these bottles, one suspected that perhaps tap water had been filled in those bottles and after sealing them improperly, they were being sold to passengers as mineral or filtered water.
On our journey back to Karachi, the Karakoram Express once again faced an "engine-failure" near Hyderabad and it remained stationed at an abandoned place for over four hours. As it was a very hot June day, passengers travelling in the economy class got highly infuriated and at one stage, enraged passengers pulled the train driver out of his seat and tried to thrash him. Fortunately for him, he was protected by Railways Police personnel and other railway employees including guards and ticket checkers.
It was around five in the evening when we finally reached Cantt. Railway station in Karachi. While returning home, my son Faruq, who was once very excited and eager to travel by train, wished never to board a train again in his life. "Trains are very bad and filthy. I'm exhausted and never wish to travel by train again," replied Faruq when I asked him whether he had enjoyed the journey or not. His few words about that miserable journey were quite enough for me to also take a decision that I would never travel by a train again unless some revolution transformed Pakistan Railways into an institution at par with railways in the developed countries of the world.
The suspension of six more passenger trains this month by the Pakistan Railways came as shocking news for many people. The sudden decision hit two groups of people particularly hard: common travellers, who regularly travel upcountry and back to Karachi by train, and thousands of qulis (porters), vendors at stations and drivers of rickshaws and taxis who transport passengers from railway stations to different parts of Karachi. On the one hand, many passengers were compelled to use uncomfortable road transport to travel to various cities of Pakistan and on the other hand, qulis and other people who earn their livelihood at Cantt. Railway station were also badly affected by the unpopular decision.
Three of the six trains, which were grounded by Pakistan Railways this week, including Shalimar Express, Tezro and the Mehran Express, used to run to and from Karachi and with their suspension, scores of common people have been affected, a survey conducted for Kolachi revealed.
Perhaps Karachiites would be the most affected people due to the grounding of these trains in addition to the eight more passenger trains that had been closed by the railways a couple of months back. During the survey, it was learnt that thousands of people used to travel daily from Karachi to Lahore, Peshawar and Mirpurkhas through these trains and now they have to use other, crowded trains or take inter-city buses to reach their destinations.
Similarly, there were hundreds of people who will be indirectly affected due to the closure of the trains in Karachi including porters, taxi and rickshaw drivers, permanent and moving vendors who used to earn their bread and butter because of the steady stream of passengers at railway stations. Many will now be forced to look elsewhere to earn a reasonable daily income.
"The number of qulis at Cantt. Railway stations has drastically declined since the closure of trains, as with fewer passengers at the railway stations, chances of earning a respectable sum of money have also vanished" an elderly quli, Muhammad Ramzan said while sitting outside the Cantt. Railway station's entrance in search of carrying any passenger's luggage to a train to earn some money. Ramzan said he was working as a quli for over 15 years but these days, it was becoming very hard for him to earn enough money to fulfill his family's needs. "When trains are being closed, the number of passengers coming here will also reduce and so will our daily income," he lamented, as he bitterly criticised the railway management for causing so much inconvenience to thousands of people.
Even the rickshaw and taxi drivers awaiting passengers outside the railway station claimed that closure of trains had also badly affected their business and the number of people they used to take to the railway station and back to different parts of the city had fallen drastically in the last couple of weeks. "People are now heading towards inter-city bus stands instead of going to railway stations. Earlier, I used to transport five to six passengers or families from morning to evening in a day but nowadays, I hardly have one or two trips, which don't even pay for my vehicle's fuel," Rehmat Khan, a taxi driver by profession, said.
Khan said the number of taxis and rickshaws used to await commuters had also declined and now his fellow drivers were looking for other places to transport people from one place to another. "If the same situation continues, I'll have to move to some other place also as my daily income here is falling with each passing day," he said while commenting on the affects of the trains' suspension on his job.
There were also several vendors selling food items as well as newspapers and magazines at Cantt. Railway station who said their daily sale had dropped with the closure of trains and many of them had already left the place and moved to other spots in the city to maintain their daily incomes.
On the other hand, common people who used to travel on Tezro, Shalimar and Mehran Express were also very disappointed over the Railway management's decision as they had been left with very few options to travel by trains to reach their destinations.
The most affected people were those who used to travel to Peshawar from Karachi via Tezro Express, as the closure of this popular but cheap train had forced its passengers to use Khyber Mail, which had become overburdened. Every day, it was leaving with double the people than its normal capacity.
There were also passengers at the Cantt. Railway station who were infuriated over the suspension of the Mehran Express that used to run from Karachi to Mirpurkhas. According to them, the trains' closure had compelled them to first go to Hyderabad through some upcountry bound train and then take a bus to reach their destination. Shalimar was also a very popular train for people going to Lahore and adjoining areas but its closure put a further burden on other Lahore-bound trains. Most people were upset over the railway management's unpopular decision.
Even the railway employees felt the closure of six trains, especially the popular Tezro, Shalimar and Mehran from Karachi to different upcountry locations, was a ruse to privatize the railway department and claimed that a conspiracy was being hatched to starve hundreds of thousands of people dependent on Pakistan Railways of their bread and butter. "All over the world, rail travel is expanding as governments are discouraging road use to cut down emissions and fuel cost but in Pakistan, our government is closing down trains to promote road usage, which is nothing but a conspiracy," a railway employee said while requesting not to be named.
Several other employees interviewed for this report strongly lambasted the federal railway minister as well as senior officials for ruining the railway department saying instead of taking steps to improve the condition of the department, these officials were doing their best to close down the rail system in the country.
Most of them were of the view that riots following the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had not caused so much loss to the Pakistan Railways, when angry mobs set fire to trains and railways property, than the decision of closing trains by the management of the railway department. "Javed Ashraf Qazi, the military general who was made railways minister by General Musharraf, purchased faulty locomotives from China and they began causing trouble within a few days of their purchase", the driver of a locomotive alleged. "Shaikh Rasheed too did his best to take the railways to the verge of collapse but this minister (Bilour), is doing what was never done before by any minister. He seems determined to wipe out the entire railway system from the country."
"Unless an honest, dedicated and non-political person is appointed as the Chairman of this department with full authority, Pakistan railways would continue to decline. The current politicians and officials looking after the railways neither has nor the will or the capability to improve this department," the angry locomotive driver said.
During the survey, people interviewed said that instead of taking unpopular decisions like suspending passenger trains and using their resources to run freight trains, Pakistan Railway officials should try to curb pilferages, mismanagement and try to bring international investment to provide healthy and safe transportation facilities to thousands of common people in this country.