With a hoot and then a lurch, the 15:30 to Karachi pulled out of Lahore’s railway station bang on time and trailing tinsel.
By Rob Crilly, on the Business Express, between Lahore and Karachi
The luxury service – complete with flatscreen TVs, wifi and lavatories that would put some British trains to shame – was launched today in an effort to turn around the dire fortunes of Pakistan’s railways, and restore it to its former colonial glory.
More than that, the story of the railway’s decline mirrors that of the country itself, and the Business Express, with its mix of public and private enterprise, is being championed as a new model that could revive Pakistan’s moribund state sector.
Waiters in waistcoats and bow ties served afternoon tea as passengers boarded for the 800-mile, 18-hour journey.
Even Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, facing contempt of court charges, turned out to see the train off. He managed a smile as he welcomed The Daily Telegraph to a berth.
“No I’m not travelling, I’m just here to see you off,” he said with a quick handshake before moving off and avoiding any mention of his legal troubles.
Built in the middle of the Nineteenth Century by engineers who risked rabid wolves, crocodiles and malaria, the railway from Lahore was once a cornerstone of Britain’s vast Indian empire, ferrying troops to the interior and carrying textiles and tea to the vast port of Karachi.
Pakistan inherited a rail network stretching more than 5000 miles at independence in 1947.
But years of corruption and mismanagement has seen the state-owned business taken to the brink of collapse.
Executives say its fleet of 146 locomotives is 500 short of what it needs.
The resulting delays and cancellations have seen a once popular railway marginalised; used by only those that cannot afford travelling by air or road.
This year, the business is expected to lose more than £200m.
Arif Azim, chairman of Pakistan Railways, said he wanted to turn back the clock to a time when the railways were both reliable and elegant.
“Our aim right now is to offer a service in the best traditions of the line – whether it was in the British time or after independence,” he said.
Construction on the line began in 1858 when Sir Henry Edward Frere, the commissioner of Sind, realised Karachi would form an ideal port.
The first stretch opened in 1861, running 100 miles inland before connecting with steamers on the Indus.
John Brunton, the chief engineer, described in his memoir the challenges of buying off hostile princes and the day a rabid wolf ran through his camp outside Karachi.
“In India a record is kept of all fatalities arising from attacks of wild beasts, snakes etc – and on this occasion the return gave 12 men bitten, of whom 10 died, and a large number of cattle,” he wrote.
“The brute was hunted down and killed by the natives, the day after our interview with him.”
Pakistan has different troubles today.
A bomb blast closed the railway last year not far from the spot where those rabid wolves once roamed and the Business Express carries armed guards.
It may not be quite the Orient Express, but the daily sleeper with running water, a dinner service, and pillows for the bunks are a vast improvement on the squalid, broken-down carriages that usually make the stop-start journey.
The service is provided by a private company in a deal that gives it 14% of the £35 single ticket price.
Javed Salim Qureshi, chairman of Four Brothers, the private partner: “Pakistan has had a disaster on the railways. This is a new departure.
“I just hope it gets there on time.”
A trial run a week earlier fell eight hours behind schedule even before leaving Lahore after a carriage derailed.
Some of the two hundred or so passengers aboard the maiden trip said they were impressed by the facilities but would reserve judgment until their arrival in Karachi.
Khurram Ali, a financial analyst, said he was surprised by the first-world standards.
“It’s cheaper than flying and this new service seems really good,” he said, as the lush farmland of Punjab flashed past the window at 70mph.
“But then again we all know how bad the delays have been so ask me again what I think tomorrow morning.”
Source: The Telegraph