Train to Balochistan

Updated 08 Oct, 2016 03:44pm

A dusty banner welcomes visitors to the Karachi Cantt railway station: Pursukoon Karachi (Peaceful Karachi), it reads. Propped up behind a sitting lounge with site-specific artistic installations serving as benches, the banner pertains to the work of a non-profit organisation restoring the 118-year-old station building. On February 14 – a Sunday – sukoon (peace), however, is the last thing the place offers.

Khanzada Polseel, a porter at the Karachi Cantt railway station | Photos by Mohammad Ali, White Star
Khanzada Polseel, a porter at the Karachi Cantt railway station | Photos by Mohammad Ali, White Star

People push and shove their way as a sea of passengers try to move around the noisy platforms. Sunlight streams through the high ceiling of the 19th century building, accentuating its yellow stone bricks. It is easy to imagine the station in its former glory and yet, as the eye roves around bricks coming out of the walls splattered with paan juice, one is instantly transported back to the present. The station – and by extension, Pakistan Railways – is rocked by age, run down by an indifferent staff and overburdened with a creaking, filthy and overcrowded train and track infrastructure.

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No one symbolises these ailments more than Khanzada Polseel, a 70-year-old coolie. Donning a fading orange kameez, the frail man carries a massive heap of luggage on his head. He first came to this station to work as a coolie back in 1969. Hanging from his neck is a lifetime achievement medal he has recently received from the federal minister for railway, Khawaja Saad Rafique.

When Polseel states that the railway is on the right track, it sounds like he is assuring himself. He, however, proves right to the extent that the Bolan Mail enters the station as per schedule – at 6:20 pm – to leave for Quetta.

Map design by Amna Iqbal
Map design by Amna Iqbal

The Bolan Mail provides the sole rail link between Karachi and Quetta. It is a small train, with only an economy class and room for just 297 passengers. Inside its compartments, multiple cubicles run along one side; each contains a pair of seats facing each other, with the capacity to accommodate six passengers. A small passage separates the cubicles from single seats on the other side of the compartment. Some families tie a bed sheet to both ends of their cubicle, using it as a curtain for an increased sense of privacy.

Passengers of all sizes and ages struggle to fit into the cramped seats. Those who cannot get seats are sprawled on the passage floor, in the doorways and even outside the toilets. Forewarning the passengers about what facilities they should expect onboard, a notice in the toilet urges people not to waste water. “What water?” — somebody has scrawled right next to it.

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Those who frequently take the same route have boarded the train lugging shawls and blankets. With the temperature at a little over 20 degrees Celsius at the time of the train’s departure from Karachi, these heavy wrappings seem like extra baggage. Soon, however, they will come in handy. Temperatures inside the compartments fall drastically with the arrival of the night, but most compartment windows refuse to close down — what to say of an in-train heating system. By the time the Bolan Mail reaches Quetta, the mercury will drop to a freezing -3 degrees Celsius.

The call for evening prayer wafts faintly over the incessant chugging and clanking of the wheels when the train rolls out of Karachi. Passengers look out the windows as the crowded cityscape fades into barren countryside amid the last rays of a setting sun.

The ticket inspector, Syed Nawaz Ali Shah, in one of the train compartments
The ticket inspector, Syed Nawaz Ali Shah, in one of the train compartments

In the dimly lit compartment, Syed Nawaz Ali Shah uses his torchlight to inspect tickets. He is a busy man with a frequently ringing cell phone. Speaking in Sindhi, he responds to a caller: “Yes, saeen. Don’t worry, your guests are our guests; just tell me what station they’ll get on the train.” He evidently wants to be of use to the person on the other side of the call — a professional benefactor, a political patron, who knows?

Born into poverty in Tando Adam Khan in central Sindh, Shah received his education while simultaneously working as a construction labourer. He joined the railway in 1990 and made his way up to the coveted position of a guard in 2003. He proudly states that he can read the English written on ticket stubs. “You can see the same information in Urdu, but I can read it in English with no difficulty.” This, he boasts, is a rare talent among railways guards. He was, after all, hired without help from what he calls a “source”.

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When the Bolan Mail stops at Kotri Junction at 9 pm, Manzoor Ali makes his way into the train’s engine room. He will take over the driving from here onwards. Drivers will change a total of four times during the 21-hour journey to Quetta, their shifts varying dramatically between three and nine hours.

The train honks thrice, signalling that Ali has settled into the driving seat. The wheels start moving slowly — click-a-clack, click-a-clack. Soon they gather pace and the click-a-clack assumes a rhythmic pattern, rocking most of the passengers to sleep. Inside the train, everything becomes quiet. The only sound comes from the outside – click-a-clack, click-a-clack – as the Bolan Mail makes its way through the sleepy lakes, deserts and mountains of western Sindh.

The view outside the window is pitch-dark. The only bright patch in the distance is Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s mausoleum in Sehwan Sharif. Light also shines through when the train stops at a station. One wonders where all the disembarking passengers are going at this unearthly hour of the night or how the incoming ones have made it to the station through the darkened terrain.

The train reaches Larkana at 5 am. At this time of the morning, more food vendors than passengers populate the platform. A family of three Punjabi women and two children hurriedly gets onto the train during the brief stopover. They have been at the station since 10 pm on this cold February night, waiting for the train to take them back home to Quetta. “It is not safe or easy to travel to the station after 10 pm through the rural areas,” says one woman. In the relative comfort of their seats, they soon lie down to sleep.

In a couple of hours, a guard wakes them up. He is there to check tickets. Half awake, many passengers complain their tickets have been checked already. “We must inspect them one last time as the staff is about to change,” he explains. This is not the only change the train will experience once it moves out of Jacobabad and enters Balochistan.

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The bright winter sun glistens over the sandy landscape. Many passengers wake up to find some new companions, decked in camouflage uniforms and carrying weapons. Two Frontier Constabulary (FC) soldiers are keeping watch inside each compartment. The passengers are not allowed to stand in the doorways and doors have been closed. An uneasy stillness descends inside the compartments. When a magazine photographer tries to take photos, he is harshly told not to. He needs permission from the FC headquarters in Quetta, he is told.

Even the stations in Balochistan look different. The smaller ones are rudimentary brick structures. Many have “FC” spray painted on their buildings. The train stops frequently but the only people to get off – and on – are the FC officials changing shifts. At certain stations, if passengers need to disembark, they will require permission, though no one seems to know from whom.

Sibi Junction is the first major Bolan Mail stop in Balochistan. Passengers can disembark here without permission. Many get down to buy snacks, say their prayers and use toilets with running water and some semblance of cleanliness.

Jamaluddin, an elderly Pakhtun from Quetta travelling with his grandson, opts to stay in the compartment. A polio worker approaches him asking if his grandson has been vaccinated. “How much for the drops?” he asks. “They are for free,” the worker enthusiastically responds. “I mean, how much will you pay me for letting you administer them? In Quetta, polio workers pay people for vaccinating their children,” Jamaluddin says only half in jest.

Gul Zadad , a passenger, looks out the window at the Sibi Junction, as a food vendor sells his wares
Gul Zadad , a passenger, looks out the window at the Sibi Junction, as a food vendor sells his wares

Hosts of food vendors invade the train, snapping tired passengers out of their slumber with their sales pitches. Akbar Khan, a tea boy, sings a rhythmic ditty to peddle his goods:

Yeh kashti doob jaegi, kinara nahi milega

Akbar chala gia tou chai dubara nahi milega

(This boat will sink, you won’t find the shore,

Once Akbar Khan leaves, you’ll find tea no more)

Before the train leaves Sibi, three policemen with a sniffer dog start inspecting everyone’s luggage. “What do you think you’ll find here? This is Pakistan, not Afghanistan,” a young Hazara traveller protests. “Yes, this is Pakistan,” one policeman sternly responds. A small national flag peers through the police badge on his uniform.

Coal miners in Machh
Coal miners in Machh

The Bolan Mail rolls through enormous mountains on both sides of the track. Having to move up the ever-rising terrain, it is now using two engines, one on the front and another on the back. Even then, it moves at a sluggish pace.

Slowly, it enters Aab-e-Gum station. The wreckage of a train that derailed here in November last year, killing at least 19 and injuring 100 others, still lies near the station. Jamaluddin has been travelling via the same route for years. When asked how things have changed over time, he laments that nothing has changed. “The same coaches and engines have been in use for decades. How can they possibly function well?”

Bolan Mail reaches Quetta
Bolan Mail reaches Quetta

Before reaching Quetta, the train passes through many tunnels. Children hoot every time a tunnel approaches. One of the passengers, Gul Zadad, wonders if Quetta would have had a train station if the British had not built these tunnels and tracks through the mountains.

The other thing the British built in this area is Machh Jail. Zadad was briefly imprisoned there some time ago. The only signs of life around the prison are coal miners and the sound of a train passing by, he says.

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The train enters the outskirts of Quetta at around 2 pm. A policeman goes around the coaches urging passengers to close the window shutters. “This is an unsafe area,” he says, “the windows must be closed because troublemakers sometimes throw rocks at trains.”

Some passengers deride him, confident that nothing will happen. Jamaluddin instructs his grandson to close the window. “We have lost too much over the years to not be vigilant,” he says.

Photos by Mohammad Ali, White Star

This article was originally published in the Herald's March 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.