The wreckage of a train collision near Karachi on November 3, 2016 | M Adil, White Star
The wreckage of a train collision near Karachi on November 3, 2016 | M Adil, White Star

Rail ki bahali, quam ki khushali Rail ka safar araam deh aur aaloodgi se pak hai Mehnat say kaam karain aur railway ki service ko umda bana’in

(Rehabilitation of rail is enrichment of nation; Rail’s journey is comfortable and free of pollution; Work hard and turn rail into a high quality service)

These slogans grace the wall of a small room kept intact by some mysterious force. Bricks are coming out of its walls and its roof stands unstable. A flight of stairs inside it leads to a run-down and non-functional bathroom. Both the stairs and the bathroom paint a picture of sustained neglect. Outside, the trees seem to have comparatively aged with grace.

This is where foremen and supervisors working at a washing line on the eastern edge of Karachi’s Cantt Railway Station congregate before they start their day’s work.

Through the old trees, one can see some rail coaches — their newly painted steel bodies gleaming in the sun. Lined up like animals in a stable, they are waiting to be washed and cleaned before their next journey.

It takes about 40 people and about four hours to wash and clean a single train. Two cleaners rinse the coaches. Four others are assigned to sweep the floors. A number of sanitary workers clean the bathrooms. Two clean the seats and two others take care of the windows. A number of pipe-fitters handle the hoses and hydrants, supplying water to wash its outer body.

People can be seen on all sides of the train, sweeping and rinsing it before washing it clean with powerful water jets. The washing-line bays go several feet deep so that the workers can get underneath the carriages and wash them from below.

These workers wash about 10 trains every day — repeating the same routine over and over again. They do not have waterproof uniforms. They wear no safety helmets and walk barefoot amid the slush created by water perpetually running into mud around them. Once the work is done, each one of them takes a shower on the edge of the muddy bays using the same slimy hoses that they wash the trains with.

The trash that the passengers leave in trains ranges from polythene wrappers, food leftovers, plastic bottles, cigarette stubs (often extinguished on the floor) and just about anything that people use inside a train. The passengers do not bother picking the trash they themselves create, says Abdul Jabbar, a 50-something worker wearing a worn-down shalwar kameez. He has been working at the line since 1990. His father, too, worked here. “The passengers rather tend to throw trash underneath the seats.” It is only at the end of a journey that all of that is collected, he says.

Once collected, the trash is left to rot with existing piles of rubbish that have been gathering on the sides of the bays for decades. The decrepit platforms along the bays only add to the seemingly irreversible state of decay that the entire washing area is in.

Parallel to the washing line is a small shed. Called ‘sick line’, it is used for checking trains experiencing minor faults that can be addressed without taking the train to a workshop. An old train is rusting here. It has certainly been here for more than day, possibly for over a week.

A sick train rotting in a shed – either abandoned or forgotten – tells the story of Pakistan Railways: a state institution that has allowed its minor problems to pile up over decades, to an extent where they have become chronic diseases.

This is an excerpt from the Herald's June 2017 cover story. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a staffer at the Herald.