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Those who keep Pakistan Railways running

Updated Sep 10, 2018 05:30pm
A decommissioned narrow-gauge train in a perfect condition | Photos by Kohi Marri
A decommissioned narrow-gauge train in a perfect condition | Photos by Kohi Marri

The hulks have gone quiet. Now that the thumping beat of their mechanical hearts is dead, the call for Friday prayer echoes more loudly in the old locomotive shed at Peshawar than it did before. Walk past them and their bodies radiate heat, parts ticking as they cool down. For now, they sleep over the tracks, their bulky presence intimidating for the sheer power it exudes, the air around them thick with the odour of diesel and lube oil — musk for the machines.

Khalid Khan, an engine fitter, emerges out of a gloomy pit under an engine and blinks at the bright wide world. He has been inspecting the locomotive’s ‘under-gear’ system where dust and smoke get sucked in copious quantities, leaving an oily layer of black tar that only washes off the hands with a solvent. The sight of a frail, bearded man working beneath a juggernaut, all 105 tonnes of it, is unnerving but Khan seems inured to the looming locomotives, having grown old working with them. Every morning he is here at eight to restore exhausted engines back to health, sending them off to another journey to another place.

All this running around, up and down the country, means that even a 2,000-horsepower engine needs regular maintenance. When it finally comes to a stop here, its parts wobbly and clanking, its entrails – pipes, pinions and pistons – laced with gunk formed by diesel and dust, it is Khan’s job to fix it. In doing this, he is not alone.

A man inspects a train for repairs and servicing.
A man inspects a train for repairs and servicing.

To the ordinary person, train stations are the face of railways, crowded settings for journeys beginning or ending. But beyond warm welcomes and sad goodbyes, there are locomotive sheds where engines are not chugging along the tracks, whistling to announce an imminent arrival or departure. Here they come to be serviced. “Where stations deal with railway operations, we are all about the maintenance of locomotives and the response to emergencies, such as derailments, on a daily basis,” says Daud-ur-Rehman, a loco foreman who has been working at the locomotive shed in Peshawar for 17 years.

He has 70 men working under him, deputed for three shifts of eight hours each. His office in the shed is a mini-museum of railway memorabilia. He sits in the gloom of a high-roof room behind a teak wood table, perhaps as old as the building itself, covered with green felt. Replicas of the legendary Khyber Steam Safari, that once ran between Peshawar and Khyber Agency, and powered models of locomotives rest on the mantelshelf of a big fireplace in the corner of the room.

A repairman inside a train that is coming in for servicing
A repairman inside a train that is coming in for servicing

Outside, the shed’s interior is dappled with sunlight streaming in from the tall wide arches of its colonial facade. High above, a roof of corrugated, galvanised iron is held aloft by a web of steel shafts. This place, with its Raj-era furniture, cool shadows, blue-grey and white paint, is frozen in time. The shed was built in 1919 — as is mentioned on a water tower with square metal tanks outside the shed.

Until recently, two broad-gauge steam engines were parked by the tower. Together, they pulled and pushed the safari train — the touristic revival of a passenger service that started in 1925, but was stopped in 1982. Those engines are gone now, replaced by two vintage narrow-gauge steam locomotives rusting amidst wild vegetation — museum pieces with no protection from the elements.

A driver resting his hand on the speed gauge as he takes the train in for servicing
A driver resting his hand on the speed gauge as he takes the train in for servicing

Daily readying of the safari train was a lot of work, says Rashid Ahmad, a clerk at the shed. The staff had to come in at 2 am to fill up its engines with furnace oil and light them up. The engines would roll out for the railway station by six in the morning, ready to journey to Khyber Agency. Tourists, both local and foreigners, would leave from the cantonment station or were picked up from Jamrud or Shahgai Station in Khyber Agency.

Only the lucky few got into the safari train due to limited space inside it and its infrequent trips. It ran through Peshawar airport’s runway – a major tourist attraction – 34 mountain tunnels and 92 bridges dating back to the British Raj for what the Time magazine called “a journey through time and history”.

But this was when the railway track was in working condition and Landi Kotal was safe to travel to.

A repairman making sure there is no dust on the headlights
A repairman making sure there is no dust on the headlights

These days, the shed operations are all about maintaining hybrid (electric-diesel) engines and keeping a red relief train with multiple carriages ready for emergency response to accidents. Locomotives coming in from the railway station are turned around on a turntable on wheels, an amazing feat involving a single man pushing around the many tonnes of a locomotive as if it were a die-cast toy.

Figures for 2017 show that Pakistan Railway has a fleet of 448 diesel-electric locomotives. Many of them have been imported from the United States. In recent years, China has donated many engines, seeking to bolster Pakistan Railway’s capacity for transporting goods through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Pakistan also manufactures its own locomotives at Risalpur in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, incorporating technology acquired from locomotives designed by foreign companies.

The shed in Peshawar maybe small compared to those in Rohri, Lahore, Karachi and Rawalpindi. Its routine, however, is daunting all the same.

A railway worker lounging in an empty office
A railway worker lounging in an empty office

Shed-man Mukhtiar Ahmad has to write a report for every incoming and outgoing locomotive. He has to keep everyone informed in the control room at the railway station in Peshawar and onwards at the central control room in Lahore about locomotives serviced and set in motion, drivers assigned and emergencies handled. Jan Mohammad, a mechanical supervisor, has to be there to oversee the maintenance of every engine’s air-brake system, cooling system and turbocharger, making sure there are no water or oil leakages. “The mechanical work is the heaviest,” he says.

On an average workday, the staff here services and refuels 10 locomotives, spending about three hours on each. “A typical day at the shed starts at 6 am,” says Abdul Jabbar Shah, an electrical supervisor who has been working at the shed for 10 years. “The supervisors and the shed-man have to be here before everyone else to plan the day’s schedule.”

After marking attendance, they hold a meeting to discuss the distribution for the day’s work. By the time the first locomotive rolls in, they are already set to work on it.

Final inspection before a train leaves for a railway station
Final inspection before a train leaves for a railway station

Khan, the fitter, knocks the engine’s cowcatcher with his wrench, tightens a nut here, oiling a bolt there. He cleans dust and grime from a jumble of complex body parts using a rag. A cleaning master gets busy wiping the glass of the driver’s cabin.

Hour after hour, the staff here fuss over engines. With their soiled clothes and grime-encrusted hands. These are the ‘prime movers’ who keep Pakistan Railway on track.


This article was published in the Herald's August 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.