Train to oblivion

Growing up in eighties near Mianwali where my father was posted at one of the few nuclear energy plants of Pakistan, the days were hot and the nights were quiet. In the middle of night we would listen to the whistle of the passing by train and the signature chug chug sound becoming louder and louder and then fading away in the distance. Night after night, we would listen to the chug chug like our bed time lullaby taking us to sleep.


For us kids, train was a fascination for it meant vacations, fun, buying story books from station shops and Shezan or Fanta bottles from ice laden buckets. Train journeys meant early morning wake ups, a couple of suit cases and never to be missed food basket, the fight to take window seats and last but not the least Lahore for that was where my family and cousins lived. There was only one name I remembered as a kid ‘Mari Indus’, the name of the train supposed to take me to civilization that was Lahore. The name ‘Mari Indus’ ignited my life long romance with Pakistan Railways known earlier on as North West Railways.


In the last week of November, I found myself standing in front of 1891 Mari Indus railway station just across the bridge from Kalabagh along the banks of mighty Indus. I remembered travel writer and friend Salman Rashid lamenting in one of his articles about loss of a historic plaque at the station but then when did we care about heritage. As I entered the station accompanied with a few friends, we came across the station master who though friendly was either a bit suspicious of our motives or considered us lunatics to visit the station just for its historic significance.


Mari Indus station was part of North West Railway complex. In 1858, Sir Henry Frere, Commissioner of Karachi sought permission from Lord Dilhousie, Viceroy of India to initiate a survey to connect Karachi with Lahore and Delhi by train. He proposed a train connection between Karachi and Kotri, steam boat navigation from Kotri to Multan through Indus and Chenab, train to Lahore and then train to Delhi. Four companies were established to complete this onerous task including Scinde Railways, Indus Flotella Company, Punjab and Delhi Railways. In 1886, the Government merged these and some other companies to form what is known as ‘North West Railways’.


While the station may have lost the historic plaque mentioned by Salman Rashid, we decided to explore the station with little hope to find any relic from the rich past of North West Railways. We sneaked into station masters den and were pleasantly surprised to see the good old Neale’s token ball machine manufactured by ‘The Westing House Brake and Saxby Signal Company Limited, London and Chippenham’. While the machine is not under active use at Mari Indus, it is still used at Attock Khurd station perhaps to keep a tradition alive. Though I am never able to understand the mechanism completely, briefly every passing train driver is handed over an area specific token ball mounted on a long stick and the driver has to throw the token ball at next station while picking up a new token ball and this acrobatic exercise signals each station master safety of the train and its location in case of any break down. The Neale’s token system has been replaced by advanced communication systems however the system is still used in Taxila Peshawar section of Pakistan Railway.


As we came out of the station master’s office, we saw a number of traditional railway benches with ‘NWR’ that is North West Railway inscribed on them. Even the 1909 weighing scale was inscribed with ‘NWR’ and manufactured by W&T Avery Limited from London and Birmingham. The first class waiting room for ladies had traditional Victorian fashion furniture while the second class waiting hall for ladies was devoid of such luxuries. The traditional maroon railway water tanks to fill in trains were still functional while the engine parts manufactured by 1867 Crossley Brothers of Manchester were rusting away in one corner after apparently serving Railways for over a century.


Mari Indus station was built in 1891 and the part reason was Great Game between British and Russia. British connected Mari Indus with Attock in 1892 through railway line passing through Jund, Massan and Daudkhel. Mari Indus was the last broad gauge railway line station before Indus and later it was also connected to Lala Musa and Lahore through Sindh Sagar Railways. While Mari Indus station was at the end of Broad gauge railway lines, just from the other side of the station started ‘ choti rail’ or narrow gauge railways. This narrow gauge railway would cross Indus on 1928 Railway bridge constructed by ‘P&W Maglallan Ltd. Clutha Works Glasgow’. The narrow gauge railways would next stop at now abandoned Kalabagh station.


Interestingly the 1915 Mianwali Gazetteer tells us that Bannu Kalabagh Railways was opened in 1913 so it looks like Mari Indus station on east bank of Indus was connected to Kalabagh on the west bank in 1928, only after the bridge over Indus was complete.


Sitting in the cozy lounge of Kalabagh fort under the portrait of domineering Nawab Ameer Muhammad Khan of Kalabagh, we listened intently to his son Nawab Asad Khan narrating the somewhat sad story of Kalabagh. He mentioned about the huge fuel depots developed by British just next to Mari Indus station in view of escalating tensions with Russians and the strategic significance of British controlling the Frontiers and tribal areas beyond Kalabagh. From the Kalabagh station, the slow moving train would go to Isakhel, onward to Lakki Marwat and then to Bannu and Tank. Up till Bannu and Tank, the train also carried civilian passengers but from here the train would become strictly military taking the goods and soldiers to Jandola or Minzai forts in tribal areas where the fort gates would open up to take the whole train in their bellies and close.


In 1947, Kalabagh saw its share of Hindu Muslims riots with apparently Hindus bearing the brunt being in minority. While one Sunder Mal Sawhney was stabbed at the Mari Indus station platform in broad day light, the station master Lala Jetha Mal was killed on his way to station from Kalabagh and his body was thrown into the river. Similarly Lala Sona Ram, the opium contractor was saved his life only when he along with his family embraced Islam just in time.


Interestingly I did meet an Army veteran who took the ‘choti rail’ from Mari Indus to Thal in 1983 at the time of his joining Army. The narrow gauge railways stopped operations somewhere in mid ninetees and with it ended an era but probably that was what ‘choti rail’ was destined to. With the end of narrow gauge railways, the entire infrastructure from stations to railway lines began to decay and today you can only see the past glory hidden in Victorian dak bungalows, Royal mail rooms, telegraph offices, abandoned stations and vanishing railway lines.


The Gazetteer of Mianwali reads ‘Chalo chaleay Isakhel, jithay chaldi choti rail’, meaning ‘lets go to Isakhel where runs the little rail’. Today not many people go to Isakhel, as there does not go the ‘choti rail’ anymore.

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