The recent controversy about the Railway Minister’s Saloon, which was nothing, but a storm in a tea cup, was the inspiration for this week’s column. There was a time when the Pakistan Railways was known as the North Western Railways or NWR. This was also a time, when travel by ‘rail’ was an enjoyable experience and the men and women, who made this possible, did so with dedication and passion. Entering service as a railway person was considered to be an excellent and respectable career, with the additional perk of subsidized train travel on a ‘pass’.

It was in 1947 that trains played a crucial role in bringing thousands of refugees to safety across both ends of the divide. Although many of these were stopped during the perilous journey and ‘cut up’, this was considered to be a relatively safer way to travel as compared to trekking across vast distances teeming with blood crazed bands of attackers. When my maternal grandfather accompanied by my parents and siblings left for their native Lahore in the middle of this madness, my paternal grandmother refused to leave her centuries old home in Delhi. It was after persistent entreaties and the fact that houses of relatives and friends were attacked that she finally condescended to leave for Pakistan. With no telephone communication or mail, the only news that reached my father was that the old lady would be on a train to Lahore, accompanied by her two loyal maids. Thereafter, members of our family took turns waiting days and nights on the railway platform to receive her. As they searched arriving trains, they witnessed scenes that scarred them for life. I distinctly remember my father recounting his trauma as he encountered carriages running inches deep in blood and entire trains containing nothing, but butchered corpses. We were fortunate that the train my grandmother was travelling in was accompanied by a Muslim military escort and therefore ran the gauntlet successfully.

My earliest memories of a train are that of a fire-breathing black monster that hove into view scaring the wits out of me. This fear soon became a love affair (thanks to a railway man uncle of mine) with the black behemoth known as the ‘steam locomotive’. The advent of the diesel engine and then the electric locomotive brought an end to the steam engine and the romance it generated. One can now see these patriarchs adorning the Railway Museum at Golra or standing silent in some remote and obscure corner of a railway shed.

My favorite train known as the ‘Rail Car’ ran between Lahore and Rawalpindi twice a day. In the 1960s, this mode of travel was very popular because of its fares and onboard service. It consisted of two or three compact engine-compartment cum passenger-carslinked with each other. Two of these were usually economy class versions, while the third was ‘chauvinistically’ labelled as the ‘upper class’ complete with air-conditioning and heating, reclining seats, retractable eating tables and on board meals served by stewardesses. A one way trip between the two cities took four hours and this was an ideal way to travel when accompanied by one’s family. I am told that the rail car continues to ply the route, but without the efficiency and the service of the bygone days.

The annual industrial exhibition in Minto Park Lahore (and later at Shahdara) would have been a dull affair had it not included the gigantic railway stall and its show stopping feature – the huge miniature railway model. I can distinctly remember standing in rapt fascinationas miniature trains ran to and froacross bridges, forests and tunnels, stopping now and then at stations and then continuing onwards. I have often wondered what happened to this model amidst a fear that this wonderful piece of technical craftsmanship lies rotting in a dark shed because, while my childhood fascination is alive and well, I cannot say the same for Pakistan Railways.

 The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City.  His forte is the study of History.