Last Train to Thal

by Salman Rashid, 2013

Mr Rashid is a travel writer and Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. Website

The last train from Kohat to Thal ran sometime in June 1991, so the Station Master at Kohat informed me. Then the section was closed. For a while afterwards, the staff remained at their stations; slowly they were re-assigned. The first to go were the Station Masters from the several stations strung out between the two termini. Gradually went the others, until only a very small nucleus of gang men remained - ostensibly to look after the abandoned one hundred-kilometre Narrow Gauge line. And ostensible was all the looking after there ever was.

Kohat-Thal montage

Even before 1991 the Kohat-Thal line had shown every sign of impending demise. Back in early 1987 when I was doing my series called The Little Railway Bazaar pompously named after one of the good travel books of the 20th century, I had arrived in Kohat to ride the once-a-week train. The coolies around the station said that the Thal line being closed I would be better advised to ride the bus which was not only a sight more comfortable but faster too. My Pakistan Railways timetable said the service was still in operation, so not trusting the red-shirted coolies I sought the Station Master.

The man, perhaps one of the old guard who hate to concede inefficiency, said the service was indeed running, but it being the wrong day of the week, I could not avail of it. I asked what day it ran, he said Tuesday. I held up my watch close to his face for him to read it was Tuesday and the man said my watch was wrong. I argued and he eventually agreed that it was indeed Tuesday but since the last adjustment in timings, it now ran on Thursday. Foolishly I showed him my copy of the current timetable that said it was still Tuesday. He didn't like it one bit, but he offered to let me ride the scheduled freight train to Thal. For that, he said triumphantly, I will have to wait a whole day. I gave up on the Kohat-Thal Narrow Gauge section.

Looking back now, I realise that the service may not have been closed as early as 1987. It may have become increasingly irregular, or may have closed for a short while before resuming. At that time the railways would have been concentrating more on freight transportation than passenger service. Freight on this line, incidentally, was largely mats made from dwarf palm fronds - the ones that one sees in mosques all over the country. In those days of slower road traffic freight was the big revenue on this line.

It was only recently that I heard Pakistan Railways had auctioned the entire line and that contractors were busy uprooting it. It was time to re-visit Kohat to see for myself the demise of a railway line. Friend Mian Mumtaz Ahmed at Railway Headquarters had arranged with Abdur Rehman, a young official from Kohat, to show me around. And when I arrived at the railway station Rehman was waiting with tea and biscuits.

At Kohat the last vestiges of the Narrow Gauge are some forlorn looking passenger and freight cars that have not moved from their roosting place for the past seven years. The last of the locomotives, said Rehman, was shipped to Mughalpura shortly after the line was closed in 1991. There was nothing to see in Kohat and so in a borrowed car we set off for Thal through a wintry landscape with poplars turning gold.

Ustarzai, the second railway station out of Kohat but the first we stopped at was a sorry piece. The good people of the village had stripped it of everything of value. Here timber seemed to the only thing of value so all the doors, windows, ventilators and signboards were gone. Rehman was surprised that they hadn't removed the rails as well. The arms factories at not so distant Darra Adam Khel could benefit from all this high quality steel, I observed. But then again, perhaps they had not yet exhausted all those busted T-Series Soviet tanks from the Afghan War.

At Raisan we paused in the bazaar to ask directions. The elderly Pukhtun gentleman nearly fell out of his shoes when we asked for the railway station, "It's been years since a train went past here!" He said. "What in God's name do you want at the station?"

We persisted and he kindly directed, bewilderment refusing to leave his face. The station was a veritable fortress with a high loop holed wall and a corner turret. Entrance was via a heavy timber and steel door and the King of this Castle was Habibullah the gang man with his extended family in retinue. The handsome building was kept so well that I did not have the heart to ask if he was living in it by leave of the authorities or had simply taken over.

Within the high walls was a crowded enceinte: living apartments on three sides and a well in the middle. Behind a wall to afford privacy to the inmates, the apartments were two or three rooms each. Just the basics for small families of officials who were obviously new to the service (and therefore young with small families) to be posted to the backwoods. Once, when the line was running, the station master lived within the safety of this fortress together with his Pointsman, Waterman and a couple of policemen. Now Habibullah presided over it.

Hangu station had a corner turret even more impressive than the one at Raisan: higher and like a proper castle turret. The interior, too, was grander. The apartments were only marginally bigger than the ones at Raisan, but there were no partition walls between the various houses. It seemed as if the staff at Hangu were ordained to live like one big happy family. That was the past, today Hangu railway station serves as barracks for a detachment of policemen. They were a jovial lot, happy for this break in their tedium. Hearing that I was from Lahore, they took me for a foundry owner looking for quality scrap steel. A journalist with an academic interest in old railway lines was sort of hard to figure.

We drove on to Kahi, a chunk of a square building with a formidable steel door blocking entry. As we pottered about outside, half a dozen young women who had been filling at a nearby water tap came ambling back, each balancing a pot on her head and cradling another in the crook of her arm against her waist. They sauntered past and disappeared into the station building. Presently, the master of the house emerged to tell us that he and his family had taken over the decaying building several years ago. Emphatically he added that we were not permitted to enter. Even at the time of his taking over there were no railway relics. No, he said, there had been no clocks, Morse keys or furniture in the stationmaster's office. Everything had been removed, but he did not by whom.

Stopping briefly at Doaba, we eventually made Thal, the end of the line. The station lies within the militia cantonment, and if we had thought Raisan and Hangu were impressive, this was all the more so. Here was a real castle that was clearly much bigger than the ones we had already seen. The walls and the turret were higher than the ones we had already seen. Atop the turret sat a steel water tank with a pitched steel roof, all painted the regulation deep red that defies rust.

From within rose the cacophony of life: cocks crowed, children screamed, laughed and cried, women chattered. I tried to stick my head into the oblong opening in the heavy steel door and a dark unshaven man with thick moustaches asked what I wanted. "I'm from a newspaper and just want to look around," said I. "There's nothing to look around here because this is a private residential area and it isn't nice to look around other people's houses," he returned rather rudely.

We were joined by a younger more garrulous man and he called for the women to hide themselves as he led me in. His call was in vain for they all remained at their various stations some brushing their children's hair, others washing up or doing the laundry, and yet others sunning themselves and gossiping. It was like entering a Punjabi mohalla, where everybody spoke the dialect of Sialkot. These were indeed men and women of Sialkot, Christians all of them who looked after cleanliness in the cantonment of Thal. The railway station of Thal had been their home for the past six years or so. I sent up a silent prayer for the poorer Christian families of Punjab for without them this country would long ago have turned into a putrefying rubbish dump.

Abdur Rehman had earlier told me that he had joined the service just when this line was dying. He remembered that passenger traffic was hardly ever substantial and that the railways only revenue was from hauling goods. Unfortunately for the Kohat-Thal section the Russians invaded Afghanistan and American money paid for the roads to be improved in this area in the early 1980s. This made for faster and more efficient freight transportation by road. Consequently, clients who earlier had no choice but to avail Pakistan Railways facilities now turned to private truckers. This service covered the distance between Kohat and Thal in about two hours' time, while the train took five when it was not running late. And it always, without fail, ran late.

Revenue fell drastically. The Army, according to Abdur Rehman, was the only client that abided faithfully by the railways. For one, rules required that wherever possible revenue should go to the government. Secondly, the greatest excitement that the sleepy militia garrison at Thal ever knew since the end of the Afghan War was perhaps morning P.T. Other than that there was never any hurry to get the practice ammo over from the ordnance factory at Wah. Time came that even the Thal Scouts sought alternatives. The railway's losses mounted and soon the only way to handle this line was to axe it.

Casually Abdur Rehman mentioned that Pakistan Railways owned great tracts of property at Parachinar town where they had once maintained an "Out Agency" and where they still had a beautiful rest house. He insisted we should drive the extra seventy odd kilometres to check out those establishments as well. I declined because the car had to be back in Kohat before nightfall. But I had established that the section had not yet been auctioned to be uprooted and carted off to some foundry or other. That incidentally has been the fate of the Bannu-Mari Indus Narrow Gauge section as Abdur Rehman informed me.

One thing I know, however: the British railway authorities had not laid the line to Thal for nothing. They may not have known how to surmount the vast mountains ahead, but surely there would have been plans to extend the line to Kabul. I have not been able to find anything to this effect in the skimpy histories that I have access to, but I am sure that there are in railway headquarters somewhere in the subcontinent forgotten files that evoke the railway enthusiasm of that day, files that evoke the excitement of building the first railway over the high passes into Paktiya province of Afghanistan.

Sadly, even before we might find those files, this section too will be auctioned. The railway stations will remain with whoever might hold them at the final hour. The bridges, the line and other civil works will be dismantled for the steel to be removed to be turned into iron grills and steel plates. If anything will remain it will very likely be the rest house at Parachinar. I wonder, however, if Pakistan Railways will be able to maintain that one isolated building.