Growing up in the 1980s near Mianwali, where my father was posted at one of the few nuclear energy plants of Pakistan, the days were usually hot and the nights were quiet. In the middle of the night, we would listen to the whistle of the train passing by – the signature chug chug sound would become louder at first and then fade away in the distance.
Night after night, we would listen to the chug chug like a bedtime lullaby as we drifted off to sleep.
For us kids, the train was a fascination — for it meant vacations, fun, buying storybooks from station shops and Shezan or Fanta bottles from ice-laden buckets. Train journeys meant early morning wake ups, a couple of suitcases, food baskets, 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 train name I remembered as a kid — ‘Mari Indus’, the train supposed to take me to civilisation that was Lahore.
The name ‘Mari Indus’ ignited a life-long romance with Pakistan Railways, known earlier on as the North West Railways.
About two months back, in the last week of November, I visited the 1891 Mari Indus railway station just across the bridge from Kalabagh along the banks of the mighty Indus. I remembered travel writer and friend Salman Rashid lamenting in one of his articles about the loss of a historic plaque at the station — but then when did we care about heritage. As I entered the station accompanied by a few friends, we came across the station master who, though friendly, was either a bit suspicious of our motives or considered us lunatics for visiting the station just for its historic significance.
Mari Indus station was part of the North West Railway complex. In 1858, Sir Henry Frere, Commissioner of Karachi, sought permission from Lord Dalhousie, 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, steamboat 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 the North West Railways.
While the station may have lost its historic plaque mentioned by Salman Rashid, we decided to explore the station with little hope to find any relic from the rich past of the North West Railways. We sneaked into the stationmaster’s 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 actively used at the Mari Indus, it is still used at the Attock Khurd station perhaps to keep the tradition alive.
Though I can never 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 this token ball at the next station while picking up a new token ball. This acrobatic exercise signals to each stationmaster the safety of the train and its location in case of any breakdown.
Although Neale’s token system has been replaced by advanced communication systems, it is still being used in Taxila and Peshawar section of the Pakistan Railway.
As we came out of the stationmaster’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 the 1867 Crossley Brothers of Manchester were rusting away in one corner after apparently having served the railways for over a century.
Mari Indus station was built in 1891 and part of the reason was the Great Game between Britain and Russia. The British connected the Mari Indus with Attock in 1892 through a 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 the Sindh Sagar Railways.
While the Mari Indus station was at the end of broad gauge railway lines, just from the other side of the station started the ‘choti rail’ or narrow gauge railways. This narrow gauge railway would cross Indus on the 1928 Railway bridge constructed by the P&W Maglallan Ltd. Clutha Works Glasgow. The narrow gauge railways would next stop at the now abandoned Kalabagh station.
Interestingly, the 1915 Mianwali Gazetteer tells us that the Bannu Kalabagh Railways was opened in 1913, so it looks like the Mari Indus station on the 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 the Kalabagh Fort under the domineering portrait of 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 the British just next to the 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 the 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 the Hindu-Muslim riots with apparently Hindus bearing the brunt as a minority. While one Sunder Mal Sawhney was stabbed at the Mari Indus station platform in broad daylight, the stationmaster, Lala Jetha Mal was killed on his way to the station from Kalabagh and his body was thrown into the river. Similarly, Lala Sona Ram, the opium contractor, was able to save 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 joining the army. The narrow gauge railways stopped operations somewhere in mid-1990s and with it ended an era — but probably that was what ‘choti rail’ was destined for.
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 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 the ‘choti rail’ does not go there anymore.