Pakistan serves up first-class rail luxury

By AFP
Published: February 4, 2012

A passenger boards newly launched Pak Business Express train prior to departure in Lahore on February 3, 2012. PHOTO: AFP

ABOARD THE BUSINESS EXPRESS: A security guard pointing a gun at your chest may not be a perk of first-class travel in the West, but it’s all part of the service on Pakistan’s gleaming Business Express.

Thirteen carriages have been lovingly restored into a sleek sleeper to ply the 1,200 kilometres between Lahore and Karachi, on an 18-hour journey that once used to take upwards of 30 hours.

Presided over Friday by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and waved off by excited crowds it is Pakistan’s most luxurious and expensive train.

For 5,000 rupees one way ($55), or 9,000 rupees return, passengers are waited on by a bevy of attentive stewards, as they settle down to watch films on flat-screen TVs or power up laptops.

Afternoon tea and piping hot dinner – courtesy of chefs at five-star hotels are borne into cabins as uniformed guards carrying rifles in the corridors are a reminder of the security situation in the country.

Then as night falls, stewards come round with crisp bed linen to turn slightly hard green bunks into inviting beds.

It’s all part of a first private investment of millions of rupees in the ailing state railways, billed as the last hope of preventing a much-loved relic of British rule from falling into ruin.

Corruption, mismanagement and neglect have driven Pakistan Railways to the brink. Since Gilani’s government took power in 2008, the group has retired 104 of 204 trains in a country larger than Britain and Germany combined.

It relies on handouts of $2.8 million a month just to pay salaries and pensions, and faces expected losses of $390 million in the current fiscal year.

But the new train pulled away five minutes early and customers boarded from a brand-new business lounge at Lahore station. Decorated in tinsel, the engine then ground to a halt 10 minutes later to pick up more passengers.

Mariyam Imran, a young advisor for a cosmetics firm , is delighted. A frequent traveller and terrified by a recent emergency landing on increasingly precarious state airline PIA, she is an avid convert.

“It’s beautiful. It’s relaxing, compared to the trains before. I’m so happy and very comfortable. The staff are good. It’s a marvellous train,” the 22-year-old young mother told AFP.

Travelling with her businessman husband, three-year-old daughter and sister-in-law they are heading to Karachi for a short break before returning to host a Valentine’s Day party at home in Lahore on February 14.

Gilani congratulated staff on what he called a “deluxe” and “state of the art” service that would serve as a trail blazer for future private-public partnerships capable of turning around Pakistan’s depressed economy.

“It’s a big, big initiative from the private sector, which we have welcomed with open arms,” Arif Azim, the chairman of Pakistan Railways, told AFP.

Years of decline saw customers flock to airlines and luxury coaches.

Azim hopes that if the Business Express, and a similar service to be rolled out on February 20 between Lahore, the textiles centre of Faizalabad and Karachi, are a success then investors will sink millions more into saving the railways.

“The sky’s the limit because we’re in a pretty bad shape. We need a totally new fleet. Seventy-five percent of our wagons can be described as vintage,” he said.

Retired journalist Ishtiaq Ali is taking his young, second wife home after a two-week holiday to show her snow for the first time in Murree.

“Oh my goodness, what the hell are you talking about,” he jokes when asked how the new train compares to the best rail services in the West.

“It’s impossible. There’s no education, there’s no security, there’s no insurance. In Pakistan, you can go outside and you can be held at gunpoint.”

It may not be a bullet train. It may not be the Orient Express, but his young wife smiles as she edges out of Lahore, speeding past clapped-out carriages shunted onto sidings.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Mj
    Feb 4, 2012 - 2:32PM

    The rates are very reasonable and the service looks promising. Lahore to Islamabad would be a great addition.

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  • Anjum
    Feb 4, 2012 - 4:03PM

    I must try this out next time I get an opportunity. Wonderful that various pak business nd services try at least to benchmark up against the best in the world. Bahria town hasdone, why not others? The demand is certainly there.

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  • Ali
    Feb 4, 2012 - 4:08PM

    Pretty decent and clean. Would love to have a trip on it

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  • furrukh
    Feb 4, 2012 - 4:18PM

    pretty sad state of affairs. Corruption bankrupts Pakistan Railways and voila! privatisation for the elite class. The not-so privileged shall not travel cuz, well, they dont deserve to it seems .. sadness.

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  • Yasir Sultan
    Feb 4, 2012 - 5:03PM

    I wish the management good luck and i pray that they are able to maintain the service and quality for the years to come

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  • Feb 4, 2012 - 6:55PM

    First news which delighted the people of Pakistan
    but its expensive poor people of this country can not afford.

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  • Feb 4, 2012 - 7:32PM

    Good Luck :)

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  • Salman
    Feb 4, 2012 - 7:38PM

    Who are the private investors? This country is turning into a private state of few

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  • Ali
    Feb 4, 2012 - 10:11PM

    @Sultan Ahmed:
    dude its a business train. just like business class on airlines. not everybody can afford

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  • Ubuntu
    Feb 5, 2012 - 1:14AM

    Its a luxery for third world countries indeed but not for ultra rich fuedal,industralist, feudals bast.

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