Stumbling through the ruins of the demolished Bahawalpur station in the small hours of the morning with kids, luggage and the Missus is not an activity for those of an irritable disposition. Then waiting for an hour and 20 minutes beyond the scheduled time for a train that was allegedly ‘always on time’ further raised the possibility of a story headlined ‘Gora runs amok with axe on railway station’ — and then there it was, the fabled Green Line, and it really was rather good.
Pakistan Rail and I have something of a love-hate relationship. I love travelling Parlour Class in a retro bubble that takes me back to childhood and British Rail — and hate the often slovenly service, the filthy toilets and the virtually universal absence of anything like up-to-date information as to when the next museum-piece engine and coaches might approach the platform where I have been waiting since Tutankhamun was a mere stripling.
There had been a couple of previous attempts to get a Green Line ticket that had failed because of ‘fully booked’ ‘Sir…must book a week ahead.’ So we booked 10 days ahead — successfully — and wandered into the world of PakRail 2.0.
Things got off to a promising start with a snap inspection of the loo. It was…errr…clean. I’ll just repeat that shall I? Clean. And this on a train that has started in Pindi hours before. Strike one for PakRail. There was good-ish news when we found our compartment. It was also clean. Ish. The kids were quickly installed on the upper bunk and asleep, whilst the adults attempted to make themselves comfortable on the freshly-hewn granite blocks that were masquerading as ‘comfort’ closer to the floor. Business class? Hmmm…
Several hours later and aching in every part of the body that had contact with the sleeping surface; it was time for brekkers and a distinctly underwhelming omelette that had the taste and consistency of a robust sheet of brown paper. On the other hand, the tea was terrific. Fast broken, it was time for the first of several visits by a couple of cleaners who were polite to the point of us wondering if PakRail had opened a Charm School for its employees. Every speck of litter which rained down from the eyrie where the kids were consuming more sweeties than was good for them was picked up. Surfaces wiped. Even the shoes on the floor got lined up to perfection. Big tick to PakRail.
Lunch was a chicken karahi that was delicious, the toilets remained impeccable throughout the 11-and-a-half hour journey from Bahawalpur and a decent cuppa chai appeared with comforting regularity. It was cheaper and quicker (by four hours) than the bus and if I could have got the Wi-Fi to work it would have got top marks. The kids loved it, especially when they discovered that a family was bringing their white cat on a lead with them. Not something you see every day. Cats on leads on trains. But hey…
The railways get a rough ride from the press in Pakistan and often deservedly so. Accidents are far too common, much of the infrastructure has changed little since the colonial era (…but I was oh-so-sad to see the wonderful Victorian station at Bahawalpur in ruins, it could so easily have been developed as a heritage attraction as well as a station but I digress) and it is clearly massively underfunded.
Recent years have seen the middle-class travel market hoovered up by the long-range buses that have got increasingly sophisticated and comfortable and run on time. Business is booming. Railway has been slow to exploit this niche, but the introduction of Business Class trains running through Lahore has proved the model. It is a bit of a stretch to call the Green Line ‘business class’ — perhaps as here better written in lower case, but it is a step up and in the right direction though I doubt it will ever replace Parlour Class in my own affections. Staff clearly have customer awareness ingrained, and the service deserved the tips that we gave as we disembarked. Recommended for the stoic traveller happy to nap on concrete surfaces and children who like a bit of an adventure. Tootle-pip!
Published in The Express Tribune, August 3rd, 2017.