The famous Khyber Steam Safari Train which followed a serpentine track know as the “iron horse” amidst the rugged Tatara mountains in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was pressed back into service but not on the route most hoped it would take.
Closed in 2007 due to a deteriorating security situation, the world famous train resumed its journey earlier this week but from Peshawar to Attock and to Landi Kotal, which took travelers through the Khyber Pass.
Zahoor Durrani, who heads Sehrai Travels, the travel agency that is behind the steam safari, remains nostalgic about the original route.
When asked how he remembers the Khyber Safari, he recalls the excitement it generated amongst patrons who came from the world over.
“My most unforgettable moment in running the Safari train was when fifty members of the Royal Air Force Squadron flying in their 15 private planes touched down at Peshawar airport and climbed onto the Safari Train to visit the Khyber Pass.”
Despite its wide appeal, Durrani doesn’t see the safari running on the Peshawar-Landi Kotal section any time soon. It is not only the security situation that is to blame, he says. There is also neglect.
The Steam Safari earlier closed in May 2007 after receiving threats from terrorists and on account of the poor security condition in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
“I was happy that we the people of Khyber and the tribesmen were acknowledged all over the world” Zahoor said, adding that the positive part of this was that he had managed to generate employment for around a hundred people including folk dancers, railway staff, technical staff, catering staff, porters and others. “I earned a lot of revenue for the railways,” he adds with a smile.
When in operation, the Khyber Steam Safari was popular among both foreign and local tourists. However, in the past few years, the lack of interest from authorities, damaged railway tracks, security issues and declining number of tourists in the area forced the train to halt its operation.
The security conditions after the 9/11 incidents in the US drastically reduced the number of people interested in visiting Khyber -Pakhtunkhwa. Besides this, the railway track from Jamrud to Landi Kotal, the most integral route in the whole journey, was washed away in floods that hit Pakistan in 2010.
The Khyber Steam Safari was a train pulled by two steam locomotives, both of which were built in the 1920s. It covered 42 kilometres of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s rugged terrain passing 34 tunnels and 92 bridges and culverts.
The idea of the train took seed in the 90s, when Durrani’s Sehrai Travels and Tours proposed to the Pakistan Railways to lease them a few engines which they could use to run this tourist train from Peshawar to Landi Kotal.
The travel agency paid Rs35,000 to Pakistan Railways per trip as rental for the steam engines. The journey cost Rs2,000 for passenger and included refreshments as well as a musical performance in Landi Kotal. The travel agency arranged security from the tribal police – the khasadars and the guides throughout the journey.
Some of the historic places that the train had on its route included Jamrud and Shagai which were inhabited by the ferocious Afridi, Shinwari, Mulagori and Shalmani tribes.
“1995 to 2002 were very successful for the steam safari as we used to run it weekly with passengers from all around the world,” recalled Durrani.
One such traveller was Winston Spencer Churchill, the grandson of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who took a tour in our train. The elder Chruchill has spent time serving in the area.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 3rd, 2012.