At 11:47am on Saturday, a train from Lahore approaches Chaklala Railway Station, one of the oldest on Rawalpindi’s main line.
But the train does not stop. Within five seconds, just long enough for the assistant station master to wave a green flag from the platform, its passenger cars chug out of sight, moving on towards the railway station in Saddar.
In those five seconds, the station’s colonial-era building returns to silence, which, as fate would have it, is about to become routine.
From April 15, no train will stop at Chaklala Railway Station, according to a new schedule issued by the Pakistan Railways and received by the Chaklala Railway Station staff. What makes this stand out is the fact that over 20 trains pass through the station every single day.
Despite verbal assurances from Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique that passengers at the Chaklala station will be facilitated, the new schedule will rob it of servicing the two last remaining trains that still stop there for two minutes each — the 102 DN Rawalpindi to Lahore at 4:30pm, and the 103 UP train from Lahore at 9:20pm.
An average of 18 passengers board these two trains from Chaklala every day, according to station staff, but many more disembark at the station. In fact, ruling-party politicians travelling from Lahore have also been spotted getting off trains at Chaklala, as it provides faster access to the capital via the Islamabad Highway.
The new timetable is expected to deny passengers who live around the Chaklala Cantonment or wish to reach the airport, located a stone’s throw from the station, of an inexpensive ride home.
Cab fares from Saddar to neighbourhoods on the Islamabad Highway or the Airport Road can easily reach a few hundred rupees, sometimes even more than the train fare passengers pay to travel between Lahore and Rawalpindi.
The decision also seems bizarre, given Rafique’s declared commitment to improving the condition of the state-owned railway service, which has been in financial ruins for a multitude of reasons, but is still a popular option with inter-city travellers.
Back when the British built the station in the late 19th century, it was one of the busiest stations of the time due to proximity to the garrison. As legend goes, the station’s workload had also made it a dreaded posting for railway employees.
These days, however, the station’s staff, other than handling technical matters, is limited to informing a handful of irate, or more often, disappointed passengers that the Lahore and Karachi-bound trains will not stop at Chaklala.
As of now, the station’s ticketing counter is not allowed to issue tickets to passengers or make reservations. Passengers have to go to Saddar for this.
Incidentally, between May and September 2013, a construction project near the station forced the trains to slow down near Chaklala. According to data collected by The Express Tribune, in those five months, an average of 745 passengers per month boarded trains from or near Chaklala, contributing an earning of Rs1.03 million to the Railways coffers.
Residents and staff believe these ticket revenues can be increased if the station is allowed to sell tickets if trains stop there and if the schedules are advertised properly. Passenger traffic can also lure corporate sponsorships and vendors to the station, they say. A dry port warehouse nearby can also be used for freight services.
“This station could be a goldmine for Railways,” says one staff member, who requested anonymity. “But for that to happen, we need at least the Lahore cars, the Awam Express, Tezgam and Hazara Express trains to stop here.”
The station can have another local utility, according to Khalil Sufi, a former Islamabad Citizens Committee member, who recently wrote a letter to the railways minister about the Chaklala station.
“Since a lot of people from Gujjar Khan come to Rawalpindi and Islamabad for work, a shuttle train service can be started between the cities in the mornings and evenings, with stops at Sihala and Chaklala for Rawalpindi and I-9 in Islamabad,” Sufi says.
Commuter trains are a widely used mode of transport in urban centres around the world and local trains through Chaklala can provide ease-of-access to people from new residential areas around the highway in getting to the inner city.
But all that depends on the Railways headquarters in Lahore or the minister to see the potential sense in utilising the station to its full potential. For now, the Chaklala Railway Station is condemned to be a silent spectator to incoming and outgoing trains.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2014.
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