Don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for a railway story. And nowhere are they richer or more symbolic than South Asia. Built by the Brits and nationalised at independence, Pakistan’s railways are now mired in economic failure – an inefficient, publicly-owned service that has struggled with landslides and bombs, and which today caters only to the poorest travellers.
But for once this was a good news story. As you may have already read, the new, recently refurbished Business Express offers a much more civilised way of travelling between Pakistan’s two biggest cities, Lahore and Karachi. It is the first public-private service of its kind. Other services are already scheduled and private companies are apparently queuing up to get a slice of the action.
Anyway, I was reminded of a story I write in Kenya more than five years ago (now sadly behind a paywall). It began:
THROUGH the window of the Lunatic Express, scorched desert gives way to the scenic splendour of the Great Rift Valley. From Mombasa, in Kenya, one of the most famous routes of the British Empire follows the singe track to Lake Victoria and on towards Kampala, the Ugandan capital.
This railway, once the British pride of East Africa, was given its nickname by sceptics who thought it expensive folly to build a line through such difficult and empty terrain.
Now it might better describe the passengers willing to put up with last-minute cancellations, 13-hour delays and thieves at the windows. But that could be about to change.
Next month a South African consortium is to take over the railway, charged with reversing its decline. It plans to slash the 9,000-strong workforce by two thirds and invest more than £150 million to restore past glory to the line credited with opening up the continent.
That journey was great fun too. Although rather soured by the fact that I eventually clambered off some 50 miles short of Mombasa and already about 12 hours late (impressive for a scheduled 13-hour journey).
Construction of the Lunatic Express was famously held up for months by a pair of man-eating lions. So I was particularly tickled to learn that the builders of the Karachi to Lahore line faced similar challenges in the form of rabid wolves.
John Brunton, the chief engineer, described in his memoir the challenges of buying off hostile princes and the day a rabid wolf ran through his camp outside Karachi.
“In India a record is kept of all fatalities arising from attacks of wild beasts, snakes etc – and on this occasion the return gave 12 men bitten, of whom 10 died, and a large number of cattle,” he wrote.
“The brute was hunted down and killed by the natives, the day after our interview with him.”
John Brunton’s Book is a fascinating record of his exploits in the interior of Sindh. Well worth seeking out if you share my fascination with the oddballs and genuises that built Britain’s empire.