Islamabad – At 11:47am on Saturday, a rail car from Lahore approaches the Chaklala Railway station, one of the oldest stations on Rawalpindi’s main railway 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.
Five seconds and the Chaklala station’s well-maintained, colonial-era building returns to a doomed silence, which, as fate will have it, is about to become routine.
From April 15, no train will stop at the Chaklala Railway Station, according to a new schedule issued by the Pakistan Railways and received by the Chaklala Railway Station staff.
That’s zero trains out of the 20 up- and down-country trains that pass through the station every single day.
Despite verbal assurances by the Federal Minister for Railways, Khawaja Saad Rafique, to facilitate passengers at the Chaklala station, the new schedule will rob it of servicing the two last remaining trains that still stop for two minutes there: the 102 DN Rawalpindi to Lahore car at 4:30pm and the 103 UP train back from Lahore at 9:20pm.
Around 18 passengers on average board these two trains from Chaklala every day, according to station staff, and many more travelers disembark from the trains there.
Not just ordinary citizens, ruling party politicians traveling from Lahore have also been spotted getting off trains at Chaklala, as it provides easy access along the Islamabad Highway VIP route to the capital.
The new timetable is expected intuitively 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.
The cab fares from Saddar to neighbourhoods on the Islamabad Highway or the Airport Road can easily fetch a few hundred rupees, just about the train fare passengers pay to travel between Lahore and Rawalpindi.
The decision also seems bizarre given minister Rafique’s declared commitment to improve the condition of the state-owned railway service, which has slumped into financial ruin of late due to mismanagement but is still a popular option with inter-city travelers.
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, are limited to informing sometimes irate, sometimes 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 that.
But between May and September 2013, a construction project near the station forced the trains to naturally 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 coffer.
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 stoppages are advertised properly. Passenger traffic can also lure corporate sponsorships and vendor stalls, they say.
“This station can spit gold for the railways,” says one station staff, who requested anonymity. “But for that to happen, we need at least the Lahore rail 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 also wrote a letter to the Railways Minister recently about the Chaklala station.
“Since a lot of people from Gujjar Khan come for work to Rawalpindi and Islamabad, a shuttle train service can be started between the cities in the mornings and evenings, with stoppages at Sihala, Chaklala to Rawalpindi and I-9 in Islamabad,” Sufi says.
Commuter trains are a widely used mode of transport in urban centres worldwide and local trains through Chaklala can provide ease-of-access to the inner city to new residential areas around the Highway.
But all that depends on the Railway headquarters in Lahore or the minister to discover sense in utilizing the station to its full potential.
For now, the Chaklala Railway Station is condemned to be a silent spectator to incoming and outgoing trains.