Today marks the 150th anniversary of the railway system in present-day Pakistan.
On May 13th, 1861 the first engine left the station in Karachi to an astonished crowd. One of a kind in the region, locals were shocked as John Brunton, the Chief Engineer of the Karachi-Kotri Railway, drove the steam locomotive for its first trial.
The Karachi natives were astounded. I drove the engine myself of course at slow speed - the natives thronging all around, I was fearful of some accident. At last I thought I should frighten them away, so I blew the engine steam whistle loudly. Instantly, they all rushed back from the 'Demon' falling over one another.
With trains so pervasive in present day India and Pakistan, it is hard to believe the astonishment of that first trip.
India launched its earliest train ten years prior on December 22, 1851. It was a small track used to haul construction material in Roorkee, a cantonment north of Delhi. On April 16, 1853, the first passenger train between Bori Bunder, Bombay and Thane was inaugurated, formally heralding the birth of what would become an extensive system of rails in India.
Unlike in India, the railway in present day Pakistan was built not for passenger service, but as a means of cutting the transportation time of cargo bound for the East.
The idea of a rail network first arose in 1847 as Karachi sought to become a major seaport. Sir Henry Edward Frere, the Commissioner of Sindh, asked permission from Lord Dalhousie to survey for the seaport and the rail line in 1858, with the goal of having a rail link from Karachi to Kotri, a steamboat service on the Indus and Chenab rivers connecting Kotri to Multan, and another railway linking to Lahore.
With a distance of 169 kilometers (105 miles), the completed track included 32 bridges to cope with the flash floods of monsoon season. 25 of these were masonry arched bridges spanning between 6 and 14 meters (20 and 45 feet).
Now a government-owned operation, Pakistan Railways suffers from a severe lack of funding. In the red for years, the coaches are aged, the engines falling out, and the rolling stock in desperate need of an upgrade. The National Highway Authority successfully improved large swaths of the highway system in Pakistan. Locals hope that the rails are next. With parts of the infrastructure literally 150 years old, it's about time.