A security guard pointing a gun at your chest may not be a perk of first-class travel in the West, but it’s all part of the service on Pakistan’s gleaming Business Express.
Thirteen carriages have been lovingly restored into a sleek sleeper to ply the 1,200km between Pakistan’s two biggest cities, Lahore and Karachi, on an 18-hour journey that once used to take upwards of 30 hours.
Presided over on Friday by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, perhaps keen to front a good-news story as he faces contempt of court charges, and waved off by excited crowds, it is Pakistan’s most luxurious and expensive train.
For 5,000 rupees one way (US$55), or 9,000 rupees return, passengers are waited on by a bevy of attentive stewards, as they settle down to watch films on flat-screen TVs or power up laptops.
Afternoon tea and piping hot dinner — courtesy of chefs at five-star hotels — are borne into cabins as uniformed guards carrying rifles in the corridors are a reminder of a country troubled by kidnappings, Taliban and al-Qaeda violence.
Then, as night falls, stewards come round with crisp bed linen to turn slightly hard green bunks into inviting beds.
It’s all part of a first private investment of millions of rupees in the ailing state railways, billed as the last hope of preventing a much-loved relic of British rule from falling into ruin.
Corruption, mismanagement and neglect have driven Pakistan Railways to the brink. Since Gilani’s government took power in 2008, the group has retired 104 of 204 trains in a country larger than Britain and Germany combined.
It relies on handouts of US$2.8 million a month just to pay salaries and pensions, and faces expected losses of US$390 million in the current fiscal year.
However, the new train pulled away five minutes early and customers boarded from a brand-new business lounge at Lahore station. Decorated in tinsel, the engine then ground to a halt 10 minutes later to pick up more passengers.
Mariyam Imran, a strikingly beautiful young adviser for cosmetics firm L’Oreal, is delighted. A frequent traveler and terrified by a recent emergency landing on increasingly precarious state airline PIA, she is an avid convert.
“It’s beautiful. It’s relaxing, compared to the trains before. I’m so happy and very comfortable. The staff are good. It’s a marvelous train,” the 22-year-old young mother said.
Traveling with her businessman husband, three-year-old daughter and sister-in-law, they are heading to Karachi for a short break before returning to host a Valentine’s Day party at home in Lahore on Feb. 14.
“I hate PIA. Oh my God, that emergency landing. Compared to the plane, this train is best. The service is very good,” she said.
Gilani congratulated staff on what he called a “deluxe” and “state of the art” service that would serve as a trail blazer for future private-public partnerships capable of turning around Pakistan’s depressed economy.
“It’s a big, big initiative from the private sector, which we have welcomed with open arms,” Pakistan Railways chairman Arif Azim said.
Years of decline saw customers flock to airlines and luxury coaches.
Azim hopes that if the Business Express, and a similar service to be rolled out on Feb. 20 between Lahore, the textiles center of Faizalabad and Karachi, are a success, then investors will sink millions more into saving the railways.