Pakistan Railways is more than just a means of nationwide transportation. It’s a continuing legacy of a powerful empire that emphasized on learning the history, culture, and geography of its territory.
The tracks laid during the British Raj still offer the same discovery of Pakistan’s features, and act as a time portal showing what was seen by the Viceroy, the freedom fighters, the migrants, everyone in between, and everyone ever since. PICTURES AT THE END.
How to go to Quetta by Train from Lahore?
If you’re not in a rush to get to Quetta, take the Jaffar Express. Its a great opportunity to discover Pakistan at a reasonable pace as it goes through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan, making 36 stops along the way.
The Jaffar Express runs daily between Quetta and Peshawar along its routes numbered 40DN and 39UP. The DN represents Down, which also means north to south. The total duration of the service from Peshawar Cantt to Quetta is 36 hours.
Jaffar Express Booking & Tickets
4 categories of tickets are available for purchase. These can be bought online, or in person at the railway station, or from the Railway Headquarters reservation office.
AC Sleeper: Ideal for two travelers. You get a private cabin with two beds, and an ensuite washroom. These are hard to get due to limited availability. You either book a month in advance or hope that someone cancels their reservation last minute.
AC Business: You get a room but share with another family/couple. Two beds on each side with a table in the middle and an ensuite washroom. Good for a group of four.
AC Standard: Just a seat that can be used as a bed. A common washroom for the whole car. At least its air conditioned.
Economy: Its just like AC standard but without the AC. Brave are those who use this for long journeys in the summer.
Tickets are sold in preset quantities such that every passenger gets a bed. You’d be surprised at how quickly they sell out, so I recommend booking as early as possible.
What is the route of the Quetta Express?
This article summarises the experience of the Jaffar Express journey to inform Quetta-bound travellers about what to expect and look out for. There may be some variations in your own experience such as the type of train you get on a particular day, the weather, and your ticket category. You can also see what I saw on this youtube short.
We start our trip from the Lahore railway station on a typical June summer day. We have an AC sleeper class ticket, a handful of suitcases, some reading material, pillows, bottled water, and disposable cups.
The Quetta Bound Jaffar Express train is coming from Peshawar and is scheduled to arrive at Lahore Junction by 4:20pm.
The station is alive with passengers, coolies, and vendors selling kulfis, boiled eggs, snacks, and the usual fast foods. 4:20pm on the dot the train slowly rolls to a stop at it’s designated platform. You have 10 minutes to board the train. A coolie hauling your luggage will guide you to your seat by just looking at your ticket. Trust him.
After finding your room in the AC sleeper, some ununiformed janitors come to clean the room and its washroom. They freshen it up with air freshener, provide soap and some napkins. The AC works and the room is quite cool. We will talk about the washroom later.
If you have a few minutes, now is the chance to buy water, disposable cups, snacks and anything else you’re going to need. I highly suggest you keep some legit food for later (I learned this the hard way).
At 4:30pm sharp the train starts moving. You slowly pass through the junction yard and see all these sleeping passenger and cargo trains. They look quite beaten up.
Shortly after leaving Lahore Junction, the train stops at Lahore Cantt station for a brief 2 minutes. Then it begins to roll again. As it picks up speed, the train zooms by the city, and before you know it, you are cruising through vast green plains full of agricultural activity.
There’s a knock at the door. The ticketing officer checks your ticket, scribbles on it with with a pen, and goes away.
The train is not exactly quiet or smooth. Throughout the journey you can hear the constant racket of the train on its tracks accompanied with a rocking sway. You get used to this quickly though.
Raiwind Railway Station
On the way to Quetta, you pass by several small railway stations without stopping. If you pay attention, you can read their names as you coast past them.
Raiwind is the first major station you stop at. It’s impressively large, ornate, and well maintained. Probably constructed recently too.
A brief stop, and the Jaffar Express is on the move again to Quetta through more fields.
About an hour later, you pass through a sunsetted Okara Cantt. You know you’re in the city, but the station appears after a long time. You get a sense of how big Okara city really is through this.
Every now and then, those workers without uniform come to clean up the room and remove any trash you have been collecting. You also hear the ghostly voice of the train’s kitchen staff walking through the corridor announcing “chai wala, pani waala, khaanay wala..”, hoping a hungry passenger responds.
After passing by several orchards and forests, the Sahiwal Railway station appears. Another major railway station with a large building at which the train stops for a few minutes. Right on schedule.
Night has fallen, and the view through the window is a pitch black, save for some railway crossings illuminated by the headlights of cars, chinchis, and buses waiting for your train to pass.
The Jaffar Express stops for 20 minutes at the Multan Railway station. You can get off the train and explore the platform, where several stalls invite passengers to buy multani sohn halwa, dahi bhallay, chaat, and other varieties of prepared and packaged foods.
Meanwhile, each car of the train is refilled with water through a network of overhead pipes. At the 20 minute mark, the blare of the train horn is heard, and the journey resumes shortly after.
Eventually the fatigue kicks in, and you find yourself laying on the sleeper bed. You switch off the lights, and the only light coming in is from outside the window. The rhythmic rattle of the train tracks and the pleasant rocking motion sends you into a deep sleep. I certainly slept so sound I missed the Bahawalpur station.
I slept through this as well.
Rahim Yar Khan
If this was my stop, I would have missed it.
Sadiqabad, Ghotki, Pano Akil
I wake up at sunrise and look outside the window having no idea where I am. The silhouette of palm trees in the distance suggest we are moving through interior Sindh.
The appearance of Rohri Station confirms my suspicion, and I disembark the train to explore this unfamiliar territory.
The platform is however familiar, with the same type of stalls and vendors selling breakfast around this time. The station is quite popular and has lots of tracks and trains hanging around it. Thats why its called the Rohri Junction.
10 minutes later, the train starts rolling at a gentle pace towards Sukkur City. Do keep a look out for that big red Cantilever Truss Bridge, also called the Ayub / Lansdowne bridge.
Sukkur Railway Station
Just 2 minutes here.
After passing sukkur and shikarpur, we arrive at Jacobabad Station.
Although its a 5-minute stop, you must get off to feel the infamous heat of this city. Man it is HOT. And in this serious heat we see life going on. Several men and boys with unbuttoned shirts are seen fanning themselves with newspaper. Did I mention it was HOT?
Sibi Railway Station
If Jacobabad was HOT, Sibi is HELL. The moment I got off the train I felt my flesh getting cooked as if I were on the middle rack of a preheated gas fired oven. How do people live in this infernal part of earth?
At Sibi station, the engine pulling the Jaffar Express is shifted to the front of the train. This happens so quickly you don’t even notice it. It is a bit disorienting when the train suddenly starts rolling “backwards”.
Over the next hour and a half, the Sindhi landscape of fertile fields and palm trees slowly transforms to semi-arid, to arid, to barren, and desert, as the train crosses over the invisible provincial boundary of Balochistan. Then the rocky hills show up amidst vast horizons of dirt. Without warning, all turns to pitch black when you enter the first tunnel.
The train momentarily stops at some small god forsaken towns on the way to Aab-e-Gum. A friendly ranger wielding an assault rifle gets off at each stop for a walk around. He’s been there on your train the whole time, but you only begin to notice him now.
After several scenes of mountainous landscapes separated by intervals of blackness, we pull up to a Railway Station called Aab-e-Gum (Lost Water). In addition to missing water, there are no people, homes, or buildings in sight. Did everyone leave after the water was lost? Its really a wonder why this railway station even exists in this desolate area.
This is where a second engine is attached to the back of the train in order to give it some extra push along the inclined terrain ahead. If you get off the train, you can witness the attachment happening alongside several other intrigued passengers.
The climb is not significant. In fact its not even noticeable. So dont expect a roller coaster type steepness situation. You will however pass through more mountains and more tunnels.
A small yet elaborate station appears. The train passes by it, comes to a halt, and then reverses onto the track adjacent to the platform.
Here you will find a portrait of a fat Quaid-e-Azam.
Next stop: Quetta.
Quetta Railway Station: The final Destination
You know you are getting close when you start seeing plantation, roads, and elaborate settlements getting denser by the minute. At a certain point, there’s a unique sight of hundreds of brick kiln chimneys. Imagine how many bricks are cooked here on a daily basis.
As the Jaffar Express decelerates and rolls towards its final stop, we catch views of southern Quetta city, its markets, the children waving at the train, the Balochistan University, and an increasing number of tracks signifying the approach to a major railway station. More beaten up passenger and cargo trains. Some 60’s model boxes can be spotted rusting into nothingness.
The platform is full of coolies and people waiting to receive the arrivals. When the train stops, the first coolie who knocks on your door gets dibs on your luggage and hauls it all the way to the parking area outside the Quetta Railway Station.
Your 26 Hour journey on the 40DN Jaffar Express ends here at Quetta.
Travel Advice for Lahore to Quetta
If its your first time taking this kind of long haul trip with Pakistan Railways, keep the following in mind:
Bring your own food. There is no need to get even more adventurous.
At the latest, eat up at the Lahore Railway station because there is really nothing reliable along the way. The stops are really short and separated by hour long intervals. At the longer stops like Multan and Rohri, you will think twice before buying the station vendor’s meals. The “chai wala paani waala karahi wala” guy is also sketchy. You can however ask him to warm up any food you have packed with you.
You may prefer bringing food you can eat cold and delay the meal for as long as possible. We are talking 26 hours here.
The AC in the AC sleeper works well. So a blanket would not only keep you warm but also provide a better sleeping experience. If you can manage without a pillow, thats fine. Otherwise you might want to bring one for that flat sleeper bed youll be resting on.
The uniformed cleaning guys can give you fresh soap. But just bring your own just in case.
You will need lots of it. You can either bring your own or buy from the “kitchen car”. More importantly, make sure you bring disposable cups with you.
Okay. This understandably might be a deal breaker for many people. Although that ensuite washroom in the AC sleeper room is a luxury compared to that of the lower standard cars, we are dealing with a dingy little room with faucets and fittings that look like they have not been changed since the British Raj.
The best part is that its there and functional despite its dingy situation, and thankfully its a western seat instead of an indian keyhole in the floor. My advice here is to go before you board, manage your intake to use it as infrequently as humanly possible, and avoid using in high speed or windy conditions.
All that said, nothing terrible is really going to happen.
Remember: this is about experiencing the journey to Quetta with Pakistan Railways Jaffar Express for what it is and not what it should be. You are only ever going to do this once your life, so appreciate the make-shiftness of things, laugh at the sophistication, and give credit to all those who got you to your destination in one piece.
Yes there is lots of room for improvement, and improvement shall come when everything else in the background gets sorted out. Until then, focus on the bigger picture and recognise where the value in this epic journey really lies.