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Pakistan, India Resume Cross-Border Rail Service - 2004-01-15

Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan have resumed cross-border passenger rail service, one day after extending a newly opened bus service between the two countries. This is a major step for easier contact between Pakistani and Indian citizens.

The first cross-border train left the railway station in Lahore, Pakistan, Thursday morning, bound for the Indian border town of Attari. Dubbed the "Samjhota Express" after the Urdu and Hindi word for "compromise," the train route had sat idle for some two years. India cut all transportation ties following a December 2001 bombing of its Parliament, which Indian officials say was supported by Pakistan.

Former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tanvir Ahmed Khan says the restoration of transport links has deep symbolic value, and is a sign the peace process is moving forward. "There is more to it than meets the eye. It's not just a mechanical restoration," he says. "This time it is happening in the context of a new ambiance, a new spirit."

While the 2001 attack led to increasing tensions, with the two nations almost going to war the following year, relations improved significantly during 2003. After a recent series of peace gestures by both sides, Pakistan and India agreed to resume bilateral air, bus and rail services.

On Wednesday, officials from the two countries agreed to extend the Lahore to New Delhi bus, reopened last July, for at least another five years. Talks are also scheduled next month to discuss a new bus line linking the Indian and Pakistani sides of the disputed mountain territory of Kashmir, the source of two wars between the nations.

Mr. Ahmed notes that the prime beneficiaries of the restored transport links are the families who where divided when India and Pakistan were carved out of British colonial India in 1947. But he adds for these families, and other Indians and Pakistanis who are simply interested in tourism or cross-border business, more needs to be done. "They really mark the restoration of the people-to-people contact at a mass level," he says. "It's really still probably a fraction of what is required."

Mr. Ahmed says that while opening travel routes is important, most would-be visitors find it very difficult to obtain visas for cross-border trips. And once they arrive, he says, the atmosphere is not always welcoming, with visitors often subjected to scrutiny by the local authorities on both sides.