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The railways as a metaphor


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A FORTNIGHT or so ago, the New York Times ran a long front-page piece on Pakistan Railways (PR) by its Pakistan bureau chief, Declan Walsh.

Declan, a good friend and probably the best-informed foreign correspondent to have covered Pakistan, based his story on a train journey from Peshawar to Karachi. Full of humour, sympathy, colour and detail, the account is more of a metaphor for Pakistan than a straightforward travel piece.

As somebody who has watched the downward trajectory of our national rail system for a number of years, I read Declan’s account with great interest and concern. I began my civil service career in the late ’60s with PR’s finance department. At that time, the track from Lahore to Khanewal had been electrified and the Karachi circular train was about to be launched.

That no further electrification was undertaken, and the Karachi circular railway ran only briefly, is a sad comment on the system as well as on national priorities. Another fact to reflect on is that since independence, we have failed to add a single mile to the rail network.

Within the splendid red-brick railway headquarters’ building in Lahore, one could not imagine then that the organisation was at the beginning of its death spiral. Senior officers lived in large colonial houses in Mayo Gardens, with its tree-lined roads and its own electricity supply. As I rose up the ladder, I was allotted the biggest house I have ever lived in, before or since. One could swim, play tennis or golf virtually free of cost at the subsidised clubs run by the organisation for its officers.

In its heyday, PR had a virtual monopoly on bulk transport and passenger traffic. I recall countless train journeys in air-conditioned comfort, with trains generally running on time, and the system working reasonably efficiently. Pretty much like the rest of the country, in fact.

It all started to go downhill under the later years of Ayub Khan when the truck lobby from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (then the NWFP) prevailed in persuading the government to divert resources to the road sector, and the railway’s monopoly on bulk goods transport was challenged. As bureaucrats used to having businessmen beg and bribe them to make wagons available, PR’s commercial officers were unable to provide the kind of flexibility the new environment demanded.

The last nail in PR’s coffin was driven by the National Logistics Cell, an organisation set up under the Ziaul Haq regime. The NLC ran a large fleet of trucks (with hefty kickbacks allegedly paid to army officers involved in their purchase). This fleet is now almost non-existent, but the NLC still has the right to nominate carriers of government goods, so corruption is still reportedly rampant.

The economics of train transport is such that passenger services are usually subsidised by goods traffic. As PR’s share of bulk cargo fell, passenger services began to suffer. In real terms, government investment in engines, track and wagons declined. So, too, did PR’s finances. From being a profitable organisation, the system is now barely surviving on subsidies.

Other countries also support their railways for a variety of reasons. They remain the most economical mode of transport, as well as the most environmentally friendly. France, for example, maintains one of the world’s most efficient systems and subsidises it through national and regional budgets. India runs the world’s biggest and most profitable rail network.

Apart from its systemic problems, PR has also suffered from the corruption and inefficiency endemic in our state enterprises. In my days with the railways, I noticed that even the homes of many junior officers seemed to be far more lavishly furnished and equipped than mine was. And overstaffing was chronic.

In a sense, PR’s agony has been replicated across other state-owned enterprises. As long as they enjoy a monopoly, they thrive, with the consumer paying for their inefficiency and corruption. As soon as they face competition and begin bleeding red ink, the burden shifts to the taxpayer.

Thus, Pakistan Steel, the country’s biggest industrial enterprise, did very well behind high tariff barriers. But as soon as our international commitments to free trade forced duties of imported steel down, it entered a nosedive from which it has never recovered.

As its finance director, I recall the constant sense of crisis that hung over this enterprise as we struggled to keep it going. There were long negotiations with the banks and the finance ministry for a lifeline. After I left, a series of bailouts have kept this white elephant alive. Sadly, privatisation was thwarted by the Supreme Court, and since then, billions more in handouts have been pumped in; no talk of accountability here.

The national airline, too, is in freefall. Again, its golden era was before foreign carriers were allowed to compete for traffic. Over the years, successive governments have forced their appointed CEOs to recruit party supporters. As a result, the aircraft-to-staff ratio in PIA is one of the most lopsided in the industry.

The problem this government will face is that all the three organisations mentioned here need such huge infusions of capital that privatisation is the only option available. But in all three, the unions have a stranglehold, and will make life difficult for any new owners. Downsizing is a tricky policy, and Nawaz Sharif will have his hands full of the political fallout. In any case, it will be interesting to see if our higher judiciary will block the sale of these loss-making enterprises, as it did with Pakistan Steel.

Tailpiece: Barely two days before the May 11 elections, Declan Walsh’s visa was cancelled for unknown reasons. Considering his deep knowledge and affection for Pakistan, as reflected by nine years of reporting, this ill-considered decision is something the new government should reverse immediately.

Comments (22) Closed

iftekhar hussain Jun 08, 2013 11:32pm

Kis kis par maatam karoge mere dost. Yeh mulk mein bus raj hai to mafia ka.

Shahid Masud Jun 09, 2013 09:30am

Root out corruption from Pakistan and there will be no load shedding of electricity or gas and none of the above mentioned organizations will go down the hill.

a.k.lal Jun 08, 2013 04:08am
those who criticise are the best friends,as they keep us on right track and alert.
aslam minhas Jun 08, 2013 05:42am
The goners motto was: 'Make hay while the sun shines' and 'now or never.' Hopefully the things will improve as people, media and judiciary are active now!
Shakoor Ahmed Jun 08, 2013 06:06am
No reason has been given for Declan Walshe,s visa cancellation. For a reporter who has worked for the NYT. in Pakistan for nine years, a sudden departure could be a loss for Pakistan as well.
K G Surendran Jun 08, 2013 06:45am
For the not so developed nations with high low income groups, railways can be the backbone of the economy. It will be overstaffed, mostly inefficient and need regular budgetary support but is very essential for countries with large populations and low per capita incomes. What is required is political will and that is only possible if you have a continuous democracy which was not the case with Pakistan.
Irrfaan Akhtaar Jun 08, 2013 06:53am
our obsession with india kept us backward in every field
vijayIndia Jun 08, 2013 09:19am
Indian railways is the biggest--- I agree Profitable?-------I disagree
Parvez Jun 08, 2013 09:20am
What caught my eye was your admission that you started in the railways and ended as director finance in the Steel Mill. I would be correct in assuming that for a big period you were in a position to make a difference in these organisations. All it takes is one good man to take a was seen in the case of the Indian Railways.
Rashid Jun 08, 2013 11:25am
The root of this obsession lies in the reason for which Pakistan was claimed. This obsession will stay with us forever.
Ahmed j Jun 08, 2013 10:47am
One must not blame the downfall of Railways to the truck business or NLC. In modern times new ventures and businesses would emerge and every enterprise has to learn and survive through the coming years. One has to learn and develop the art of change. The PIA also lost revenue to Islamabad-Lahore route due to Daewoo bus service and it will be foolish to blame the bus service for the loss. In the era of e-mail the Post Office services cannot be shut down but newer ideas have to be incorporated. In the developed world, post offices are providing other products like Insurance, Mortgage, Loans and other finance related services. Pakistan Railways is still crawling with its 1960s pace and has refused to change with time. The civil service thinking has to develop into a business manufacturing mind. Red-bricked headquarters need business trained force not civil servants.
Agha Ata Jun 08, 2013 01:23pm
For me the tailpiece was more shocking because that shows the present attitude of the government. I only hope they change.
kanak Jun 08, 2013 01:28pm
Restarting railway network with privatisation is not easy as private companies invest in rolling stock but not in infrastructure like tracks, signalling etc. It has not worked in the UK as well as safety is compromised and fares shoot up. The Govt. should use PR employees both past and present, work out an investment plan, make freight a major part with firm payments for Govt., army shipments. It should revive workshops and for a few years accept big losses.But then PR seems to be a systemic problem of all public enterprises in Pakistan and it needs a strong political will.
Mystic Jun 08, 2013 02:47pm
It is very interesting to see the ex-bureaucrats who contributed to the problems in their respective organizations are now writing such articles and giving free advice on TV channels posing as 'experts'.
Ravi from Pune. Jun 08, 2013 04:46pm
Pakistan Railway is nothing but the Twin brother of Indian Railway then why PR is now sick. PR can also become like World's other rail network only the way to keep Rail network systematic and well plan. Nawaz Sharif is the new rays of hope for PR's instability.
Syed Ahmed Jun 08, 2013 07:28pm
I disagree with Irfan Hussain that Pakistan Railways down fall started in the later years of Ayub Khan. In fact the decline started during Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto
BRR Jun 08, 2013 05:53pm
The obsessions should have been competitive, not destructive and meant to pull the other down. Pakistan should have tried to do better in terms of infrastructure, education and healthcare, rather than waste money in trying to install its flag on the red fort in delhi or train militants to do harm to the other.
Mustafa Razavi Jun 09, 2013 04:49am
No reason needs to be given, we are a sovereign nation.
RAW is WAR Jun 09, 2013 03:14am
your obsession with Islam, to be fair.
M. Sadiq Swati Jun 09, 2013 01:52am
PR problem is primarily the lack of latest technical knowledge on the part of senior railway officials to operate the system on modrn lines. They still run the PR strictly on the basis of 'Operating Manuals' prepared in 1890s. They need to discard those outdated manuals & inject fresh blood in their manpower by hiring highly educated professionals in the fields of Transportation planning, Transport Economics, Business Administration, Computer Sciences & Statistics etc.
pathanoo Jun 09, 2013 01:44am
The only solution is privatization and I agree with the author that Nawaz Sharif does not have the spine or the integrity to carry it out. So, the train will keep running till the wheels fall off.
KSD Jun 08, 2013 09:53pm
Of course, the intelligence agencies can invoke the clause of national security, a blanket shield against any further discussion, in explaining the cancellation of Mr. Walsh's visa. It is also telling who is running the show. The recent news that on the inauguration day Mr. Sharif's convoy was held by an army commando to make way for the army chief's cavalcade only confirms the entrenchment of the army culture. What a shame?