Railways ignored

May 05, 2014

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THAT Pakistan is urbanising at a much faster rate than previously anticipated is something that is being observed and acknowledged without reservation. This is seen in runaway growth in urban conurbations, propelled into existence by increasing migration from the rural hinterland to urban areas, and the urban population explosion.

The net effect is a pressing burden on already strained public services and creaky infrastructure. The transport system is one area which is struggling to keep pace with this new urban reality. Despite various solutions — ranging from state-backed public transport to a mix of government-private partnership in the transportation sector — the problem of providing affordable and reliable transport for an ever-growing population remains inadequately addressed.

Admittedly the gap between uncontrolled population and limited transport is going to remain substantially unbridgeable. Yet the gap is being further accentuated by our misplaced policies and flawed and ad hoc nostrums employed to solve the crisis. One cardinal problem lies in the way the transport policy was conceived in the ’50s.

In the first five-year plan the transport policy was decisively oriented towards road-based transport, which entailed a massive sprawl of road links and the resultant increase in vehicular traffic. One reason was the government’s sheer indifference towards rail as a means of mass transit. While road construction was the source of political patronage, as was the granting of bus route permits, the car and vehicular traffic came to be considered as symbols of status — largely associated with highly visible and expensive cars whizzing down the roads.

Together these two factors further combined to undermine rail transport. The early shift embodied in the First Five-Year Plan continues to date as pointed out by transport academic Muhammad Imran. Pakistan’s first public transport policy in 1991 continued with the notion of road-based transport without hinting at the role the rail-based system can play in addressing the challenge of public transport. This is in contrast to India, which stuck with the railways playing a larger role in transport policy from the early days.

At the time of Partition, Pakistan inherited more than 12,875 kilometres of rail track out of more than 64,374 km that covered pre-Partition India. Considering the size of Pakistan relative to India, the rail track we inherited was reasonably well-spread and knitted large parts of the country into the network. In time the rail system atrophied due to lack of investment and official indifference. Despite this, the railways plodded along, backed by profits from the freight business.

However, with the National Logistics Cell peeling away a large slice of its freight business, Pakistan Railways is in dire straits. The sick body of the railways is now in the intensive care unit, with oxygen in the form of regular government cash handouts keeping it alive.

In this regard, Munir Niazi rather poignantly wrote: “Subhay kazib ki hawa mein kitna dard tha Munir; rail ki seeti baji aur dil lahoo say bhar gia” (The early dawn was full of the signs of pain that when the train whistled, my heart was filled with wrenching pain, too).

Pakistan Railways was also inseparably linked with popular mobilisation. When Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto began his whistle-stop tour of the country by train after his release from ‘protective custody’, he attracted adoring crowds in such huge numbers that Gen Ziaul Haq not only cancelled the election, he also decided to hang the political mobiliser par excellence. Such were the tales of the railways’ legend as a social and political institution, along with its role as a reliable mass transport system.

This brings me to the question of transport policy. As Muhammad Imran has pointed out, the transport policy has in effect meant road-based transport to the total exclusion of railways as a form of mass transit. This needs to change conceptually from a predominantly road-based transport system to a mixed one with the rail-based system revived and enhanced.

As such the transport policy should focus on, first and foremost, what the transport needs of a growing population are and how best to meet them by employing different forms of transport rather than starting from the premise that a bus-based transport system is the be-all and end-all of the transportation policy. Obviously, this cannot be achieved if the transport policy is not freed from the grip of unsavoury interests.

The change will require reviving and strengthening the railways as part of the transport policy before it becomes a museum piece. Best of luck to Khawaja Saad Rafique in the social and political exercise which the revival of Pakistan Railways signifies.

The writer is an Islamabad-based development consultant and policy analyst. drarifazad@gmail.com