KARACHI: “If you find a train arriving late, set your watch right,” remarked a smart young porter hurrying down the platform overloaded with several pieces of a passenger’s luggage. “Trains don’t arrive late these days!”
I recently set off from Rawalpindi by Tezgam for Karachi. Exactly at 8.30am it whistled and after a few seconds a second whistle blew and the train began to chug. A relative texted me the train’s travel timetable. All along I checked it with the train’s arrival at the various stations, and everywhere it was ahead of schedule. I got suspicious of the genuineness of the timetable. At Multan I asked a vendor how long the train would stop over there. “It will be here for half an hour, sir. Don’t worry,” he said and added with a justified sense of elation: “It arrived here ahead of time by 15 minutes.”
When the train pulled in at Karachi’s Landhi station, it was around an hour earlier.
Also read: China offers to invest $3.8bn in railways
Trains arrival and departure has always been a serious issue. Throughout the several decades a train arriving on time was an anomaly. If a train arrived within a few hours of its due time, people were content with it. The perennial delay was blamed on the driver’s greed for overtime which he purportedly earned at the cost of the passengers’ precious time. That could be true or may not be so, but train delays had been a common phenomenon in the past. But following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, the destruction of numerous train bogies and locomotives made the railways go haywire. It never recovered from that unfortunate episode till the last government lasted. Former railway minister Haji Ghulam Ahmed Bilour himself was so pessimistic about the railways’ future that he declared that the system was doomed and he could not help revive it.
Critics started alleging that since the minister had his own transport business, he was deliberately trying to ruin the railways.
Anyway, trains were late, sometimes by days not just hours. In one such unfortunate episode a train reached from Karachi to Rawalpindi in almost a week instead of the 26-hour journey. People waiting at railway stations were often told that the train was on its way from the other end, it would arrive here after so many hours delay, then it would be rolled to the washing yard before it arrived on the platform to pick passengers. The causes mentioned for the inordinate delays were various, from fuel shortages to engine breakdowns and non-availability of spare locomotives. This forced many regular passengers to opt for other modes of travel, particularly buses, which have since flourished, offering fantastic facilities and luxuries –– free cold drinks and snacks presented by women attendants, working air conditioning, films etc. But that trend appears to be reversing now with trains getting back on the track.
The prime minister’s inauguration of a new train, called Greenline train, on Friday may be proof of it. Railway officials claim that the train is not only centrally air-conditioned, it offers “WiFi connection throughout the route, three-time quality meal, tea, mineral water, newspaper and standard bedding” to the passengers during the travel between Islamabad and Karachi.
Timing is not the only area where the trains have shown some improvement. Water supply and sanitation have also markedly become better than before. The trains are swept at least once during the journey.
During the last few months the steadily rising fares seems to have been reversed. For instance, earlier an AC sleeper ticket between Karachi and Rawalpindi cost Rs6,300; now it is for Rs4,700. Similarly, at the station, coolies roam about offering their services to whoever wants them. Their role has changed considerably from that of an agent of corrupt officials who sold tickets in black market through these men in red shirts and white shalwars. Now they only help passengers with their luggage and comfortably lodge them in their already reserved seats. Black-marketing of tickets is uncommon now. Even the porters are supposed to charge official rates for carrying luggage pieces, though most passengers are unaware of or do not care much about it and just bargain with them.
The trains are comfortable with mostly having bogies imported from China, punctual and in some cases luxury too. Yes, what is called AC sleeper has various compartments for four, three and even two passengers.
Most people credit the present government for the turnaround. “Minister Saad Rafiq really deserves commendation for this improvement,” said Iftikhar Hussain, an employee of the Sui gas company, who says he cannot afford to travel by air and cannot sit for long hours in a bus either.
“Credit for this goes to the PTI. If it were not for Imran Khan’s sit-ins, this government wouldn’t have done anything for the public during its first four years,” said Mohammad Tufail, a PTI supporter.
Whether the credit goes to Minister Saad Rafique, the PTI’s dharnas or the changed internal and external circumstances, China’s assistance, passengers don’t care. They want a dependable, comfortable and affordable mode of travel and they seem to be getting it. With Greenline train on the tracks, I’m looking forward to enjoying a trip to the capital and back with the promised cool VIP treatment on it.
The government’s enthusiasm shows that the privitisation process set in motion with Business Train and Shalimar Express is not in favour of the people. Privatisation is just adding to their woes with higher fares. And they have no economy class, only which most Pakistanis can afford.
Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2015