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LAHORE: A number of men gather near the Mughalpura Workshops divisional superintendent’s office at around 6.30am. The middle-aged among them carry traditional metal tiffin carriers, while those younger have plastic food containers.

One youngster gently knocks at the closed window of the central time office as a series of school buses enter the premises, horns blowing. Within seconds, men disembark and begin to queue up. The window opens and the distribution of tokens — round pieces of metal sheet bearing a number — begins.

The men then head towards the loco, carriage and wagon, electrical, steel, manufacturing, construction, and other shops that constitute the largest complex of workshops of the Pakistan Railways (PR). By 7am, the tokens are placed on the attendance board installed near the main entrance before the machines are switched on; the oldest one dates back to 1926 while the most recent is from 1997.

All these machines are capable of manufacturing any spare part or component required for the rolling of stock, maintenance of steam boilers, weigh bridges, overhead cranes and even armoured vehicle-launched bridges (AVLB).

The workshop complex began to emerge at its present site in 1904 in order to manufacture, repair and overhaul passenger coaches and freight wagons for the then North Western Railways. After Independence, it was the only mighty, state-of-the-art workshop of the PR.

“I witnessed a great time here,” says Idrees, who retired as a mistri in 1985 from the loco shop.

“We used to manufacture passenger coaches, even for export,” he says, while sitting on a bench in the veranda of a station which used to be the last stop of the workers’ shuttle train, and was discontinued back in November 2011 to save fuel worth up to Rs7 million per annum. Now, the buses of railway schools are being used for the transportation of workers to and from Mughalpura to Lahore station.

The president of CBA Railways Workers Union (workshops), Sakhi Khan, says the pace of work at the workshop has stepped up with the induction of new locomotives to haul freight and passenger trains. “We can do wonders, provided that the availability of requisite funds, raw materials and skilled manpower is ensured at all the shops,” he says.

Another union leader complains about the acute shortage of police personnel to take care of the stock, especially those lying out in the open at the workshops. “Only 30 railway police officials are available, against the sanctioned strength of 116, to guard the vast area.

“Whenever some material is stolen, workers and policemen are made scapegoats,” he says.

Some police officials posted at the site second the union leader’s assertion, adding that the PR higher-ups continue to make promises to fill these posts, even above the sanctioned strength.

Workers at the foundry shop, an important component of the loco shop, complain they only receive gas supply for two days in a week. “We also get only 50 to 60 per cent of the required material. Both these factors badly affect our output,” they explain.

Interestingly, workers at the carriage and wagon shops claim that they receive full-pressure gas supply on all working days and have no dearth of raw material.

Spreading over 190 acres, the carriage and wagon shops also house a central fire station that is equipped with the latest and conventional system with which to control fires at any PR installation in Lahore.

“We can reach anywhere in the Mughalpura Workshops in three to five minutes, and at the Lahore railway station within eight to 10 minutes,” claims Chief Fire Master Liaqat Ali.

Demonstrating the operation of the fire alarm system installed in 1908, Mr Ali says they periodically attend refresher courses arranged by National Institute of Fire Technology in Islamabad.

The Mughalpura Workshops complex also houses an apprentice training centre. Established in 1964, with hostel facilities for students, this centre has the capacity to train 400 sub-engineers and C-Class apprentices or artisans. However, both instructors and students express dismay over the state of affairs at the training centre.

Workshops divisional superintendent Salman Sadiq Sheikh says that up to July 2016, the out-turn of passenger coaches has been 920, and for freight wagons 3,661.

“We are overhauling 80 passenger coaches, and between 350 to 400 freight wagons, on an average per month,” says Mr Sheikh.

Some 18 out of 27 locomotives of GE have been rehabilitated, while the repair and maintenance of Chinese locomotive is under way. He adds that work to assemble hopper wagons, which will be used to transport coal from Karachi port to power plants in Punjab, will soon be started.

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2016