Back on track?

May 20, 2019

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FRIDAY’S derailment of a goods train near Padidan station in Sindh has been blamed on ‘issues’ with the track, reigniting the old debate about the need to reform the train infrastructure in the country. The incident badly affected rail traffic over vast areas between Karachi and Peshawar for several hours. On Saturday, the railways minister held a news conference in Lahore at which, along with going through the usual exercise of listing the steps taken by his government to prop up the sagging rail system in the country, he wistfully recalled what could have been done to avoid the predicament the train service faces today. Quite naturally, there was mention of the much-anticipated Main Line-1 plan that is considered vital to not just Pakistan Railways’ future health, but also to its very existence.

The minister was right when he pointed to the almost obsessive focus of the railways department on ML-1. But, at this stage, the focus is likely to remain in all plans to revive the railways. Indeed, others before Shaikh Rashid, too, have spoken equally loudly about the state of the railways and of plans to fix it. After years of rhetoric, however, the main solution seems to lie in the execution of ML-1 under CPEC — the experts seemed to have been agonising hopelessly until they took note of what they see as a financially viable option. It could pull the railways out of years of neglect and exploitation and help it shrug off its lethargy and the conspiracies hatched to benefit others in the business of transportation, as well as PR’s own parasites.

ML-1 is not really a secret that needs decoding. It is a simple remedy tied to the larger picture that involves Pakistan’s trade with China and beyond. It entails re-laying the track from Karachi to Peshawar along with carrying out other repairs to existing lines and adding to the number of trains. This work at the basic level is supposed to give the system a much-needed lift by raising the standard of services. Both goods and passenger trains are to benefit, while the safety of the tracks is expected to be doubly ensured. The previous government was very keen on moving ahead on the ML-1 project, which is to be followed by the locally funded ML-2 and ML-3. The current government has signed the basic documents and is hoping to start work soon on ML-1. The railways minister has indicated that although ML-1 will take time to materialise, other work aimed at lifting the railways would continue. He has spoken of “30 new trains” launched under his watch. All that is fine, but he must also be willing to come up with plans to fix the less visible problems — like damaged tracks — that constantly threaten PR with derailment.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2019