Railways derailed

June 24, 2019


IT seems as if there is no end to the tragedy of many years that has befallen Pakistan Railways. Most recently, a passenger train crashed into a stationary goods train near Hyderabad, killing three people — the driver and two assistant drivers — and injuring several others. Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad sought forgiveness from the nation as he accepted responsibility for the crash. Since he was given the ministry in August last year, a portfolio he has held once before under Gen Pervez Musharraf, there have been several accidents and mishaps that are difficult to ignore, despite grandiose promises of better times. Soon after occupying his current position, the minister claimed he would revamp the railways in 120 days, launching new freight train services and ending the deficit by the end of the year. He would achieve all this by working 18 hours a day and eliminating corruption, he said. But when it came to filling thousands of vacancies in the department recently, Sheikh Rashid bizarrely announced that candidates would be hired through a ballot system — essentially, a lottery. The incident showcased a non-serious attitude that is simply incomprehensible given the massive structural problems facing state-run institutions, issues that can only be resolved through competence, dedication and fresh thinking. But the plight of Pakistan Railways goes further back. During the previous government’s tenure, some 20 people were killed and 65 others injured when a passenger train crashed into a stationary train in Karachi in November 2016. Two months before that, six people were killed and over 150 injured when another passenger train crashed into a stationary train near Multan. And a year before that, 18 were killed when a train fell into a canal near Gujranwala. When such tragedies occur so frequently, they cannot be considered ‘accidents’ anymore; they are the result of criminal neglect and indifference towards the poor who largely make up the bulk of passengers.

How can successive governments speak of bullet trains in some imaginary future when they cannot even repair the outdated infrastructure and equipment they inherited from the former colonial powers generations ago? Pakistan Railways is part of the fabric of the entire nation; it is supposed to facilitate economic activity and provide affordable and comfortable travel to millions. Surely, the railways ministry is far too important a portfolio to go to anyone who does not appear to comprehend the seriousness of the mission.

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2019