Bold PR plans

December 09, 2019

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THERE is no escaping the plight of Pakistan Railways and certainly no shortage of hard-to-believe projections about its turnaround. Only last week the project director of the 1,900-km Mainline-I plan briefed a Senate committee on the PR revolution in the making. He spoke of doubling the number of passenger trains from the current 40 and boosting the railways’ share in freight traffic from Karachi to 20pc from the abysmal less than 4pc at the moment. Those tempted to hit the road between Peshawar and Karachi thanks to the recent opening of highways that are supposed to drastically reduce the distance will, apparently, have tougher competition from the old, ‘reliable’ train.

Moreover, after the opening of these new road links, a premier bus service promises to take passengers from Lahore to Karachi in 14 hours, with stopovers included. The railways, with all its ‘romance’ and ‘comfort’, claims it will complete the same journey in 10 hours once the ML-I project is finished. It promises greater passenger protection, though the 70-odd train accidents since August 2018 when the PTI came to power may prove to be something of a deterrent for aspiring rail travellers. There is also a promise to open up the railways and let it embrace new ideas, in contrast to the very strict government-controlled existence imposed on it over the years. During the briefing, the upper house committee was told that after the completion of the ML-I under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, trains will be outsourced to private operators. In response to the old reservations against entrusting maintenance of infrastructure to private hands, the government will keep control of the railway tracks.

All this is dependent on the successful completion of the ML-I, which experts say will take nine years. It is a huge project estimated to cost $9.2bn and is being touted as the railways’ saviour against a background of non-provision of sufficient and timely funds. The absence of resources and political decision-making has been the bane of PR. The calls about freeing the institution held captive by the ruling parties will have to be ultimately heard for a true revival. The debate must take place now with a frankness that the dire situation of the country’s train system demands. The introduction of private operators once the system has been spruced up may be a good beginning but some experts advise releasing the PR from the often debilitating control of the Ministry of Railways. The idea of having an independent regulator help PR run its operations may at first sound too radical to some of those who are conservative and shy of fast remedies. Let it at least be the starting point of a ‘save the railways’ discussion that should not suffer on account of the absence of frankness and bold turnaround steps. Desperate times do not breed easy answers.

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2019