Railways in the dock

Updated January 29, 2020

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IT may not be the best venue, but Federal Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid was delivered the right message by the Supreme Court on Tuesday. He was asked why he did not resign after the horrific Tezgam fire in which 73 passengers perished on his watch.

Ideally the question should come from the prime minister, or the minister’s cabinet colleagues, or his constituents. But as it turns out, the Supreme Court is now the place where federal ministers will have to answer for their performance track record, and especially if the track record should include such heinous lapses as that which resulted in the train accident in Rahim Yar Khan last year. According to some reports, the year 2019 was one of the worst suffered by the railways, with more than 100 fatal/non fatal accidents.

Throughout the year, the railways minister was often seen on television talking about the politics of the day, making predictions about the direction in which the wind will blow in Islamabad, and even proffering theories on why the price of flour began skyrocketing in December.

One thing he seldom commented on was the condition of the railways. Even after the Tezgam fire, all he could do was promise an inquiry, following which a few junior officials were dismissed and there ended the tale. Last June, when another accident involving a collision between a passenger train and a goods train left three people dead and several others injured, the minister asked for forgiveness from the country after accepting responsibility. But the time for empty words, false promises and crocodile tears must end at some point.

Since nobody in the government seems to be watching the performance of the railways minister, despite the accidents and the deaths, it appears the Supreme Court has taken up the job.

The court has asked for a business plan to show what the minister’s plans are for returning the railways to financial viability, and given him two weeks to furnish this. Of course it is understood that there is no such plan, nor has there been any work towards developing one. And the best that can be done in two weeks is a bare sketch of how the enterprise can be returned to financial health.

This is all the court can expect from Sheikh Rashid, though it can continue to demand more detailed follow-up. In the end, the realisation is going to have to sink in that he is not the man for the job. Looking after the railways is a big undertaking and carries enormous responsibility, given the millions of people who travel on it. Somebody serious about the task is needed for it, and the court may have no choice but to soon ask the government to mount a search.

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2020