THE association of train drivers has called upon the Pakistan Railways authorities to focus on “rehabilitation of the [train] track for the safety of passengers, line staff and rolling stock” as the number of minor and major accidents involving significant loss of human lives and railway property continues to rise for some years. The association has also warned of protests if the drivers are asked to operate passenger or cargo trains on the existing tracks without ensuring regular repairs to make them less dangerous. Given the present state of affairs at PR, it seems highly unlikely that anyone from among the railway authorities is paying heed to this call for making the dilapidated tracks safer for train operations.
The railway is in a total mess because of a number of factors. For starters, it has failed to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies, improve services and invest in ground infrastructure or efficient rolling stock to make its operations safer. Once a popular mode of travel for a large majority of middle-class families, people now avoid trains for fear of their lives. Similarly, in the last couple of decades or so, PR has completely lost its cargo business to road haulage owing to the shortage of freight trains and a highly erratic service. Meanwhile, frequent political interventions for short-term gains, red tape, corruption, a highly inefficient management and a broken business model have made matters worse. Unscrupulous labour unions linked with political parties have also played their part in its downturn. Although the government is working to replace the ground infrastructure of the main line (ML-1) from Peshawar to Karachi with a Chinese loan, hopes for a sustainable turnaround hinge on a complete break from the past. The revival of the railway is not possible without the government foregoing its tight control over its management and freeing it from the clutches of an inefficient civil bureaucracy so that it may operate independently and make timely decisions in the manner of any private corporate entity. Moreover, the government would also need to invest in and develop dedicated freight corridors to win back the massive cargo business to make it profitable. Last but not least, the railway management should be responsible for only maintenance of the ground infrastructure. Privatising cargo and passenger train operations needs to be given serious thought. Without a complete overhaul, there is little hope for a functioning railway in the country.
Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2020