THE loss of over 40 lives in a train collision near Daharki in Sindh on Monday morning is a stark reminder of Pakistan Railways’ abysmal passenger safety record and the unfulfilled promises of successive governments to revamp its broken infrastructure. The accident also raises questions about the incumbent rulers’ commitment to modernising the poorly managed railway, and refurbish its aging tracks and erratic signal system for improving passenger safety.
Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted that he was “shocked by the horrific train accident” and had ordered a “comprehensive investigation into railway safety fault line”. Is that enough? We have heard such words so many times before that they have lost their meaning. Everyone is well aware of why train accidents happen and what needs to be done. But no one in the government appears to be bothered about fixing the problems. It is, indeed, unfair to blame the current government for the huge mess the railway is in today. Yet, it should not escape scrutiny for its own contribution to PR’s decline by passing the entire buck to its predecessors.
In pictures: Another day, another train disaster in Pakistan
Pakistan has a long history of train accidents caused by a decaying railway infrastructure. Apart from major accidents, scores of minor incidents of derailments take place every year but are not mentioned in the news. Most of these accidents occur because of dilapidated tracks, a faulty interlocking signal system, aging rolling stocks, etc. A look at PR’s record would show that the frequency of accidents, including fatal ones, has increased over the last few years owing to decades of underinvestment in rail infrastructure and the absence of passenger safety standards. The prime minister has repeatedly instructed the railway authorities to take steps to counter decades of neglect and ensure safety protocols, and to hold officials responsible for neglecting passenger safety, but nothing has come of it. Instead, the government has drastically slashed funds for railway rehabilitation in the last couple of years. Last July, it had promised additional funds for repairing the tracks and signal system, and purchasing new passenger coaches and locomotives this fiscal year. But the promise remains unfulfilled.
Political rhetoric aside, the administration appears as clueless about a revival strategy as any previous government. Apparently, it has been hoping that the promised Chinese investment of $6bn in the Main Line-1, connecting Peshawar to Karachi, would save the dying railway. With China reluctant to invest its money in the project, the government does not have a strategy to fall back on to resuscitate the bankrupt department. With or without Chinese money, the job of putting the railway back on track will not be easy; it will take a long time, large investments and strong political will. Turning a company the size of Pakistan Railways is never easy. However, the government can always start by investing in the rehabilitation of the infrastructure to save lives.
Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2021