THIS is with reference to the report ‘Cash-strapped railways using 100 locos that have outlived their life’ (April 15). I am a mechanical engineer with 45 years of post-graduate experience, and I can say with confidence that the ‘outlived their life’ is not the problematic part. In one of the fertiliser plants where I worked, we had two American gas turbines that were bought in 1967. They have been operating even today, and they have been upgraded beyond their designed name-plate capacities.

At Karachi Port, the 10-tonne flatbed trucks are operating for more than 80 years. These trucks were purchased before partition.

In the desert of Thar, six-wheel trucks commonly known as Kekra are used for transportation even during the rainy season when modern trucks and tractors fail due to ground conditions.

I am fortunate to have worked on two projects where my company relocated two shutdown plants from the United States that had served 20 years in the US. One of the plants is operating at more than its designed load for the last 30 years in Pakistan. The company has no plan to shut it down in the foreseeable future. All these are examples of machines that ‘outlived their life’ far more than is the case with ‘cash-strapped railways’. If the private sector can do this, the public sector can also do it. In fact, it can do even better.

The pioneer in this field was Shaukat Raza Mirza, who showed us all the way to do it. The two plants mentioned above can be visited by railway engineers to see how these old plants and machines are maintained and operated. They will also learn how many obsolete components have been locally fabricated by way of reverse engineering.

All diesel engines are the same, though they may vary in size. From a portable diesel engine generator to 20,000 container ships, every diesel engine has piston, cylinders, liners, big-end and small-end bearings, connecting rod, inlet and outlet valves, crank shaft and atomisers. All these can be reclaimed and refurbished. Even the crank shafts are refurbished in Karachi and Lahore. At the fertiliser plant, I personally replaced a compressor liner whose piston was 30 inches in diameter. I am reasonably certain that railway engines’ piston and liner diameters would be smaller.

My father was an employee of Pakistan Western Railways (PWR). I have personally witnessed skilled railway workmen and workshops closely. I have no reason to doubt that they cannot repair their engines. As a loco foreman in Rohri in 1964, my father used to test randomly picked engines from Karachi and Lahore every Sunday. He would drive them at 120 miles per hour (mph), with the driver and other staff standing behind him. The normal speed used to be 60mph back then.

I and my brother used to go on such tests every Sunday. We never heard any reports of train engine failure then. Also, I have never seen engines shooting past railway stations since then.

Engines are mostly made of cast steel and cast iron components that can be easily developed and machined in Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works (KSEW) and Heavy Mechanical Complex (HMC). Even the railway workshops can do that.

As far as the ‘cash-strapped’ part is concerned, Pakistan Railways happens to own choicest and prime properties tight across the country from Karachi to Peshawar. Selling a few plots of land will earn it billions of rupees. So, we have the skills, the prised land, and the workshops to get this done.

Maybe what is missing is something called passion. Somebody needs to reignite the dwindling spark. In the famous words of Mao Zedong, ‘anything that can be mended should be mended’. There is no practical reason not to do that.

S. Nayyar Iqbal Raza
Karachi

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2024

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