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The decline of Pakistan Railways

January 12, 2011

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pakistan railways
“There is still a large number of passengers who benefit from the railway network. People often find it difficult to find reservations near holidays." - Photo by Husham Ahmed

Islamabad: Noor Khan, a taxi driver, is catching a train back home at the Golra railway station over the Christmas weekend. Any other day he would drive his taxi home but since there has been CNG load shedding in the city for two days, he has decided to take the train.

“One can always rely on the train as being the cheapest means of travel. An economy ticket to Lahore costs about Rs.190 while the buses charge a lot more,” says Khan.

Khan is right. Pakistan Railways is still not only the cheapest yet safest mode of travel but this public state enterprise is also the largest civil employer in the country. However, over the years, lack of attention, poor policies, increasing expenditures, misappropriation of funds, pilferage, nepotism and most recently, the floods have left the Railways with huge deficits running in billions of rupees.

Since 1861 when the first railway line was laid down between Karachi and Kotri, the expansion of the railway network by the British came at a rapid pace up until 1947. The driving factors for this growth were strategic and economic in nature. For instance to thwart the Russians from the West, the British built the Khojak tunnel, the fourth largest at that time, in seemingly inaccessible areas of Balochistan to reach Chaman railway station. But after 1947, little has been done to expand and maintain this network.

Visiting the Golra railway station in Islamabad, one can still see the remnants of the glory of this institution under the English in its heydays. The station hosts old steam engines on display and other relics in its adjoined museum. The scenic platform with old shadowy trees and benches present a classic traditional setting characteristic of a railway station. Today, however, the train arrives at the back of the station and it is often late as locomotives frequently breakdown before reaching their destination.

Mohammad Ramzan, the stationmaster at the Golra railway station, has spent 32 years in the service of Pakistan Railways. He, along with other employees recently got late salaries on Eid amidst rumours that Pakistan Railways does not have enough money in its coffers to pay monthly salaries. He still remembers when the carriage factory of Pakistan used to export coaches to Bangladesh and other countries back in 1990. Now, Pakistan imports substandard locomotives and spare parts from China. He laments the fact that Pakistan Railways has been treated as an orphan institution throughout the years.

“While the rulers were building road networks and motorways in the name of development, no one thought about upgrading and maintaining the railways network,” says Ramzan. When the motorway’s cost was estimated at Rs 24 billion, Pakistan Railways came up with a proposal of upgrading its entire network in Rs.10 billion. However, this aspect was neglected as the motorway was seen as a symbol of progress.

The major losses faced by the Pakistan Railways today are a direct result of decreasing revenues with increased expenditures. The expenditure recently crossed Rs.51 billion in one year out of which Rs.20 billion were allocated for salaries and pensions. The revenues are dwindling to about Rs.23 billion per year.

Revenue share for freight trains has declined from 40 per cent to 25 per cent as a direct result of neglecting this cheap mode of transportation. While on the other side of the border, Indian railways expanded due to transportation of goods across the country, here in Pakistan another institution called National Logistic Cell (NLC) was setup for the transportation of goods during General Ziaul Haq’s era – an institution that directly competed with Pakistan Railways. As NLC’s role grew in the Afghan war and in the later years, Pakistan Railways was sidelined further as it became irrelevant with each passing day.

The rising oil prices and scarcity of locomotives forced the Railways to focus on passenger traffic more than the transportation of goods. The fares were kept low as the government kept subsidising the department. Pakistan Railways recently absorbed Rs.14 billion of taxpayers’ money in the form of direct subsidies. Out of 522 total engines only 220 are in working order, out of which 100 are in poor condition. Ghulam Balour, Federal Minister of Pakistan Railways, has not made any effort to hide his helplessness over corruption affecting the department and the need for new locomotives

Nature has not been too kind to Pakistan Railways either. According to the National Disaster Management Authority, the recent floods have caused a loss of Rs.6.7 billion to the railway network as several hundred kilometres of lines were washed away. The railway coaches were also the targets of angry mobs and arson attacks after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination resulting in huge losses.

A recent report of Auditor General Pakistan revealed that Pakistan Railways has also been maltreated by other institutions as it has often failed to recover its outstanding dues. “Overall receivables of Pakistan Railways shot up to Rs 1.438 billion until June 30, 2009, while one of the major receivables — amounting to Rs.254 million — is related to Defense Department — which is yet to be recovered from certain department,” claimed AGP. Similarly the recent scandal of Royal Palm Golf and Country Club only highlighted a wider practice of illegal encroachment of land of railways over the years. Railways Minister of State Muhammad Afzal Sindhu disclosed in National Assembly in September 2010 that 4,231 acres of land of Pakistan Railways had been occupied by a private party. The AGP report also marked other irregularities in Railways’ operations. The vast swathes of lands owned by PR inherited from the colonial masters have failed to generate much revenue for the department.

In the past, even a former Chief of ISI had been appointed as the minister for Pakistan Railways. The culture of nepotism in appointments in Pakistan Railways at different levels meant that the departmental posts were only distributed as gifts in politics and bureaucracy.

With a rapid increase in the losses incurred and suspension of many trains over the last few years, the graph of Pakistan Railways is only going down and its future looks uncertain. However, Mohammad Ramzan remains optimistic. “There is still a large number of passengers who benefit from the railway network. People often find it difficult to find reservations near holidays. As long as the people continue to prefer this safe and cheap mode of travel, the trains will continue running for them. It is only the policies of top management and leadership that will determine if this public state enterprise can turn into a profitable entity,” says Ramzan with conviction.