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Railways at a cliff edge

July 23, 2012


Pakistani passengers board a train at a railway station in Lahore. – AFP (File Photo)

“I have arrived at the Rawalpindi railway station on the third day by a train which was scheduled to reach here within 24 hours. It was delayed owing to repeated failures of its locomotive, said Jamal Ahmed who had come from Hyderabad to meet his relatives here.

Such engine failures or shortage of fuel are a common occurrence.

Senior Vice -President of the Station Master Group and Other Staff Association (SAMERAS), Mitho Khan Khaskhely told this scribe that corruption in the Railways was at its peak and even train motors go missing from sheds in Karachi and Lahore.

He suspected that the staff members of the mechanical department were involved in the theft but no action was taken against them because of their political links.

The Railway’s revenue has almost dried up, said an employee. The earnings from freight have plummeted over the decades, he added.

A year ago, about 8-10 cargo trains were operational on a daily basis. But currently only one cargo train was functional. It leaves after every 4-5 days, he says, adding, often its locomotive is exchanged with passenger’s train due to its engine failure.

The destruction of the Railways started when the former president General Zia-ul-Haq launched the National Logistic Cell (NLC) in 1985 to provide an alternative to the cargo train service. The military ruler also devised a system under which the Railways earnings were acquired by the government rather than put in modernisation and expansion of the rail system.

With a tighter bureaucratic stranglehold, the Railways did not carry out the needed reforms and was also mismanaged.

Lately, the effort to launch the Business Train on private-public partnership too, could not succeed.

Speaking on the floor of the National Assembly, Federal Minister for Railways Haji Ghulam Ahmad Bilour has asked for Rs400 million for purchase of locomotives to run the trains.

The Auditor-General of Pakistan has unveiled massive irregularities in the Pakistan Railways during 1996-97 to 2008-09.

Expressing concerns over such big losses, the Chairman PAC, Nadeem Afzal Gondal said while the Railways was asking for the grant to get rid of the financial crisis, billions were being misappropriated.

The PAC meeting, held on July 12 was informed that losses of $92 million had been incurred due to purchase of 175 railway coaches without calling for competitive tenders.

Moreover, two former generals, Javed Ashraf Qazi, railways minister in the Musharraf cabinet and former Chairman Railway Saeeduz Zafar allegedly ordered the purchase of coaches on the basis of single party tender.

A federal audit carried out in 2007 found that the government had lost Rs10 billion by leasing out 103 acres to the Royal Palm Golf Club built in early 2000 on Railway’s land in Lahore.

The PAC was told that the judgment of Supreme Court in the case of Royal Palm Golf Club was reserved for the last 15 months. As the judges of the bench which had reserved the ruling had retired, the case would be reheard.

Moreover, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) told the committee that the management of the club had agreed to give Rs16 billion to the Railway for additional 39 years’ lease.

“We cannot proceed to strike a deal because the case is in the court and subject is sub-judice”, it said.

Another interesting case of the Pakistan Railway came before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in which 19 Railways schools were leased to the school system owned by senior leader of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and former foreign minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri on a lease of Rs5000 per month for each school in 2002.

The members of the committee were surprised to know that the canteen at each of the schools was rented out to venders on Rs9000 per month.

PAC member and MNA Engineer Khuram Dastigar said the government had to take serious steps to settle financial leakage in the Railways. Besides, long-term policies have to be worked out for its survival, he added.

Speaking in the meeting of the PAC, Federal Secretary Muhammad Arif Azim (PR) said the government was providing funds for payment of salaries of Railways employees not for anything else.

He said the target of revenues worth Rs20 billion given by ministry of finance was not achieved but the Railways earned a revenue of Rs15 billion that was in excess of the target of Rs12 billion set by its management.

The Pakistan Railway is standing on the edge of a cliff. Only a strong political will can save it.