Reforming Railways

Massive but targeted reforms are required to lift up the level of performance, credibility and image of the railways, writes Dr Noman Ahmed

Reforming Railways
The year 2019 saw many traffic accidents and the Tezgam tragedy was foremost among them. As many as 74 lives were lost to a blaze in October last year. One hoped that our vocal railway minister would have conducted a serious performance review of the department but this was not the case. A passenger train rammed into a motor car in Patoki on the third day of Eid, killing many people. The usual lip service followed. Given the track record, not much hope can be pegged to the remedial process.

This rot has a longer history that must be taken into view. Sequence of happenings in the railway department has caused the prevailing state of affairs. Loss of the commuter trust due to operational negligence – leading to fatal catastrophes – is a case in point. Trail of accidents during the past two decades is quite long. One of the most tragic accidents took place in 2005. Three trains collided near Sarhad Railway Station in the vicinity of Ghotki with fatalities mounting to over 100 passengers. What has become increasingly evident is the fact that the railways, which was once a most efficient and economical mode of transportation, has reached a near moribund status.

The department has seen much better days. North Western Railways, which became Pakistan Western Railways after Partition in 1947, was a profitable enterprise. Spread over 7,600 route kilometers, the network effectively connected major cities, towns and regions of what was then termed as West Pakistan. The management, organisation and controls of the department were largely done on professional lines. Most senior officers and engineers had obtained training and experience under the British administration. Civil engineering, signals, traffic and commercial cadres, mechanical and electrical engineers, accounts and finance were the key units on which the railways were structured.
The budget deficit does not allow railways authorities to undertake any mass scale facilities

Passengers and goods movement are the two essential ingredients of services delivered by the railways. As per norm, the passenger service is subsidised by the surplus revenue earned through goods transportation. The railways had to operate a sizable number of goods trains to maintain financial balance. According to the sources in railways, more than 40 goods trains (20 up and 20 down) used to operate from Karachi to various destinations during the time period of 1960s to 1980s. Towards the end of 1960s, the government shifted the emphasis to road transportation. This approach acquired greater intensity during the Zia regime. The budget deficit began to rise. According to a veteran ex-railway officer, the number of goods trains was reduced by half. For medium and long distances, the goods transportation by railways is found to be at least 10 times cheaper than roads/highways. Consequently, it has a lesser fuel consumption leading to lesser requirements for fuel import. Transportation insurance, safety records and handling were few factors that made the railways a logical choice. However this logic was brushed aside and government continued to employ other options of road transportation for goods. According to a safe estimate, the government has spent over $1 billion in excess during the past 20 years for choosing the road option in place of railways. Due to underutilisation of its infrastructure and other reasons, the railways are currently burdened with a budget deficit of over Rs32 billion in 2019. Besides, successive ministers have launched new fast trains without proper feasibilities. Most of these ventures evolve to become financial drags over the period of time.

Modern service standards demand basic facilities including stations. Most stations have been found in very dilapidated state. Some essential facilities are non-existent. Basic amenities for passenger comfort and safety or the facilitation hardware for the routine operation and maintenance are extremely dilapidated. During inspections, the concerned station masters and other staff pointed out towards the short comings but follow up process for remedial is either extremely slow or not forth coming at all. Barring a few major stations, the building facilities are also in run down conditions. The budget deficit does not allow railways authorities to undertake any mass scale facilities or any hardware re-vitalization programmes which are needed without further delay. Most unfortunately, such loopholes only receive limelight after a major accident happens.

It must be remembered that railways are still the most important mode of communication with an integrated infrastructure. It needs re-strengthening. To begin this exercise, very basic steps need to be taken. The proper enforcement of existing rules, regulations and procedures is a crucial factor. Reinforcing the human resources is the other important aspect. Those personnel who perform the key functions in the system must receive the best of training and occupational status in the institutional hierarchy. Gradual re-vamping of the technology and systems must be undertaken. Image of the institution should be made sufficiently attractive to draw quality human resource from the society.

Massive but targeted reforms are required to lift up the level of performance, credibility and image of the railways. The foremost issue pertains to the political will for extending reforms. Unless a full scale and objectively focused approach is developed, cosmetic renderings would hardly yield any results. This aspect is difficult to ascertain as the current regime appears to be inclined to auction railway lands as priority. These lands had been reserved for operational needs of the system at various locations. This matter needs a public debate and a befitting lobbying response from the civil society to revive the lost interest of the regime in this vital nation building department. A strategic approach to invite corporate sector in the management tasks must be initiated. It is also hoped that the present Railway minister will use his clout and good offices for the far reaching good of the railways that it is deprived of since many years!