Railways to Nowhere

Railways to Nowhere
A three-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan has realised that Pakistan Railways is running into losses and, as one judge said, no department in the country was more corrupt than Pakistan Railways. I cannot but say, Hosanna!

The bench is seized of a case about massive losses in PR.

Going by the last census, we are nearly 213 million people; that’s a lot of us, you would agree. It is also a matter of common sense as well as observation that people need to, and they do, travel. With a population that size, it also stands to reason that we have  rather sizeable numbers travelling at any given time. And if you take into account the forms of transport available — buses, airplanes, cars and railways — it would transpire that railways, both for carrying people and freight, offer the best and most economical option for long hauls. It is (or should be) safe, reliable, energy efficient, has greater transportation capacity and better price conditions.

If this is correct, and I am fairly certain it is, going by back-of-the-envelope arithmetic, then PR should be making a lot of money. Except, it’s not. Like Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), PR also loses money — and bucketloads of it.

Clearly, if there are too many people and if X numbers are travelling at any given time, then for PR and PIA to lose money would require remarkable managerial inefficiencies to achieve that goal. That seems to be the case here, going by the case currently before the SC bench.

As Salman Rashid, demonstrably Pakistan’s best travel writer and someone in love with trains, would testify, PR over the last six decades has been steadily declining. Like PIA and a number of other public-sector organisations, it is also a parking place for political spoils, among other ailment factors. If we take it as a system, which it is — entire equipment, rolling stock, buildings, property, and system of tracks — PR has seen a decline in everything it operates.

The current minister for railways is one Shaikh Rashid Ahmad (more about him shortly). So, it was natural for the court to summon him and his top bureaucrats. They asked him a number of questions and he replied to them in his usual evasive manner. For instance, he told the court that he works 18 hours and has added 7 million heads to the passenger traffic. Since we have already determined that PR possibly cannot be going into losses for not having enough passenger traffic, and since Mr Ahmed claims he has added another 7 million to the traffic, the question assumes a sharper salience: why the hell is PR in the deep red if the passenger traffic is not lean?

To the court’s question about why he did not — should not — resign following a horrific tragedy which killed 73 passengers, he said that 75 people had been dismissed from service. That, as you would agree, is not exactly what the court was asking.

So, what ails PR? Multiple factors. According to a 2014 report, the current organisational structure of  PR is incompatible with making any improvements; neither is the PR leadership geared towards meeting the challenges of modernisation, which covers a broad range of technical and administrative reforms. “The advisory board (established for the reformation of PR) has barely met since its formation; employees are neither  committed nor motivated [and the] management… [has] failed to provide any kind of long-term vision. A culture laden with dodgy deals, half-baked [business] initiatives… privatisation rumours, partial outsourcing (to overcome inefficiencies) and a complete lack of discipline invariably lead to strikes, project delays, vandalism, theft and security  breaches.” (Pakistan Railways at the Verge of Collapse: A Case Study; Asim and Qanita)

The report also looks at basic deficiencies: poor infrastructure, obsolete technology; inadequate locomotives; managerial incompetence; overstaffing; assets issues; declining market share (especially in freight because of National Logistics Cell); increasing losses/liabilities; absence of a national transport policy (the report was written in 2014; in June 2018, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz cabinet finally approved a NTP, which is a separate discussion) et cetera.

From the above — and this is by no stretch an exhaustive depiction of all that’s wrong with PR — it should be clear that the ministry of railways is a vital ministry both in terms of national security and for reasons of commerce and travel. It should also be clear that it is beset with problems that require a very steady, sensible, educated hand at the helm. And who heads it? Yes, Sheikh Rashid Ahmad.

If that is not a travesty, I don’t know what is.

Steady he is, steadily and consistently boorish and devoid of any sense like Shadwell in Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe. The rest to some faint meaning make pretence, /But Shadwell never deviates into sense./ Some beams of wit on other souls may fall, /Strike through and make a lucid interval; /But Shadwell’s genuine night admits no ray, /His rising fogs prevail upon the day…

This man, for reasons of the low cut-and-thrust of politics is entrusted with turning PR around. It’s like getting Constable Dogberry to reform the police force. Worse, in fact, because Dogberry at least was a constable.

So, what should the government do if it is seriously concerned about reforming PR? The first and the foremost step would obviously be to get rid of Mr Ahmad. Since he is there because of politics, and since his only expertise seems to be to make an utter fool of himself in TV talkshows, the current government could give him a sinecure and retain him for being on talkshows every day. The railways could then be given to someone who actually knows how to reform and run it.

It will take time, given the extent and depth of the rot that has set in, but it’s not impossible. Will it happen? No, it won’t. And for all the reasons and more because of which nothing ever gets done in this benighted republic.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times and prefers trains to flying when not in Fatherland. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.