All hopes are now pinned on the bold initiatives taken by the new Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid, who has build up a reputation of a deliverer

SHAMIM AHMED RIZVI, Bureau Chief, Islamabad
July 17 - 23, 2006

Since Sheikh Rashid Ahmed took over as the Minister for Railways a few months back, quite much is happening in Pakistan Railways for its development, modernization and providing relief and comfort to the passengers. The dynamic Sheikh has not only vowed to turn Pakistan Railways into a profit-making, efficient and comfortable mode of travelling without putting any extra burden on the passengers, he has also taken many initiatives to achieve his objectives. He has substantially cut the freight charges and fare for lower classes, introduced many new trains and new connections, besides taking various initiatives to develop and modernize the entire system.

One of such historic step was taken in Islamabad last week when Pakistan Railways and Frontier Works Organization (FWO) signed two Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) to set up consortium companies to double Khanewal-Raiwaind railway track. The consortium of companies named FWO/RAILCOP would acquire contracts to establish rail links between various cities in Saudi Arabia and Libya as well. The railway track between Khanewal-Raiwind sections would be doubled within one year at the cost of Rs.5.5 billion.

Minster for Railways, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed; Minister of State, Ali Asjad Malhi and Director General FWO, Maj. Gen. Asif Ali were present at the signing ceremony along with other officials from Pakistan Railways and FWO.

Speaking on the occasion, the Minister for Railways said, two MoU had been signed between the Pakistan Railways and the FWO about forming joint venture with RAILCOP and execution of work on doubling the track on Khanewal-Raiwind section. ìThese MoUs will go a long way in capacity building of Pakistan Railways to undertake mega rail road projects in the country and abroad,î Sheikh Rashid Ahmed added.

The minister also outlined the overall process of going through the mid-term development plan 2005-10 and identified a number of projects to be executed under this plan. He said this plan includes upgradation and improvement of track from Khanpur to Lalamusa with a cost of Rs. 3.5 billion and dualization of track from Khanewal to Raiwind and Shahdera to Lalamusa costing Rs. 7 billion. A railways and yard and railway linkage would be set up from Gwadar Port to container yard with the cost of Rs.2.5 and establishment of rail link from Gwadar Port to existing rail link at Ahmed Wall on Quetta-Taftan section costing Rs. 12 billion.

He said Rohri-Quetta Taftan section would be upgraded with the cost of Rs. 15 billion while railways link would be established at the right bank of Indus river to connect Kohat and Peshawar with the cost of Rs. 6 billion. Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said Rs. 6 billion would be spent for Quetta-Bostan-Zhob D.I Khan railway link, Rs. 23 billion would be spent on completion of ongoing schemes, while survey is being carried out to establish new rail link to China and Central Asian States.

The minister also pointed out certain rail-road projects in countries like Saudi Arabia, Libya and other Middle East states. He identified construction of Makkah-Madina rail link, Riyadh-Jeddah rail link, Dammam-Jubail rail line in Saudi Arabia and construction of rail link in Libya as the future projects. ìIn view of these multi-million dollar projects on the anvil, it is imperative that Pakistan should take its due share out of these projects. The only way forward to acquire deals is to form a consortium of companies having equipment experience and manpower and this consortium is the FWO/ RAILCOP consortium,î he said. The minister foresaw execution of civil works worth trillions of US dollars in the Middle East and said, ìIt is the appropriate time to enter in the construction business failing which we would miss this vital opportunity.

Last month the Railways Minster launched a train service from Khokhrapar to Mirpurkhas on daily basis as an additional traveling facility for the commuters in eastern Sindh. Needless to point out it will be a long way to address their problems. Notable, in this regard, is also the ministerís revelation that the schedule of Sukkur Express has been revised, in accordance with the demands of the people traveling by this train. At the same time, he gave the happy tidings of plans for revolutionizing the Pakistan Railways at a rapid pace, with optimum utilization of available resources, and creation of new ones. Again, referring to the future plans of the Railways and provision of maximum commuting facilities to the people, he pointed to the prospect of introducing four new trains by private companies against Tract Access Charges.

According to the Railways Minister, the number of freight trains will be increased from the existing eight to ten in Karachi, in view of the magnitude of imports and exports from the city. In this context, he referred to the ongoing talks with the chambers of commerce in the country in an effort to maximize usage of the freight trains and to ensure that no bogie remains unloaded when it return from any point. It may be recalled that while speaking at the formal inauguration ceremony of the countryís first freight express train last year, Prime Minster Shaukat Aziz had stressed the need of making the transportation system efficient enough to keep pace with the fast growing economic activity.

Addressing a meeting of Multan Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the last week of May last, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed had announced to reduce freight charges by 50 percent to increase business. He said that some 30 years back as many as 14 goods trains were running in the country but now only eight are operating due to non-viability. He is determined to increase the freight business from eight goods trains to at least 14 during the current year. Despite all these concessions, the railway would be turned into a profitable organization, Sheikh Rashid declared.

Pakistan has decided to procure 45 more locomotives, of different horse powers, from China, as Dongfang Electric Corporation, the Chinese company, has expressed willingness to redesign the already delivered 30 faulty locomotives. ìWe are procuring 45 more locomotives of 2000 and 3000 HP, with strengthened under-frame and extended warranty of five years, Secretary Railways Shakil Durrani told newsmen.

Tragically, the railway network which Pakistan inherited on independence has virtually remained the same, which makes a sad commentary on the wisdom of the planners and economic managers of the country over quite a long past. What is all the more deplorable about it is that despite manifold increase in the demand for quicker, speedier service, in the light of all round development, the task remained assigned to the road transport instead. So much so that as a sequel to the gross neglect of development of the railway system, even the existing facilities became sort of an unnecessary burden on the national exchequer. For lack of interest in keeping rail tracks and rolling stock in shape, relegated the railway system too far behind in the background.

For too casual a use of railways for transport of goods and passengers deprived the railway of the revenue accruing from these sources. This in not to say that the railway remained totally neglected. For, on a number of occasions in the past, more so in the recent past, a number of initiatives were taken to improve its working in order to make it relatively more remunerative. However, such schemes had earlier failed to yield the desired results. Anyway, all hopes are now pinned on the bold initiatives taken by the new Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid who has build up a reputation of a deliverer.