Sep 13 - 26, 2010

Pakistan Railways is really in a bad-shape. It was really depressing that it has suspended operation of over 80 trains including sixty intercity passengers' trains during the last six months on ground of operational losses. It also increased its fares by 15 per cent since July last much to the chagrin of the passengers. Still it has not made up its operating losses. It has however announced that no further train connection would be suspended.

A pro-private sector lobby has been demanding that all loss making enterprises including railways should be privatised. Privatisation minister has, however, ruled out the possibility of sale of elite state enterprises like PIA railways, steel mill, etc. saying that government would soon start registration of these organisations to make them solvent. The prime minister has directed his finance minister to hold an inquiry to find out why railways has reached to such a state of affairs and devise a strategy to make it financially viable organisation.

The railways ought to be managed efficiently and honestly. Profit through one of the considerations is not the sole reason to have a railways system, even if some of its services do not run in profits canceling trains is simply not an option. Seen in the larger picture, the railways cannot be judged by the yardstick used for judging ordinary commercial organisation. The government just cannot refuse to provide essential services to the people. The government must pump in money into the railways for purchase of locomotives and equipment as it has done for PIA, steel mills and other organisation if it wants to run the railways efficiently, a high official of Pakistan Railway told this correspondent on condition of anonymity. He alleged that the government has still not made compensation to the railways for the losses inflicted by the mobs, which burned and looted railway rolling stocks, stations and other assets in the aftermath of Benazir's assassination. If true, a part of the problem lies with the policies under which allocation of resources is carried out.

At the same time, it is incumbent on the railway authorities to make use of its assets efficiently and wisely. Scores of locomotives rotting in loco sheds for want of spare parts etc. must be expeditiously repaired and put into operation. Unless there is efficient maintenance, no amount of purchase of new locomotives and rolling stock would help and the railways would be perennially faced with crises.

In fact, the most important areas the railway authorities should concentrate on are improving the capacity and performance of locomotive workshops and carriage factories. Locomotive manufacturing facilities need to be established, too, according to requirements. The railways minister claims that the biggest reason for the current crises in the railways is shortage of locomotives. This has probably come about on account of poor maintenance of locomotives, lack of spare parts and inadequate renewal and replacement during the past few decades.

A former railways minister said in a TV talk show "the whole world is using standard gauge and we are still using broad gauge track." This is a classic example of focusing on the wrong aspect of the issue. In fact, it is ridiculous to shift to standard gauge for this reason alone. While it would be an exorbitantly costly exercise, there would be little advantage in changing gauge at this stage. India is using the same broad gauge. Some others such as the countries of the former Soviet Union and a portion of Australian Railways used broad gauge, too, though of a different size. A small portion of British railways uses a 7 feet gauge. In fact, technically speaking, a broad gauge is inherently safer and better.

Another big problem in the railways is revenue leakage. Its authorities and the railways ministry must make a thorough probe into the causes of such leakage and take serious steps to plug it.

There is a lurking suspicion that the decision to reduce the number of trains was due to the pressure of the bus mafia. As long as the allocation of resources is guided by short-term policies that favour vested interest, we would keep losing national assets and suffer indifferent services.

Alternative to train travel is travel by air or bus. The cost of the former is prohibitive for most people. Buses are not only less safe, and uncomfortable for many passengers on long distance travel, but also often more expensive on a per passenger kilometer basis. Besides, the wear and tear of the highways increases exponentially with traffic, which increases the long-term cost of road travel on account of heavy maintenance expenditure.

Railways are staging a grand comeback in the world today, because of heir comparative ease and comfort for the passenger and overall economy. Even a country like Afghanistan, so far without a railways system, is now engaged in building one. But, in Pakistan, the ruling elite seems hell-bent on to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. We need to lay new lines to increase the railways' carrying capacity. There ought to be at least four tracks from Karachi to Lahore and at least a double track from Lahore onward to Peshawar.

It is time that a high-level inquiry is conducted into the affairs of the railways and appropriate remedial actions taken. Members of such an inquiry committee should include people well conversant with the technical and operational side of Pakistan Railways. It should clearly be kept in mind that ignoring the railways' current plight is simply not an option for us.