As a frequent traveller, whenever I visit another country my first preference is to take the train, and I have many reasons for doing so. Being an environmentalist, I am a conscious traveller, and railways have a smaller carbon footprint than other means of transportation.
As a bonus, they also offer an enchanting and panoramic view of the countryside, which you are likely to never forget. Trains are also comfortable – you can book a private cabin and walk, stretch and even sleep in a real bed during your travel. If you’re traveling overnight, you don’t have to pay for a hotel room, and what can get better than a fine meal prepared on board by a professional chef? Nothing, if you take my word for it.
But when was the last time you travelled on a train in Pakistan? I honestly don’t remember my experience, because it was a very long time ago and I was too naive to realise at the time that the memory would be a rarity in the future. I do remember bits and pieces, but unfortunately I’m sure most of the youth of today will never have set foot on a train, for the railway has emerged as one of the weakest ministries in the country.
However, this was not always the case. Between 1955 and 1960 when it was at its peak, the ministry was generating revenue due to its strong footing, due credit for which goes to the British. It was the predominant mode of transport then, handling 73% of the freight traffic, which reduced to less than 4% by 2011.
After the 70s, our priority shifted and more focus was directed towards developing roads. Political interference and corruption are obvious factors for the decline, but a lesser known factor is the support to the National Logistic Cell (NLC), which ultimately eats away at revenue that could have been generated by the railway. Fresh money was also not invested in this sector by the government; between 2005 and 2010, while the government spent Rs155 billion on highways, it only spent Rs45.5 billion on railways. Slowly, both freight and passengers started to decline, and the length of the track was decreased by 11%.
Due to this we eventually entered a dark age, marked with poor services, subpar trains, emergence of a transport mafia, tickets sold in black markets, late arrival and delays, strikes by unions, and cheap oil to run trains. Salaries and pensions are constantly delayed, and at times money was frequently collected from passengers to buy fuel to reach the destination.
The Indian Railways also shared the same infrastructure and facilities as Pakistan after British rule came to an end. Then why has their ministry not seen the same setbacks as ours? During the tenure of Lalu Prasad Yadav, Indian Railways saw unprecedented success as he strived to cut financial losses and modernise the ministry. Tickets became cheaper, the capacity of trains expanded, more seat categories were introduced, traffic increased, and so did earnings. Decentralisation and lowering unit costs gave the Indian Railways more commercial freedom and the public better services for a lower cost of travel. Despite India having a much larger railway ministry and a much bigger population, they still managed to turn a struggling ministry around with good policies and a proper plan in place.
Pakistan too retains the same potential to develop a successful railway sector, particularly due to its rapidly increasing population. The former government under Saad Rafique took some initiatives such as re-launching online booking of tickets, acquiring new locomotives, along with initiating train projects through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), including one from Kashgar to the Gwadar Port. CPEC really has the potential to be a game changer for the future of our railways. The necessary steps on our part will require upgrading 1,872 kilometres of railway track as well as doubling the track from Shahdara to Peshawar. Turkey has also agreed to start a railway to connect states belonging to the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), making it possible to travel from Islamabad to Istanbul in 15 days.
The current setup in the federal government sees Sheikh Rasheed as the minister of railways, and there is optimism regarding faster upgrade of the current track, improvement of infrastructure and reduction of debts in this declining ministry. Rasheed has promised a check on railways even if he has to disguise himself and conduct raids, has stressed on reducing expenses and erasing the deficit, and emphasised on zero tolerance for corruption. The path ahead is a tough one, especially as the media and the populace remain vigilant when it comes to ensuring the current government follows through with its promises. This is how it should have been throughout, as there needs to be a strict check on government officials, particularly on those belonging to regressing ministries. The people need to stay aware of who is not fulfilling the tall claims made during election season, so they can be called out and held accountable.
We should by now have a policy that outlines the railway ministry’s road map for the next 10 years. The most important – and most difficult – factor will be the endeavour to develop a mechanism and keep it corruption free, with transparent guidelines for tenders, lease and partnership. We must learn from the Indian Railways and apply its good points to our system.
Ultimately, the ministry will have to push through and improve itself drastically in order to win back the trust of the nation. Yes, the past few years have seen an improvement from the mess the ministry was in earlier, and Pakistan Railways is not far from the track of progress and modernisation, but it must choose its next steps skilfully and tackle them with strong footing. One good initiative taken recently by President Arif Alvi and Rasheed is the inauguration of the Dhabeji Express, which makes it possible to travel 65 kilometres for fares as low as Rs25. Another pledge by the government has been to revive the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR), which will not only benefit intercity connectivity but will also improve intracity traffic.
Lastly, both freight services and passenger trains have equal importance and significance of their own; one cannot be undermined in favour of the other. Pakistan Railways has the right to a partnership for freight movement, and maximum revenue can be generated via the movement of products, if only the railway is made strong enough to handle the challenge. As with most things in Pakistan, the railway sector has a lot of potential for business, trade and recreation, and if given the chance, it will open up our doors to the rest of the world as well.