Tuesday October 26, 2021

Fast-tracking freight can be profitable for Railways

September 13, 2018


By Mansoor Ahmad

LAHORE: This government should focus on modernising its railways on a fast-track as it is the most cost-effective as well as efficient means of land freight transportation in the world.

One locomotive can roughly pull around one hundred wagons, which can carry about 300-400 truckloads of goods, that too at half the cost.

It is a pity that despite having an adequate railroad infrastructure, Pakistan is still dependent of trucks for transportation of goods. Transport is a major cost for upcountry exporters. Inputs like cotton are a major transport expense of exporters located near seaports. We can reduce the transport cost by 60 percent by utilising our railways infrastructure prudently. There should be a fixed schedule of goods trains leaving daily from Karachi port to upcountry and same goes for upcountry goods trains leaving daily for Karachi. These trains would not get the required goods consignments for a week or two but after the businessmen get the confidence that schedules are strictly adhered to then there will be no dearth of consignments.

Although 80 percent of imports are destined for cities having dry ports that have practically dried out in Pakistan and look deserted, while congestion remains supreme at the main seaport of the country in Karachi. The major drawback in this regard was the collapse of railways as major goods carrier also made the dry ports redundant. This is despite the fact that Pakistan had fully developed railway infrastructure that has deteriorated due to lack of proper use. It is worth noting that in United States, which is the largest global economy, the railways are primarily used for transportation of goods.

The railway is bleeding but the facilities granted to its present and retired employees are still intact. High-ranking employees are still entitled to travel in separate luxury coaches. The loss-making Pakistan Railways still gives huge concessions to journalists, members of armed forces, and many others. These privileged travelers are much better off than ordinary passengers, who neither get concessions nor the facilities like clean toilets and functional fans as well as light bulbs during the journey. The concessions should be stopped as they are paid out of taxpayers’ money.

The Railways in India were revamped by infamous Lalu Parshad Yadev through personal vigilance and by ensuring that mistakes made in the past are not repeated. We have spent billions on revamping every government-owned commercially operated enterprise without any improvement in their services or reduction in losses. Sheikh Rashid, the current railways minister should emulate Yadev in delivery as well.

Regarding assistance from the donor agencies like World Bank and Asian Development Bank, Rashid had said that they can provide the credit but it’s prudent and productive use is linked to the competence and dedication of the executioners of those funds.

He said all available resources should be earmarked for the upgrade and rehabilitation of infrastructure essential for sustained economic growth. The resources spent on these projects are not a burden on exchequer as these projects start covering their cost through sustained economic activities.

Over years we have developed an efficient road transport system that carries more that 90 percent of the passenger traffic of the country. Railways share is paltry 10 percent and the passenger trains run in loss or at par. Still 90 percent of the railway resources and its best engines are used in passenger trains, while there is a shortage of engines for goods trains. The rolling stock of goods carriage wagons is rusting. There is no guaranteed schedule of the goods trains that may remain docked at the seaports for weeks. The businessmen need a guaranteed schedule. The trains should leave the seaport against a fixed schedule irrespective of the load at that time. You can reduce the number of wagons if the load is less. Strict adherence to schedule for one month would give businessmen the confidence in the system and most of the goods transport would shift to railways.

Technology can improve the efficiency of railways transport substantially. According to McKinsey Global Institute, some railway companies have started to follow a more “industrialised” approach that uses big data. They are splitting track capacity across the network into “slots” of different speed profiles based on an analysis of past demand and are allocating trains to available slots as requests for capacity come in.

Capturing these opportunities requires advanced planning techniques that can, for example, allow trains to swap slots along their itinerary in order to recoup the time lost to operational delays. Such innovations can improve punctuality and reliability, while accommodating up to 10 percent more traffic.