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Fleeting moments

July 16, 2019

Nostalgic journeys

Opinion

July 16, 2019

Events that involve either the PIA or the Railways attract attention. One operates in the air and the other on the tracks. Despite the fact that high-level changes have been made in both organisations, the two compete with each other to remain in the news not for enviable reasons.

People were still discussing how seven coaches delinked from the main body of Pakistan Express near Khanewal when a far more tragic train accident took place near Sadiqabad. Akbar Express heading to Quetta crashed into a stationary freight train, killing twenty-four and wounding hundred people. While the prime minister blamed the antiquated infrastructure, the railways minister termed it a human error.

During his frequent TV appearances, the railways minister forecasts more about political events likely to unfold and less about his own domain. Reportedly, 74 train accidents took place in the last one year; 11 of them were major accidents. Recurring accidents show that no disciplinary action was taken against those responsible for dereliction in duty.

If you talk to the old-timers who travelled by train in the 1960s and 70s, they narrate stories of nostalgic train journeys that now seem incredible. Most of what they say is true. Railways stations were well maintained with the majestic look reminiscent of the British era. Waiting rooms on main stations were comfortable and liveried waiters attended to the waiting passengers.

In fact, in some entertainment-scarce cities like Jacobabad and Dera Nawab, railway stations were a place of amusement. People gathered there to see the hustle and bustle in the evening when well-lit express trains arrived and departed. The train’s uniformed driver and guard exuded authority.

The trains maintained such perfect timings that people used to set their watches by them, it’s said. I recall how the express trains sometimes waited outside the stations for a few minutes when they arrived before their scheduled time of arrival. The trains would roll in to reach the platform only when the outer signal turned green. Readers would find it hard to believe that both local and English meals used to be available to suit passengers’ culinary taste in the attached dining cars.

Train journeys were an occasion of pleasure and enjoyment. Even trains operated by steam engines reached on time. Train accidents were almost unheard of. Of course, the railways were still North Western Railways and hadn’t been renamed Pakistan Railways.

Why do transport organisations in the public sector suffer from endemic sloth and inefficiency? From time to time new managers at high levels are appointed with much fervour but the end result is more of the same. During the budget season when huge losses of the public-sector organisations – PIA, Pakistan Steel and the Railways — are quoted, it renews taxpayers’ demand for privatisation of the loss-makers but some powerful interest groups furtively intervene to prevent handing them over to the private sector.

Interestingly, when public-sector transport organisations, PIA and Railways, incur losses in the billions to the public kitty every year, a foreign transport company expanded its operations from one end of the country to the other. This company initially started plying its comfortable buses on the Lahore-Islamabad route. Travellers were pleasantly surprised to see the environment inside the luxury bus, which was comparable with that of the PIA plane if not better. The buses’ schedule of departure from one terminal and arrival at another remained accurate to a fault. And accidents reported almost negligible.

Under such circumstances, taxpayers’ outcry against wastage of public money is justified. Now that the new tax regime emphasises upon expanding the tax base, should the government not first plug the huge black holes that perennially devour hard-earned public money? The taxpayers rightly question whether public-sector transport organisations are expected to be commercially viable or whether these are charity organisations destined to run on public money.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Lahore. Email: [email protected]

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