On wheels but off track

A dialogue between a retired Pakistan Railways official and a passenger on how and why of the train service

On wheels but off track

A middle-aged man throws his luggage into a coach of Musa Pak Express but instead of stepping in, stops, looks towards the sky and murmurs something before running to catch the Multan-bound train that has started moving from the Lahore Railways Station.

Inside, he approaches a sexagenarian passenger, sitting next to the window, "Haji sahib! Will you please let me sit for a while on the window seat?" The seats are exchanged.

After half-an-hour, the older passenger breaks the silence, "Son I was watching you. Why did you not embark on the train immediately after putting the luggage in the train?" The younger passenger smiles and replies, "Sir, I still remember the sentence written till early 1980s over the doors of inter-city buses in dilapidated condition ‘Recite kalma before embarking, it may be the last journey of your life.’ So I recited kalma before embarking the train because of its dilapidated condition and the recent spate of train accidents on the Pakistan Railways network. While in India, Lalu Prasad has transformed their Railways into a safe and profit-making entity…"

The older passenger interrupts, "Son! What is your name and who are you?"

"Wajih Ahmad, a teacher at a school in Multan and have returned yesterday after visiting my maternal family in India."

"I am a retired Railways man, Ishaq, and have spent a lifetime in train operations across Pakistan," says the old man.

The introduction draws the attention of other commuters in the compartment. "Listen son, the spate of recent train accidents is reflection of a failed system which is further deteriorating and is over-burdened and over-heated because Pakistan Railways which has been delaying and neglecting maintenance of its main assets -- infrastructure, rolling stock and its human resource -- for the past 10 years or so," the old man explains. "The gravity of the situation can be judged from the fact that during the last week the locomotive of an express train and passenger coaches of two another premier trains derailed in the Lahore station yard which is one-and-a-half kilometres from the headquarters of Pakistan Railways. There has been no maintenance of the track on Main Line 1 or the Karachi-Lahore-Peshawar route during the period while linking it with China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The condition of the track is pathetic in the interior Sindh, leading to a spate of derailments there," he adds.

"Mandatory inspections of stations, track and rolling stock and maintenance facilities -- essentially required to ensure safety of train operations -- has become the last priority with its management," says Ishaq. "Routine maintenance of rolling stock has also been criminally ignored as the mechanical staff’s attention, especially at Mughalpura Workshops and washing lines, has been diverted towards rolling out refurbished passenger coaches for the new trains being announced almost every fortnight," he maintains.

A young passenger, unhappy over the assertion of the retired Railways officer, is quick to ask, "What’s wrong with facilitating people by launching new passenger trains, sir?"

Ishaq explains that all over the world, Railways earn through their freight service -- by transporting goods -- and nowhere on the globe passenger trains fetch profit. "However, during the past nine months or so, another 34 passenger trains have been launched while not even a single new freight train has been announced."

Another young passenger wants to know whether the present state of Pakistan Railways is due to neglect on the part of Railways management during the last decade?

Ishaq takes out a green book from his bag. "It is the latest official Year Book of the Pakistan Railways. It says that prior to the 1980s, the Railways was earning profit as sufficient units of rolling stock (locomotives, coaches and freight wagons) were available.

"In the 1990s, the rolling stock gradually reduced, i.e., locomotives from 1,026 to 544; passenger coaches from 2,137 to 1,670 and freight wagons from 37,395 to 19,638 up to 2006-07. The number of passenger carriages decreased from 145,710 thousand to 83,899 thousand and loading of freight wagons from 1,155,472 to 320,335 in spite of the fact that the growth of population in the country increased up to 50 per cent."

Quoting from the Year Book, the retired Railways officer says the PR has 7,791 route kilometres and 9,027 running track kilometres the condition of which has not been generally satisfactory due to accumulation of deferred maintenance owing to resource constraint.

"Instead of expanding the infrastructure left behind by colonial rulers at the time of independence, successive governments have contributed their bit to its destruction. We had 862 locomotives, 1,674 passenger coaches and 24,251 freight coaches till the 1950s. At present, we own 466 locomotives, 1,460 passenger coaches and 16,159 freight wagons," says Ishaq.

"In the 1980s, freight trains were earning profit and transported goods in bulk, i.e., wheat, coal, urea and imported consignments at port were cleared through rail. The introduction of the NLC (National Logistic Cell) affected the rail business and its downfall started, particularly in respect of imported goods," he informs.

"But that is just a small part of the story. Decades of political interference, bureaucratic lethargy, mismanagement, corruption, theft and overstaffing have contributed more to its collapse than competition from the NLC and other road transporters," he argues.

Regarding the query of yet another young passenger about the mechanism of train operation, the Railways man says it is an intricate business where each of the electrical, mechanical, civil and commercial departments has to contribute to the system with a commitment and dedication. That is completely lacking, somehow. The employees and supervisory staff have lost faith in the officers at the operational levels; and the junior officers have lost faith in the seniors; worst of all the senior officers have no love for the political leadership of PR. The staff is disgruntled at the lack of leadership.

"In the process, the organisation is suffering as elongate operating rules are being ignored, resulting in accidents. The recent accident at Hyderabad was the outcome of this indifferent attitude of the driver and two assistant drivers who, unfortunately, lost their lives," maintains the Railways man.

Measures like periodical refresher training courses of human resource, particularly operating staff like drivers, firemen, guards, station and signal staff, inspections and field visits on day-to-day basis of infrastructure and rolling stock facilities, an end to overloading of the already compromised track and rolling stock by introducing non-productive and financially non-viable trains will definitely reduce the current trend of accidents, suggests Ishaq while turning towards Wajih.

"People here have the misconception that Lalu Prasad alone revived the Indian Railways which was on the verge of financial collapse. It was Nitish Kumar of the BJP who envisioned the revival," says Ishaq.

He explains that the Indian Railways infrastructure was crumbling because of ageing and poor maintenance, causing a string of terrible accidents. Mr Kumar chalked out the revival plan and convinced the government to invest 170 billion Indian rupees to upgrade the infrastructure. He says Lalu Prasad Yadav belonged to a party which was part of the Congress-led government. However, in spite of the political rivalry, Yadav decided to continue the work initiated by his predecessor.

Also read: Overstaffed and underworked

"He constituted a committee of experts giving its members a free hand to accomplish the task of improving the financial health of the Indian Railways. Without any significant cut in the workforce or increase in fares, the committee members delivered," he says. Implementation of policies, framed by relevant experts, is a must for the survival or revival of every state-owned organization, he believes.

"In our country, every incumbent minister wastes almost half of his tenure by criticising and rolling back the plans initiated by the predecessor. The Indian legislators never approach the high-ups of their Railways with a list of their supporters for recruitment or stop-over of an express train at a station in their constituency," says Ishaq before getting up to alight the train at Sahiwal station.

On wheels but off track