I should know as I did a fairly long stint with the finance department of Pakistan Railways in the early part of my civil service career. So it saddens me to see the organisation down on its knees now. For days, the media has been full of reports about strikes over delayed salaries and pensions, as well as cancelled trains and hundreds of locomotives out of action.
The decline had begun even when I joined in the late 1960s. But there was a lot of momentum and traditions that propelled the railways forward. Although we struggled to balance the books, the rot had not really set in. Nevertheless, under Ayub Khan, a shift in transport priorities from rail to road had begun.
Almost all railways subsidise passenger traffic with revenues earned by moving goods. However, as trucks can provide door- to-door service, trains are better suited to handle bulk traffic like coal, furnace oil, cement and wheat.
A rational transport policy ought to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of rail and road, and allocate traffic accordingly.
In terms of ton-miles, the railways are far more economical and more environmentally friendly.
Overlooking these internationally recognised facts, the government caved in to the truck lobby, and hobbled Pakistan Railways systematically. The final nail in the organisation’s coffin came when, under Ziaul Haq, the National Logistics Cell was set up as a military unit to overcome a temporary bottleneck at Karachi harbour where dozens of ships waited for days to discharge their cargoes. The railways couldn’t cope effectively due to its inherent weaknesses and poorly maintained rolling stock.
Once the NLC was up and running, it was competing directly with the railways. And as its trucks carried military number plates and were driven by army drivers, they did not have the kind of overheads private trucks had to bear, such as bribes to traffic cops and road tolls along the highway.
In those days, the World Bank had been asked to help revive the railways, and protested against the formation of the NLC. It pointed out to the government that the new trucks were heavier than the axle load permitted on many culverts and bridges, and the country would have to pay a heavy price to repair the road network. Finally, the bank underlined the bizarre policy that pitted one government department against another.
The reality was that the competition was anything but fair. Under a military dictatorship, it was a simple task to direct government departments to move their bulk cargo on NLC trucks. More vehicles were imported, with widespread rumours of commissions and kickbacks. Censorship and martial law did not allow these to appear in the media.
Budgetary constraints prevented the railways from modernising its fleet of locomotives and its rolling stock. I remember working on endless presentations aimed at persuading the government to release more funds and raise our overdraft limit with the State Bank. But these were sticking plasters that failed to stop the haemorrhage.
To be fair, the railways contributed greatly to its own rapid decline. For years, it had a virtual monopoly on transport, so it never developed an aggressive marketing plan. In fact, traders would approach officers and beg for wagons; often, they paid bribes for the privilege of moving their goods by rail. So when the organisation began losing market share, it could not respond effectively.
Being a government department, officers and staff were assured of their salaries. And of course, there were no bonuses for
outstanding performance. As PIA took high-end passenger traffic, and the NLC siphoned off goods, the railways could come up with no effective strategy to remain viable. Morale and pride of performance ebbed.
By the time the British left the subcontinent in 1947, they had built a vast rail network to connect the cities and outposts of their empire. India inherited the bulk of the system, and to this day, its railways play a key role in transporting goods and passengers across the vast nation. Here in Pakistan, neglect, corruption and confusion have brought down a once-proud institution.
When I was associated with the railways, locomotive procurement was a serious business, involving a series of tests and a rigorous bidding procedure. Now, I understand that deals are struck by ministers who are clueless about technical requirements. Hence the scandal of Chinese locomotives that are reported to have ground to a halt because they were not designed for Pakistan’s hot, dusty conditions.
Clearly, Pakistan Railways has come to the end of the track: there is no way any government can make the huge resources available that are needed for its revival. But more than cash, there needs to be a political decision about its role. If it is to be used to mostly carry passengers, it can never be viable as the fares would be too expensive for most people. But it can only be entrusted with heavy goods if it can improve its efficiency. This is unlikely to happen, given the low calibre of its work force.
Privatisation seems the only way forward, but who would invest in the system, given its dilapidated assets, and its powerful unions? Thus, I can see the organisation lurching from one crisis to another, receiving the odd cash infusion. Like so many other national institutions, it seems doomed to oblivion.
Years ago, my old friend, the well-known artist Ijaz ul Hassan, spent a couple of weeks painting my lovely garden in Lahore’s railway colony. The painting shows lofty trees in the background, with the flower-lined drive and a cemented chabutra, or sitting area, in the centre. This would be sprayed with water to cool it in the evening, and we would sit under the fan suspended by old rails.
The painting now hangs in my son Shakir’s home, and looking at it, I am reminded of my pleasant years in the railways. I’m so glad I’m not there now.