Sheikh Rashid is the federal minister for railways in the PM Imran Khan led cabinet. He won the last general election from Rawalpindi with the help of PTI and invisible hands. He is a proud pro-establishment rightwing politician. He is one of the senior most parliamentarians of the country. Since taking the charge of railway ministry, Sheikh Rashid appears before the media through the press briefings on daily basis. He discusses everything from domestic politics to foreign policy and making frightening predications about opposition politicians. The only thing he avoids to discuss is the performance of his ministry. He is a lawyer, politician, analyst and political pundit at the same time.
He is announcing to operate new passenger rains without keeping in the mind the real capacity of railway infrastructure and human resource. He has started the new trains without proper homework and feasibility reports. He knows everything apart from the knowledge and skill of running the railway services in the country safely and securely. 79 train accidents and derailments have occurred in just last 11 months. The deficit of railway ministry has gone up to Rs 24 billion per year.
The derailments and some sort of incidents are taking place on daily basis. But he is so busy with his rants against opposition and predictions that he has no time to look into what is happening in his own ministry. He can see the future of other politicians but could not fix the problems of his ministry. The situation has become alarming but it seems like a business as usual for PTI government and railway minister.
The PM Imran Khan was use to ask the PML-N minister of railway to resign after every train incident. Now he forgets to demand the resignation of his own minister. MANY tragic train accidents have occurred in the country. This month, reportedly over 20 people were killed and several injured when Akbar Express collided with a stationary freight train in Sadiqabad. Last month, a passenger train rammed into a freight train near Makli Shah Station, killing three people. Human error and related factors are cited as common reasons. The follow-ups to such tragedies include the usual inquiries and investigations, and a few administrative adjustments.
News reports have described the severe financial constraints of Pakistan Railways (PR). With diminishing ability to procure even operating fuel loads, the situation is serious. Loss of commuter trust due to operational negligence and accidents is just one example.
The current railway minister took charge by criticising the previous incumbent. The only changes he introduced are a few new passenger trains. How will the country be able to fulfill its CPEC commitments through railroad links?
The railway was one of the largest and most efficient public sector institutions in the country. The management, organisation and control of the department were along professional lines. Most of the senior officers and engineers had obtained their training and experience under the British. Civil engineering, signals, traffic and commercial cadres, mechanical and electrical engineers, accounts and finance were key units. Now railway faces shortage of trained technical staff to properly run the trains and operations.
Passenger and goods/ freight movement are the two essential ingredients of railway services. Passenger service is subsidised by the surplus revenue earned through goods/ freight transportation. PR had to operate a sizable number of goods trains to maintain a financial balance. Over 40 goods trains used to operate in Karachi from the 1960s till the 1980s. Towards the end of the 1960s, the government shifted the emphasis to road transportation.
This approach received greater focus during the Zia regime. The budget deficit began to rise. According to an ex-railways officer, the number of goods/ freight trains was reduced by half. For medium and long distances, goods transportation by railways is found to be at least 10 times cheaper than via roads/ highways. Consequently, it consumes less diesel, leading to fewer fuel import requirements. Transportation insurance, safety records and handling were a few factors that made the railways a logical choice.
Modern service standards demand basic facilities including stations. Most of the stations are in a dilapidated state. Some essential facilities are nonexistent, including amenities for comfort and safety.
The foremost issue pertains to the lack of political will for extending reforms. Cosmetic renderings hardly yield results. Meanwhile, the current regime appears to be inclined to auction railway lands. According to records, the department owns more than 166,000 acres of land in the entire country. By any standards, this is one of the most precious assets which must be properly managed. These lands had been reserved for operational needs of the system at various locations.
The railway needs the overhauling of its system and fresh public investment to modernise the rail services. The shortage of locomotives and passenger coaches has also creating hindering the smooth operations of the railway. The PTI government is waiting for Chinese money under CPEC to modernise the railway services and infrastructure. Until then, more incidents and derailment is waiting for its passengers.
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27 September, 2019