Great people never die, their legacy remains. On 27th December 2007 when the iron lady of South Asia, Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was killed, Pakistan suffered an irreparable loss. Apart from the political front, her followers decided to take revenge from the country which voted her twice to become the first ever female head of the Islamic state.
Although the revenge still continues, that time, they selected Pakistan Railways. So in Sindh, Bhutto lovers torched The Track Machine DU-3082, 23 stations from Mirpur Mathelo-Shahdadpur section, Bin Qasim station, 22 locomotives and 140 coaches.
The destruction continued as the railway telecommunications, and signaling systems on these stations were damaged and burnt as well. In just 2 days, the total loss to the railway system was $200 million.
Once, Pakistan Railways (PR) had a monopoly over the passenger and goods transportation sectors. The state-run organization was a symbol of countless and luxurious journeys in air-conditioned comfort. Punctual trains, efficient employees, and quality service were the characteristics associated with it in the heyday. But then the Ayub Khan came.
A martial law administrator who made every effort to facilitate the truck lobby from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (then the NWFP) in diverting goods transport services to the road sector. Being an “honest” head of the state, he assured that no business man again tries to bribe the PR’s bureaucrats for the availability of goods wagons.
After him, another dictator came. The Ziaul Haq. The “Mard-e-Momin” felt that KPK’s transporters are still earning less than the Ayub’s will. So, in hopelessness, he decided to “facilitate” the businessmen little further by introducing a new public goods transport company which was named as the National Logistics Cell.
The state of Pakistan got herself busy in buying a large fleet of trucks (with hefty kickbacks allegedly paid to army officers involved in their purchase). Successfully, with the passage of time, we have 2 major NLC graveyards in Pakistan where the “Dead Bodies” of these trucks can be found. But the game is not over yet. NLC still exists, not with trucks, but with an authority to “nominate” private carriers to transport the public goods. They never die!
Pakistan Railways is all about collisions, derailments, accidents and fire.
Today, the remaining Pakistan Railways is all about collisions of passenger trains, derailments, accidents with road vehicles at manned and unmanned level crossings and fire. However, PR is still a symbol of national unity and so the most favorite target of those who are against it.
Balochistan, Sindh, KPK or Punjab, it still bears ruthless attacks on its wagons, employees and passengers but has never halted, continues to operate as the most resilient national asset of our history. None of its drivers, gunmen, gatekeepers, gatemen, pointsmen, reservation clerks, guards, police, mechanical, electrical and civil engineers have denied serving because they come under attack.
What has denied serving is Pakistan Railway itself. Its 18th-century kerosene lamps are failing to light up the manually operated signaling system and far off railway stations. Except for a few major railway stations, every main cabin, the cabin men are still pulling down levers to signal manually.
Although the process of digitization has started, more fiercely in the present government but the damage has already been done. Until 2015, according to the PR’s yearbook, 123 stations were still “equipped” with non-interlocking mechanical kerosene signaling, 185 with Standard-I, 20 with Standard-II and 217 with Standard-III mechanical signaling. Better late than never, 40 stations have been recently equipped with all relay interlocking and 9 stations with CBIs system.
Auto block signaling is provided in 200 Km double line sections between Landhi-Hyderabad, Riazabad-Piran Ghaib, and Shujabad-Gilawalan. Centralized Traffic control on 24 Km section between Karachi Cantt and Landhi section is functional as well.
A project worth Rs. 1500 million for the installation of modern Auto Block Signaling System at Lodhran-Shahdara Section is also in progress. Out of 433 kilometers ABS system, 90 KM is already functional and open for traffic after testing and commissioning. This ABS is being backed up by Computer Based Interlocking (CBI) system as well.
The computer-based interlocking system enables the train to caution the driver to apply brakes by using its detectors and sensors which are able to detect all kind of hazards on the rail track from 1.5 KM distance in advance.
Equinox (Pvt) Ltd, a Panasian Group company and the sole representative of Bombardier Transportation in Pakistan, has been engaged with Pakistan Railways since the early 1960s. Their main business focus consists of railway signaling equipment and solutions, Mass Transit projects, Locomotives and their rehabilitation, Services and support.
Working closely with Bombardier, Equinox is responsible for bringing state of the art technology to Pakistan Railways. This is the same company which provided the relay-based Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) in the 1960s, in the 1970s and 1980s it provided Pipri marshaling yard and Electronic CTC.
The Induction of Henschel locomotives took place in the 1980s while the ADtranz locomotives were put into service in the 1990s, both these brands are now owned by Bombardier. Equinox now a day is installing Pakistan′s first Computer Based Interlocking (CBI) and Cab signaling systems.
Up-gradation of Mainline-1, transport, and communications (ML1), construction of dry port and cargo handling facility, Early Harvest Projects (EHP) under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), up-gradation of ML-II, ML-III and work on establishing new lines for linking Gwadar and Khunjrab has also been commenced.
Similarly, up-gradation work on ML-III Quetta-Taftan Railway line which is an important section of the railway network in the context of regional connectivity with Europe through Iran and Turkey and tapping the mineral potential of Balochistan province of Pakistan is also in the feasibility phase.
In addition, the extension project of ML-III (Quetta-Bostan-Zhob-D.I Khan-Kotla Jam section) is expected to provide an important connection for transportation of freight and passengers between North and South of the country.
But all these hefty plans and projects have not changed the opinion of a common man about Pakistan Railways a bit. Pakistan Railways with a rail line spreading over an area of 7,791 route kilometers, 455 Locomotives, 1,732 passengers’ coaches and 15,164 freight wagons is suffering from huge losses and hopes of its revival are shrinking. In the fiscal year (FY) 2015-2016 it suffered a loss of Rs. 28 billion.
Although the federal government is flooding PR in terms of money needed for the development projects but still the last year increase in losses was 12.64% per annum. Compared to total earnings of Rs. 35.97 billion its expenses went up to Rs. 64.23 billion and nothing hopeful came out of all this spending for a common man.
Earlier in July 2016, More News reported that Pakistan Railways has adopted the Land Record Management Information System (LRMIS). It was planned that the entire record of the lands owned by the Pakistan Railways will become computerized within 6 months.
Pakistan Railways also signed an agreement with the Urban Unit of the Punjab government for the purpose. The project was commenced on 1-4-2015, was promised for completion in December, 2016 with the railway land title on google earth but the work has not been completed yet. It seems that PR’s operational and digitization activities are suffering the same red-tapism as before.
It is no wonder that most of the railway land is under the illegal possession of ordinary people. Slum settlements on railways land is a big issue. A lot of people are living on the property of the railways without paying anything. Countless encroachers through their plazas, farm houses and parking lots are living on railway land as their own. The railway is failing to win the “Title of Land” except for Khyber Pakhtoonkwa which has transferred complete title of the land to it.
On 13th of May, 1861 when the first railway line in the region was opened for public traffic between Karachi City and Kotri, it was hoped that the operation will never stop.
But 80% of the railway stations in Pakistan have no train stop today. On the name of expense cut, no business and fuel saving railway is no more a common man’s choice. Why? Because on the dollhouse-pretty buildings of small railway stations, these train never stop. Stations have become ghost places and their properties have been stolen. These elegant stations stand lonely and deserted with idle railway men smoking in shadows.
And the new buildings that are being built are so out fashioned that one can hardly find any innovation to it. Although the building department in railway is busy spending on certifications of latest codes and standards like AREMA, AASHTO and ACI but their output is not different than 1861.
The state of the art software i.e. STAAD Pro., SAP-2000, ETABS, SAFE, 28 PCACOL, CONCAD & AUTOCAD are installed in the railway design systems, but the designs being used can be found in the rusted design files of 18th century. Its attendance system is “kerosenic” and railway police outdated.
Railway, instead of spending more and more in expanding its infrastructure shall invest in resuming the closed operations. Instead of building new railway stations, trains must stop at already built but abandoned destinations. Locomotives are absent and we are investing in the expansion of rail network?
Our people want to experience goods wagons and passenger bogies on the present network. Political considerations have always kept railway fares at a standard that it can never meet its expenses. Outdated fare structure, leakages and wastages in revenue collection due to structural or managerial inadequacies must end before we invest billion more into it.
The stigma of failed organization is hurting it badly as well. Its employees are suffering from widespread demoralization due to continuous losses, adverse publicity and sense of self-alienation. Both demoralization and motivation are self-perpetuating and self-sustaining.
When we asked the Chinese about the bullet train they laughed at us.
The hopelessness has reached to a level that the present PML(N) government which once promised to give the country a bullet train has backed off publically. In an assembly briefing Khawaja Saad Rafique Said, “When we asked the Chinese about it, they laughed at us. We should consider the 160 kmph train under CPEC as a bullet train. We can’t afford an actual bullet train; there’s no market for it”.
Until the 80,000 employees of Pakistan Railways are not convinced that their organization will grow, Pakistan Railways, until then, will remain a failed case, of digitization and operation.
The interview was originally published in February edition 2017 of MORE magazine.