Pakistan Railways: The giant meant to serve the masses
The railways are the cheapest means of transportation for covering long distances. It is so mesmerizing that poems about trains have been included in nursery rhymes and stories have been based on train journeys. Trains stand in as a metaphor for life and expeditions. But now the world of railways seems to have become a historic relic.
Pakistan cancelled 115 trains and AC services and many trains were stopped after 2011, due to which people have to rely on the highways to cover long distances. A severe financial and management crisis led to public-private partnerships for some trains. Complete privatization has been ruled out because of overstaffing. Salaries are one of the expenses weighing down on the railway’s operations as it caters to approximately 78,031 employees. It is constantly bearing a loss with revenues declining 12.64% in fiscal year 2015-16 and expenses increasing for overheads such as payroll, fuel, repairs and maintenance.
The fact that the railways is not earning does not mean that passengers don’t pay. The railway staff and policemen both take a share of the passengers’ wealth. Once in an emergency we could not find comfortable seats in a bogie so we asked a railway officer help and we were charged Rs300 for reserved seats. There is a complete record of reservations and the staff keeps checking if somebody without a reservation is occupying a seat (even though they have a ticket). The occupant of the seat is then cruelly awakened if they are sleeping and is told to vacate it.
The system has deteriorated to the extent that the elite detest travelling by train and only the majority of the middle and lower-middle class consider it as an option. Indeed, when you try to get a seat ahead of the vacations you will find they are all reserved.
There are only three out of 23 up and down trains that travel Sindh from Karachi to Jacobabad: the Sukkur Express, Bolan Mail and Khushhal Khan Khattak Express. Only the Sukkur Express has good service, followed by the Bolan Mail and the Khushhal Khan Khattak is described as worse than a donkey cart ride by passengers as it covers the longest distance.
The British heritage yellowstone buildings along the way have fallen into disrepair, the bogies are devoid of lighting and do not have water in the washrooms. There is a large gap between the train and the platform at most stations so passengers have to struggle to alight. They have to wrestle with four steps and slippery handles. The elderly and passengers with special physical needs struggle all the more. Porters are scant at town stations.
The ruin of the system cannot be wholly attributed to the authorities as even passengers are to blame. They are too lazy to buy a ticket and abuse the facilities.
Add to this the many train accidents. Hundreds of lives have been lost. During a recent visit to Jacobabad in December I heard of how a Sukker Express and Khushhal Khan Khattak nearly collided and were miraculously saved by a last-minute track change.
Despite all this, those who use the trains still retain a soft spot for the experience. “The problems don’t outweigh the pleasure and excitement a train journey embodies,” said one passenger. “I prefer it time and again no matter how much the system is ravaged.”
The writer is a lecturer at the University of Sindh, Badin campus.