Pakistan Derailed

The real 'derailment' that is. Pakistan Railways, the largest civil employer in the country, has seen a major downfall in recent years. There is, however, a major surge in the rolling back of railway operations and closing of train services during this year than all previous years combined. Railway is left with a skeleton of what was inherited from the British after the division of India in 1947 and even this network is being ransacked at light's speed. The basket case of railway presents an ideal opportunity to look into what has gone wrong with Pakistan.

The history of Pakistan Railways is almost as old as the colonial rule in British India. The first railway line in Pakistan was laid between Karachi and Kotri in 1861. The British spread a network of railways all across India with the basic premise of establishing their rule and speeding up the military supplies, but it ultimately benefited common people. The present area of Pakistan was given special attention as it was also serving as the "front-line region" at that time. Tsarist Russia was knocking at the doors of Afghanistan and the Great Game had already begun. The British Empire therefore decided to extend the railway network and they took it all the way to the borders of Afghanistan and Iran.

Balochistan, with its abundance of plateaus and mountain ranges, was conquered with the sheer determination of the British railway engineers and a double track was laid all the way to Chaman, the border post with Afghanistan while another one was laid up to the Iranian border. They dug dozens of tunnels, including the once fourth longest one in the world, the Khojak tunnel, built umpteenth bridges and raised thousands of embankments. A track was even laid through the unforgiving Khyber Agency of the Pashtun tribal areas with its last station at Torkham, the largest border post and entry point with Afghanistan.

They succeeded in containing the Russian threat although they failed to conquer Afghanistan, despite three major attempts. They gave us 5048 miles of railway track in a well kept and well maintained condition. We are now left with a track of around 4117 miles. The decline started almost immediately. Many routes were closed and the tracks were uprooted. Still, basic railway operations were running rather smoothly and people had a cheaper and faster way of travel.

The major decline started when General Zia took over in 1977 and diversified the operations of his army away from safeguarding the country's interests and into entrepreneurship and money making. An army logistics cell was set up that snatched the freight business from the railways. This caused a major dent on railway's operations as freight business was its major source of revenue. The downfall continued till the next general arrived in 1999. Musharraf appointed the ex chief of ISI General Javed Ashraf Qazi as the railway minister and he hammered the final nail into the coffin of railways.

The lure of hefty commissions enticed him and other officials of the railway to purchase coaches and engines from China. Some reports suggest that up to $150 million of commissions and kickbacks changed hands at the time. This was done despite the fact that a locomotive assembly plant was already working in Pakistan and coaches were also manufactured locally. Needless to say, the poor quality engines and coaches were unable to even complete a full run on the railway network of Pakistan. Structural faults appeared and most of them were written off. There was no accountability as no one had the nerves to question an army general who was also the ex chief of the most dreaded military spy service. The irony of the matter is that the same person is still a sitting member of the Senate and is chairing an accounts committee.

While he is no longer at the helm, the poison that he administered has hastened the death of the remaining railway network. His successors were no better if not as corrupt. No attention was paid to the basic infrastructure and many bridges collapsed thus stopping the entire rail operations for months. New bridges were haphazardly constructed but everyone in Pakistan knows that they will soon fall given the deep running corruption in the railways where they always use poor quality materials.

President Zardari added fuel to the fire by forcing the railway officials to purchase more engines from China despite their just opposition that it would be nothing but a major loss of revenue. They had to comply and now those engines are biting dust in railway workshops. Emergency plans were made to acquire engines from reputable companies of Europe and the US but they are just plans as of now. The crisis has reached such level that the railway has started suspending train operations. Dozens of express and local trains have been halted while plans are underway to stop operations of other trains.

The lack of political will and corrupt administration has encouraged employees of the railway to get involved in the loot and plunder. Rails, sleepers and other supplies are being stolen and ravaged by the employees and officials. Railway track to Afghanistan border has been washed away by floods and there are no plans -- and no money left due to a deficit of over 90 billion ($1.06 billion) -- to rehabilitate this strategic route. Soon there will be only memories of the once glorious institution of Pakistan. While the Pakistani establishment is always eager to draw comparisons with India, they rebuff any such attempt when it comes to railways. Both countries had the same colonial railway structure but Indian railways have made great strides while their Pakistani counterparts have annihilated their assets.

Common Pakistanis are the sole victims of this state-sponsored pillage. They have been robbed of a cheaper and safer way of travel and now they are at the mercy of the deadly road transport mafia that charges exorbitant fares and the ratio of accidents runs sky high.