Railways’ failure to meet public expectations

Updated 30 Apr, 2018 10:37pm
The wreckage of a train collision near Karachi on November 3, 2016 | M Adil, White Star
The wreckage of a train collision near Karachi on November 3, 2016 | M Adil, White Star

Rail ki bahali, quam ki khushali
Rail ka safar araam deh aur aaloodgi se pak hai
Mehnat say kaam karain aur railway ki service ko umda bana’in

(Rehabilitation of rail is enrichment of nation;
Rail’s journey is comfortable and free of pollution;
Work hard and turn rail into a high quality service)

These slogans grace the wall of a small room kept intact by some mysterious force. Bricks are coming out of its walls and its roof stands unstable. A flight of stairs inside it leads to a run-down and non-functional bathroom. Both the stairs and the bathroom paint a picture of sustained neglect. Outside, the trees seem to have comparatively aged with grace.

This is where foremen and supervisors working at a washing line on the eastern edge of Karachi’s Cantt Railway Station congregate before they start their day’s work.

Through the old trees, one can see some rail coaches — their newly painted steel bodies gleaming in the sun. Lined up like animals in a stable, they are waiting to be washed and cleaned before their next journey.

It takes about 40 people and about four hours to wash and clean a single train. Two cleaners rinse the coaches. Four others are assigned to sweep the floors. A number of sanitary workers clean the bathrooms. Two clean the seats and two others take care of the windows. A number of pipe-fitters handle the hoses and hydrants, supplying water to wash its outer body. People can be seen on all sides of the train, sweeping and rinsing it before washing it clean with powerful water jets. The washing-line bays go several feet deep so that the workers can get underneath the carriages and wash them from below.

These workers wash about 10 trains every day — repeating the same routine over and over again. They do not have waterproof uniforms. They wear no safety helmets and walk barefoot amid the slush created by water perpetually running into mud around them. Once the work is done, each one of them takes a shower on the edge of the muddy bays using the same slimy hoses that they wash the trains with.

The trash that the passengers leave in trains ranges from polythene wrappers, food leftovers, plastic bottles, cigarette stubs (often extinguished on the floor) and just about anything that people use inside a train. The passengers do not bother picking the trash they themselves create, says Abdul Jabbar, a 50-something worker wearing a worn-down shalwar kameez. He has been working at the line since 1990. His father, too, worked here. “The passengers rather tend to throw trash underneath the seats.” It is only at the end of a journey that all of that is collected, he says.

Once collected, the trash is left to rot with existing piles of rubbish that have been gathering on the sides of the bays for decades. The decrepit platforms along the bays only add to the seemingly irreversible state of decay that the entire washing area is in.

Parallel to the washing line is a small shed. Called ‘sick line’, it is used for checking trains experiencing minor faults that can be addressed without taking the train to a workshop. An old train is rusting here. It has certainly been here for more than day, possibly for over a week.

A sick train rotting in a shed – either abandoned or forgotten – tells the story of Pakistan Railways: a state institution that has allowed its minor problems to pile up over decades, to an extent where they have become chronic diseases.

The wrong signal

Most of the passengers aboard Awam Express on September 15, 2016 were returning to work in Karachi after spending Eidul Azha holidays in their home towns and villages. The train left Multan Cantt Railway Station at 2:27 am and reached Buch Railway Station on the southern outskirts of Multan three minutes later. It was supposed to whistle past the station at 50 kilometres per hour when its driving staff spotted something unusual. A goods train was parked right on the track that Awam Express was using and there was no time to change the track. They did not even have that option. Deciding which train will take which track is the exclusive prerogative of people operating outside the train. The drivers just follow their signals.

After the two trains collided, at least four people died and over 100 were injured. One of the dead was crossing the railway line when he was run over by the goods train — just before it was hit by Awam Express. A railway guard on duty immediately reported the accident to railway police. Subsequently, a case was registered at Shershah Police Station against A R Shamoon, head driver of Awam Express, among others.

Shamoon joined Pakistan Railways in 1978. Highly respected for his skills, he has driven special trains carrying senior Pakistan Railways officials as well as prominent politicians.

Ghulam Shafiq, a railway staffer, was one of the first people to reach the site of the accident. He saw the driving staff get out of the tumbled train and walk to a nearby farmhouse to contact the control room in Multan so that the rescue operation would begin. He remembers seeing them at the site till 6:00 am.

By that time it had become obvious from statements by the railway administration that the blame for the accident would be placed on them.

To clear the air, Shamoon and his driving associate spoke to a local television reporter. He said Awam Express had entered Buch Railway Station only after receiving a go-ahead from a guard. Shamoon said he saw the goods train only after it came in the range of Awam Express’s headlight. He blamed the signal system for confusing the guard. “This signal … system has been … working on a trial basis. Officers have noted that it is not working properly. We have complained about it before,” he told the reporter. “No driver in Pakistan has received training about the system,” he claimed.

Azhar Qaisar, the assistant driver, repeated more or less the same details, with the addition that he was in touch with the guard via text messages as well.

Their superiors at Pakistan Railways did not agree. They suspended the entire driving staff of Awam Express. Six months later, a departmental inquiry committee would find Shamoon at fault. He would be sacked from his job. The rest of the driving staff would be allowed to get back to work.

Shamoon’s supporters say the real culprit was the signal system, recently introduced at the cost of 300 million rupees at seven stations along the Peshawar-Lahore-Karachi railway line. These stations fall between Shahdara station on the northern outskirts of Lahore and Lodhran station, about 77 kilometres to the southeast of Multan. Rest of the stations along the same line still use the old German-built signal system installed in the 1970s. (An even older system is used at some branch lines such as the one between Sukkur and Sibi.)

Before Shamoon’s dismissal, the railway administration also ordered taking the new signal system out of operation. Since last November, it has not been used at any of the seven stations between Shahdara and Lodhran.

The system was first installed at railway stations between Hyderabad and Karachi in 2009 and conversations with drivers suggest that it was never flawless. Those operating between the two cities often complain that due to land gradient they see multiple signals at the same time while approaching Karachi’s Landhi railway station.

Karachi Cantt Railway Station | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Karachi Cantt Railway Station | Mohammad Ali, White Star

It was around this very area that Bahauddin Zakaria Express coming from Multan crashed into Fareed Express on November 3, 2016. At least 22 people died in the accident and more than 40 others were injured. The collision took place at Jumma Hamaiti station, about nine kilometres to the east of Landhi. The signal system, however, did not cause the crash. Officials and drivers claim the man who was supposed to be driving Bahauddin Zakaria Express was sitting with his family in another part of the train.

A railway supervisor based in Karachi blames the lack of coordination among drivers, stationmasters and guards as a major reason for the rising number of accidents in recent years. The company has not provided latest communication devices to these officials as they communicate with each other either by using their own cell phones or the old hand-dialled analogue phones, he says. Using cell phones is a personal expense and using analogue phones means that messages can get lost due to bad lines, he explains, seeking anonymity.

Professional rivalries among officials also hamper communication between them. Drivers, stationmasters and signal workers are unhappy with guards who were given raises and their service structure was improved in 2014, he says.

Railways minister Khawaja Saad Rafique informed a Senate standing committee on March 7, 2017 about another reason for increase in train accidents: unmanned sites where road transport passes across train tracks — called level crossings in rail jargon. In the last three years, 140 rail accidents have occurred at level crossings. A federal government survey has identified 550 level crossings where accidents are highly likely to take place, he said.

The government has penalised 120 railway employees over accidents that have taken place since July 2013, Rafique told the Senate panel. Two of these employees have been removed from service, he said.

Other than resulting in tragic loss of life, these accidents have also caused a massive loss to the national exchequer. In a single accident that took place on May 13 this year, the railway incurred a total loss of 437.7 million rupees. The accident took place when a goods train coming from Karachi crashed head-on with another goods train about five kilometres from Kotri Junction in Jamshoro district. The driver of the train coming from Karachi is said to have fallen asleep on duty.

Right next to the boundary wall of a railway police office just outside Karachi’s Cantt station is an old overhead pedestrian bridge. It passes above the railway tracks and lands into a neighbourhood where railway workers live. The Railway Colony – as the area is called – has rows of paan stalls and its streets are littered with sewage and piles of rubbish.

Ghulamullah Billah, a former rail driver, who retired in 2005, lives here. “When I joined the railway, my father told me one thing: do your work honestly and you will always benefit from it,” he says, as he starts speaking about the increase in the number of rail-related accidents. When he joined the company in 1965, he was first assigned to drive cargo trains. It was only after he had gained sufficient experience that he was allowed to drive passenger trains.

His son, Sanaullah, also works in the railway but at a workshop. Before he leaves for his night duty, Sanaullah brings out copies of some old certificates awarded to his family members recognising their rail-related service. His great-grandfather, Bhag, was the first member of the family to join the railway in 1895. He retired in 1920. Sanaullah’s grandfather, Khuda Bakhsh, became a railway employee in Karachi in 1927 and continued working till 1967.

Before the 1990s, Billah says, a protocol was in place to prevent accidents from taking place. This was introduced by the British and it put the driver at the centre of the train operations. Even a general manager or a minister would not interfere in a driver’s work or force him to do anything against that protocol, he says. The drivers were also highly conscious of their responsibility, he says. “Whether it was day or night, they would always be alert.”

They were also mindful of how they looked. They wore well-tailored neat uniforms, with shining insignias, and they donned them with pride and dignity. Both the uniforms and insignias were provided by the railway every year, says Billah. This changed in 1985 when the railway administration started providing oversized uniforms that required alterations before they could be used, he says, adding that they were so oversized that their sleeves would be a foot longer than required.

He remembers mobilising train drivers in Karachi to protest about the uniforms in front of an operations general manager visiting the city. He suggested the drivers wear their unaltered uniforms when they meet the officer. “When he came around, he inquired what this was all about. We responded by saying the administration needed to give us uniforms that fit. We do not have time and money to get these altered.”

The protest changed nothing. “In the end, an officer is an officer,” says Billah.

Sukkur Railway Station | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Sukkur Railway Station | Mohammad Ali, White Star

In the 1990s, the administration cut back on the provision of uniforms. The yearly provision changed to a two-yearly routine first and then to a three-yearly one. In a not-so-unexpected coincidence, this was also the period when the railway’s performance began nosediving.

By the time Billah retired in the early 2000s, the drivers had stopped receiving uniforms altogether.

Kashif Khan, a young assistant stationmaster at Sukkur Railway Station, is hidden behind files and papers piled up on his small desk. A large television screen is occupying the remaining space on the desk. It is showing routes for various incoming trains. A small red light blinking on it indicates that a train has arrived safely at its designated platform.

Association with railways is something that runs in the family, says Kashif Khan, 28, his chubby face partially covered by a thick moustache. But he does not come from a railway household. He landed this job after taking a test, he says. He was sent to Pakistan Railway Academy in Lahore for training before he was appointed at his current position in 2013.

He likes his job — the power to decide routes and platforms trains will traverse as they roll into Sukkur station. He uses an ancient analogue phone to communicate with workers in the signal cabin outside the station.

Unlike Kashif Khan, those who work with him at the signals system do not seem entirely happy. Sub-engineer Abdur Razzaq, who joined the railway in 1980, is perhaps the unhappiest among them. A rather short man in his late fifties, he operates from a cramped, crumbling office at Sukkur station. Sporting a thick beard and wearing a Sindhi cap, he seems to be perennially grumbling about an assistant station manager who oversees platforms, his own salary and grade that have remained unchanged over the years and the railway administration that has divided the workers in various tiers so that they do not unite to fight for their rights.

But his strongest complaint is about the workload: he is responsible for keeping all signals in working condition and all communication flowing smoothly between Sukkur and Dadu — a 180-kilometre stretch of railway lines. “If we have to go out in the field, we have to pay travel costs from our own pockets,” he says. “We have to sleep on platforms if and when we go out of Sukkur to fix something. And we are supposed to be on duty 24 hours a day even though we do not get paid additionally for the extra hours we put in.”

Razzaq soon joins three workers sitting in an elevated cabin supported by four iron pillars just outside the station. The cabin houses multiple levers — colour-coded and numbered. These levers are used to lock a track for a train entering or leaving the station. The workers have an old analogue phone to coordinate with the stationmaster. The cabin and its occupants are an important part of the railway’s signal section in Sukkur.

A little later, Razzaq walks along the railway line towards the far end of the station where he and a gateman, Junaid Iqbal, explain how the signal system works. As explained by them, the process appears so methodical that it leaves ample room for rectification if and when someone misses one of its multiple steps: if the gateman does not close the gate to block road traffic passing across train tracks, the man responsible for signalling the clearance of the track with a flag should not issue his signal; if he, too, falters, the levers meant to change the signal should not move as long as the gate is open. When a stationmaster finally allows the signal to go red or green, he does so only after all the previous steps have been taken correctly. If a wrong signal still gets issued, a special key used for locking and unlocking the gate can be used as a safety switch to issue an alert.

This seemingly flawless system has failed to prevent three major accidents near Sukkur over the last three decades. The latest of these took place in July 2005 when three trains collided at a railway station in Ghotki district, leaving at least 133 people dead and many others injured. Officials later said the accident had occurred because a signal was interpreted wrongly by one of the drivers. About 100 people lost their lives in a similar accident in June 1991. About 18 months prior to that, Pakistan’s deadliest train wreck had also taken place near Sangi village in Sukkur district. It had resulted in about 300 deaths.

Lahore Railway Station | Arif Ali, White Star
Lahore Railway Station | Arif Ali, White Star

An overhead iron bridge at Karachi’s Cantt Railway Station leads to a small shed where several relief trains (that provide emergency services such as first aid) and relief cranes (that remove damaged trains from tracks) are parked. Their bright orange colour makes them distinguishable from a distance. The oldest among these contraptions is a crane from 1930. It is still functional and has a capacity to lift around 60 tonnes of weight off the tracks.

In 2013, railway administration added a new crane which can lift around 170 tonnes. But the workers still like the long-standing dependability of the old one. “This is a really good machine. It has never let us down,” says Ghulam Qadir, a relief crane helper, as he pats the crane.

When Bahauddin Zakaria Express collided with Fareed Express last year, Qadir and his colleagues were among the first railway officials to reach the site of the accident. “The nature of the crash was such that it was really difficult to rescue the injured,” he says. Many people had their body parts stuck in between the two trains. “It is hard to describe how we removed their limbs. We had to use gas-cutters and welding machines to tear through [steel sheets and metallic equipment],” he says.

“We also removed a child’s body from beneath an engine.”

Train to Pakistan

Construction of Lahore Junction Railway Station, according to William Glover’s book, Making Lahore Modern: Constructing and Imagining A Colonial City, started shortly after the 1857 Indian rebellion against the British. It was a period when securing British civilians and troops against future native uprisings was foremost on the British administration’s mind, Glover writes. The station, therefore, was designed like a “fortified medieval castle complete with turrets and crenellated towers, battered flanking walls and loopholes for directing rifle and cannon fire along the main avenues of approach from the city”.

During the Partition riots in 1947, the same station would receive trains full of dead bodies.

Apart from these historic links to violence, railways have frequently been targeted and attacked in our part of the world. Terrorists and political activists of all types – from anti-British underground networks of freedom fighters to Baloch insurgents and even ordinary Pakistanis protesting against electricity outages – have disrupted rail traffic and damaged railway infrastructure every now and then. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, there have been 136 terrorist attacks on railway installations and trains between 2000 and 2017 alone, resulting in 96 deaths.

Passengers enraged over the dismal quality of rail service have also enforced multiple disruptions in recent times. In October 2010, passengers waiting to board the delayed Narowal Express in Lahore occupied the track Quetta Express was to use. According to a report in daily The News, they were upset over delay in the departure of their train. Similarly, people enraged by long electricity outages torched a train in Gujranwala in June 2012, halting the operations of 25 trains.

Sometimes, angry passengers attack railway staff too. A station manager working in Lahore says he was beaten up by passengers when he was posted in Raiwind a few years ago.

The most damaging attacks on rail installations, however, took place in December 2007, following the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Angry agitators destroyed 35 train engines, 139 coaches, 65 stations, 36 bridges and 27 manned level crossings, according to a report in daily Dawn. They also uprooted signals, communication systems and tracks, besides damaging six cranes in Karachi and Sukkur divisions. The total cost of the damage, according to Dawn, was estimated to be 12.3 billion rupees. The destruction increased travel time between Karachi and destinations in the north of the country by three to four hours for over a year.

At 1:45 in the afternoon, Tezgam reaches a platform at Lahore railway station. Passengers begin to enter the coaches immediately. Everything inside the train looks clean and tidy. Doors to air-conditioned sleeper cabins can be shut for privacy; there are beds in the cabins for passengers to take a nap.

The sleepers do not seem to have many passengers though. Railway officials can be seen occupying some of them.

A team of ticket collectors strolls by. One of them quickly checks the ticket (that costs 1,500 rupees for a one-way journey between Lahore and Khanewal). These tickets can be bought at the booking office at the station, a reservation office in the city as well as online.

Soon the train rolls out of the station. As it hurtles down south, two young journalists, Lahore-based English newspaper Daily Times’ Muhammed Asim and Karachi-based news channel Samaa TV’s Ali Tahir, sit in the exit door of a compartment, taking in some of the scenic beauty of Punjab’s agricultural plains. They are travelling to Karachi on vacation and are happy that the train has left on time and is not overbooked. “Anyone who has travelled on the rail or has followed its history knows that under Ghulam Ahmad Bilour the train service had completely deteriorated,” says Asim, referring to the tenure of the previous railways minister. “The current government seems to have put in a lot of effort to get these trains running on time,” he says.

A three-year performance report issued by the Ministry of Railways also marks the difference between then and now: only 12 per cent of the express/mail trains travelled on time in 2012-2013; the figure increased to 27 per cent in 2013-2014 and stood at 35 per cent in 2014-2015 but jumped to 53 percent in 2015-2016. Improved punctuality has also had a positive impact on the earnings of Pakistan Railways, the report mentions. More passengers, it seems, are seeing the rail as a reliable way to commute than they did in the past.

The two journalists talk about how 16 major railway stations – Karachi Cantt, Karachi City, Hyderabad Junction, Sukkur, Quetta, Bahawalpur, Raiwind Junction, Lahore, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Okara, Sahiwal, Narowal Junction, Nankana Sahib and Hasan Abdal – have been renovated and now offer improved seating, waiting, washing and dining facilities.

They also mention areas that still need improvement: the staff requires training about interaction with passengers; guards need better uniforms (their existing dark blue uniforms look like they have never been washed, says Tahir); waiters serving food within trains need to be dressed in proper liveries; and both the food’s variety and quality can improve.

There is always an atmosphere of urgency at Khanewal Junction. Passengers leave parked trains to have a quick cup of tea along with pakoras on the platform or buy something they need but cannot get in the train, like cigarettes. They have to be quick lest the trains depart without them. Dozens of hawkers running up and down the length of the platform add to the sense of urgency as they cater to the needs of the passengers who do not want to get out of trains.

The station looks well-maintained. Food stalls – usually selling mix chai, chaat, pulao or chicken – have a fresh and sleek look about them.

Khanewal is the meeting point of three different lines — one that comes from Peshawar via Lahore and goes onwards to Karachi; the second that connects Khanewal with Multan and the third that links Faisalabad and Khanewal. Pakistan’s first electricity-powered trains, hauled by 29 engines imported from England and introduced in 1965, operate only between Lahore and Khanewal. Their introduction was part of the first post-Partition modernisation of railway infrastructure.

Muhammed Irfan runs a spacious dining hall at Khanewal Junction but serves only basic foods such as rice and lentils. A bearded man in his late fifties, he is wearing a white shalwar kameez drenched in sweat. His father and grandfather both worked in the railway. He found it natural to follow in their footsteps. “Mochi ka beta mochi hi hota hai (A cobbler’s son will also be a cobbler),” he says, laughing. “This is what our culture is.”

He has a team of around 10 people working for him. His income remains meagre though, he says. He has to pay what he believes is an exorbitant sum of money to Pakistan Railways in annual rent for the dining hall and he cannot serve multi-course meals because most rail passengers – belonging to working and lower-middle class – cannot afford them. The few passengers who can afford to spend good money on food, according to him, do not like the facilities and furniture in the non-air-conditioned dining hall (which has not changed a bit in decades).

At a few major stations, fast-food chains such as Pizza Hut and McDonalds have opened their outlets but they have done so only after Pakistan Railways helped them set up air-conditioned halls and bring in fashionable furniture.

In the (distant) past, catering at dining halls (which were present at all major stations) was run by the company itself. Everyone associated with the rail, whether directly or indirectly, is nostalgic about the quality of customer service in that bygone era. Irfan, too, talks about that time nostalgically. His father donned a crisp uniform as he worked in the dining hall at Khanewal. The quality of food served and the level of customer care matched those of a high-end restaurant.

Photo by Kohi Marri
Photo by Kohi Marri

Khanewal Junction’s VIP waiting room – a hall with a high ceiling, arched wooden entrance and big windows – looks like it was last painted before Partition. Its furniture is also old. The few chairs with seats and backs made of woven rattan, wooden benches and a hammock that unsuccessfully try to give the room a sophisticated look must have been brought here by the British. Its bathroom is at an advanced stage of disrepair.

At around nine o’clock on a recent evening, the waiting room is closed. It is only opened after a couple of passengers travelling in the sleeper cabins tell the station staff that they want to use it. An old man wearing a light blue shalwar kameez and covering his head with a traditional Sindhi cap is one of the people who get to use the room. He says he works in the oil industry and combs his beard with his fingers every now and then as he comments on every topic under the sun — from religion and politics to the weather and the state of the rail.

The train that he is supposed to take for Hyderabad is late. Nobody knows why. The officers with their faded uniforms only offer him evasive responses.

When finally the announcement for the train’s arrival is made at about 11 pm, he walks to the platform with his shalwar raised above his ankles. The train is filled to capacity. One has to be sure about one’s seat in order to avoid censure for entering into compartments usually occupied by families.

The train reaches Rohri at around 4:30 am. As it begins to slow down, an almost empty platform can be seen in the early morning twilight. A few passengers are huddled together in small groups. The station’s premises do not seem to have been repaired in decades. Paint is peeling off the buildings and the concrete floor of the platforms has come off in large patches, leaving behind dirt and pebbles strewn everywhere.

The only recent development here is a reservation office. A banner displayed by its sidewall shows two of Rohri’s prized monuments — the Lansdowne Bridge built in 1887 and the Ayub Bridge built in 1962. The two bridges link the town with Sukkur, located just across the River Indus.

It is here that trains to Balochistan leave the main Karachi-Peshawar line and turn westwards to Quetta.

Rohri is a ghost of a town, with next to no economic activity other than rail. At one point, it was a vibrant industrial town. Muhammed Nawaz Dayo, a bitter man in his late sixties, has witnessed days when the town bustled with activity. He joined a local state-owned cement factory in 1976 and, after 24 years of work, retired as its foreman, tasked with monitoring other workers.

The factory was built in 1938, according to a 2013 report in a journal, Asia-Pacific Finance and Accounting Review. It was set up in Rohri “due to easy access to its raw materials — limestone, clay, literite, gypsum and sand” that came from various districts of Balochistan. Ease in transportation was the other factor — Rohri being “a major junction, which was at the centre of the country connecting all four provinces of Pakistan”.

Dayo remembers how a railway line came straight into the factory, right where cement was packed in bags.

If we have to go out in the field, we have to pay travel costs from our own pockets. We have to sleep on platforms if and when we go out of Sukkur to fix something. And we are supposed to be on duty 24 hours a day even though we do not get paid for the extra hours.

Post-Partition, the factory was Pakistan’s second largest cement manufacturer. It was nationalised in 1965 along with another factory in Wah, near Rawalpindi. By 1972, the report says, it could produce 800 tonnes of cement every day.

In January 1999, according to the report, the Privatization Commission of Pakistan discontinued production at the factory and terminated its 531 employees. Five years later, a private business group “acquired it [with] 250 million” rupees. By 2009, the factory’s accumulated losses had risen to 50 million rupees, forcing its owners to shut it down.

Jaffar Express is named after Mir Jaffar Khan Jamali, a Baloch leader who played a prominent role in the Pakistan Movement. One of the only two trains that link Balochistan with the rest of Pakistan, it leaves Sukkur for Quetta at 3 am.

Kashif Khan, the assistant stationmaster, advises against taking the train since it frequently comes under attack by Baloch insurgents. An April 2014 attack at Sibi Railway Station left at least 17 people dead, including two women and four children. There have been numerous other smaller attacks on the train over the last 10 years or so.

This year the threat level has been so high that the government had to call off an annual mela in Sibi, a small desert town about 240 kilometres northwest of Sukkur. Troops belonging to Frontier Corps (FC) regularly patrol the train track around Sibi and sometimes also inspect and frisk passengers. Between Sibi and Quetta, passengers are not allowed to open the train’s window shutters.

The other unusual feature of the rail system between Sukkur and Quetta is that it still uses the British-era signal system, one that employs kerosene lanterns on signal posts and a token, passed from one group of the signal staff to the next, to ensure that there are no gaps in communication.

It is early noon when the train reaches Sibi. Quetta is still another 160 kilometres to the northwest.

FC soldiers are guarding the platform of Sibi’s small station. A portion of its building is demolished and darkened by soot — evidence of a bomb explosion that killed at least seven people here in June 2012. Walls of its lone waiting room are covered in unintelligible graffiti.

A police station is located right outside the railway station. The main bazaar and the town are a 10-minute walk away.

In the sick line to one side of Sibi Railway Station stands the wreckage of a train that came under a terrorist attack recently — huge carriages lying in an empty lot. Some are crushed and compressed. Others are blackened with soot. All of them are rusting away in Sibi’s infamous heat.

Rohri Junction | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Rohri Junction | Mohammad Ali, White Star

Mehr Express is empty even though it is time for it to leave Rawalpindi. An economy-class -only train, it’s operated from a platform at the farthest end of the station. It sways and wobbles precariously as it moves out of its bay. The windows are covered with dust and the floor is a layer of concrete. The train has no air-conditioning.

There are not many passengers inside the train when it starts its journey. Most of the occupants of the almost empty carriages are working-class men who are returning home to Mianwali and other western parts of Punjab. There are also a few families scattered around different carriages because no specific compartments are marked for women or families.

Zulfiqar, an aged worker with a grey beard and a sturdy body, has secured his luggage underneath the seat he occupies. He seems relaxed at the prospect of returning home in Layyah district after a month of hard work in Rawalpindi. “I would probably reach home in six to eight hours in a bus but it’s peaceful on a train.” There is so much noise in the compartment that it drowns out his voice.

He recalls how during the government of Pervez Musharraf a train would get him to Layyah in two days and how there were countless delays on the way due to engine failures and accidents. But then he adds rather resignedly that delays and wait are part of the travel routine for trains plying on branch lines. Even now, passengers travelling from Rawalpindi to Mianwali, for instance, routinely face delays, he adds. The only difference that he sees is that trains are no longer overbooked. “You had to pay money under the table” to get a ticket in the past. Now, tickets are easily available over the counter, says Zulfiqar.

A flood of pilgrims barges in the train as soon as it reaches Golra Sharif Railway Station. They are returning home after visiting the shrine of a Sufi located in the town. They are joined by labourers who work in Islamabad. The train suddenly becomes packed, overflowing with passengers.

Everyone is carrying a lot of luggage with them. The compartment seems to be bursting at the seams. Zulfiqar appears a little less relaxed. He takes out some naswar, a local intoxicant, from a packet and puts a pinch full in his mouth — perhaps to divert his attention from the mess around him.

Muhammad Arshad, a 23-year-old labourer working at a market in Golra Sharif, needs a seat for his aging father. He negotiates with some young Pakhtuns to get the old man to a sleeper board above the seats. All of them lend a hand to haul his father up. Arshad says he is not travelling in a bus because a bus does not have a washroom — a mandatory requirement for those travelling along with children and the elderly.

At the small nondescript junction of Jand in Attock district, the train gets even more passengers. Most of the new entrants have been travelling by another train which is said to have broken down. The only way for its passengers to reach home is to board other trains.

In the journey from Jand to Mianwali, more passengers stand in the aisle or in between seats, pressed tightly against each other, than those on seats and sleepers.

The only ones seated are women and older men accompanying families.

Even Arshad and his father lose their seats — but to a group of men.

Carriages at Sukkur Railway Station | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Carriages at Sukkur Railway Station | Mohammad Ali, White Star

As the train leaves Jand, seven people enter the compartment and tell Arshad that he and his father are occupying their seats. The ticket-checkers who could potentally settle the matter are nowhere to be seen. However, the train is too crowded for any official to maintain order. There is no amicable way of ascertaining which seat belongs to whom. The seats are cleared for their new claimants anyway.

Suddenly, there are more men and boys standing in whatever space they find. Yet everyone is making the most of the situation. Some young boys from Lahore are cracking jokes and there is a constant hum of voices floating above the passengers’ heads.

The rush, however, slows down the train. It takes seven hours to reach Mianwali from Rawalpindi — a distance of about 250 kilometres at a speed of about 35 kilometres per hour.

Mianwali Railway Station offers no solace after this harrowing journey. It looks like a bombed-out site under siege. To the right of the unkempt station stands a decrepit ‘third class’ waiting area. It was once meant for passengers who travelled in the cheapest compartments. It is now a resting area for stray dogs. A dry port that was part of the railway infrastructure in the city is all but abandoned. Once used for inspecting, taxing and distributing goods brought in from abroad, it is now occupied by local fruit vendors.

Ghulam Rasool, the local stationmaster, says he does not have sufficient staff to maintain the station. Many staff members work extra hours to keep installations and fixtures in working condition as well as take care of a small green patch outside the VIP waiting room. Rasool has heard that Mianwali station will be upgraded as part of the rail improvement projects being devised under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) but no survey or assessment for that has taken place so far.

Rasool advised an outsider intending to travel to Peshawar against taking a train. Take a bus, he says. “The train will most likely be late.”

Haji Muhammad Shafi sells tobacco in a small market just outside the railway station in Mianwali. For the last five years, he has been publishing advertisements in local newspapers, seeking the revival of railway in the city.

Falak Sher Awami, a former president of a local association of traders, has also been sending applications to the divisional superintendent of the railway’s Peshawar region to increase the number of trains connecting Mianwali with other parts of the country. He recently formed delegations that included traders from the nearby town of Kundian as well and met many senior railway officials. They were promised that Mianwali will get a new train connection by March this year but nothing has happened on that front so far.

“Ours is a backward district. Access to roads here is limited,” says Awami. An increase in rail services will help locals, who are mostly poor, in their small businesses, he says.

Once, says Awami, 12 major trains passed through Mianwali every day — going to major cities, such as Lahore, Multan, Rawalpindi, Karachi and Peshawar. Many smaller trains shuttled regularly between Jand and Mianwali. Only two trains pass through the city these days.

Ziauddin Khan, a lecturer at a local college run by Pakistan Air Force, is also disheartened by the lack of rail links for the residents of his city. He is compiling the history of those from Mianwali who played a prominent role in the Pakistan Movement.

He says Mianwali was once a hub of rail transport for being a meeting point between Punjab to its east and Pakhtun lands to its west. Transportation of salt to the rest of the subcontinent from mines in the nearby Kalabagh area was another reason why so many trains passed through Mianwali. Railway lines passing through the city, according to Ziauddin, were also used by the British to transport guns, troops and other supplies to tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.

He also mentions a narrow-gauge railway line that once ran through the area around Mianwali. It linked Kalabagh with such places as Tank and Bannu to the west of the Indus river. The only remnant of it is a bridge near Kalabagh. The line is said to have been sold as scrap during the first government of Nawaz Sharif between 1990 and 1993, says Ziauddin.

Mian Yousuf, a local spokesperson for the National Logistics Cell (NLC), a military-run construction and transportation company, is sitting inside his small office in Sibi Bazaar. He narrates how Balochistan Chief Minister Sanaullah Zehri visited Harnai Railway Station in March 2016 and announced plans to reopen a railway line that links Sibi and Harnai with Khost, a small Pakhtun village in the northern mountains of Balochistan. The village and its defunct rail infrastructure were made famous by the 2015 Pakistani film Moor that was shot here.

Yousuf says the rehabilitation project will cost five billion rupees and will be carried out by the NLC. He has recently visited the entire length of the 133-kilometre line, closed for traffic in 2006. Ten of its British-era bridges have all but collapsed. Six railway stations between Sibi and Khost lie in ruin. The abandoned line was once used to transport minerals and coal from Khost and Harnai to the rest of Pakistan. Many of the raw materials transported through this route would land in the cement factory at Rohri.

Yousuf then goes to the local office of the NLC where Muhammed Arshad, a tall burly official, is waiting to provide more information about the project. He says the NLC has started reconstructing the longest bridge on the line. It is a 900-foot-long structure and 75 per cent of work on its protection walls is already complete. The main problem is logistical — how to take construction machinery and workers to those isolated areas which have few roads, says Arshad.

“Big coal dealers always contact [the provincial government] and say that a train will take three days to fetch coal from Khost to major towns as compared to the trucks that take about 10 days, he says. “These trucks often get stuck for days due to rain and landslides.”

Passengers board a train at Lahore Railway Station | Tariq Mehmood, White Star
Passengers board a train at Lahore Railway Station | Tariq Mehmood, White Star

It was Sir Charles Napier, a British administrator and general, who in the middle of the 19th century first saw Karachi’s potential as a port city. Sir Bartle Frere, who worked as commissioner of Sindh at the time, deployed his administrative energies to realise that potential. One of the first steps that he took was to propose the construction of a railway line linking Karachi with Kotri, a river port on River Indus next to Hyderabad. The objective was to provide a communication link between Karachi and steamers plying on the river ferrying cargo and passengers to and from the provinces of Punjab and Sindh. This was the beginning of what came to be known as the North Western Railways under the British Raj.

At the starting point of this rail network was Mcleod Road station, now known as Karachi City Railway Station. Today, this historic station predominantly serves as the administrative headquarters for the railway’s Karachi division. Fewer trains start or end their journeys here compared to the Cantt station where effectively every train travelling to northern and western parts of the country pass through.

A large number of people are gathered on a recent day in a chaotic huddle outside the office of the divisional superintendent at the city station. All of them want to get into the office where they can lodge a complaint. Railway workers, administrative staff members and passengers – pretty much anyone who can have a complaint against the railway – are here. Across from the queue is a notice board on the wall of the 19th century Wallace Bridge that provides entry into the station from I I Chundrigar Road (McLeod Road of old). An advertisement pasted on the notice board seeks applications for some vacant posts in the railway.

The divisional superintendent is giving an interview to a television reporter as part of a public-relations campaign aimed at highlighting some of the latest initiatives such as e-ticketing service and a mobile-phone application that allows passengers to make reservations and find train timings. “I can tell you that this has been the result of collective dedication,” says Nasir Naseer, the officer sitting inside, as he starts giving details of the rail’s performance in the last four years.

What about the large number of complainants outside his office? Most of them are former employees who have not been paid their pensions and other dues for months — in some cases for years. Efforts are being made, he says, to clear their bills “as early as possible”.

Divide and rule

A narrow road that starts from the end of a platform leads to the railway staff’s residential colony in Khanewal. Not a single person in sight, the colony’s streets are occupied by a large number of stray dogs.

Simultaneously scenic and desolate, the colony stretches into green fields as far as the eye can see. Rows of green leafy trees line its large green belts parted in the middle by narrow roads. Small and decrepit housing units are located on either side of the green belts. The buildings that once housed officers look like they will collapse any moment. Next to them, only foundations survive on a large tract of land where once various workshops, officers’ mess and housing units were located.

A relief train is parked on one side of the colony. Its parking spot is called a loco shed in railway jargon. Engines and trains are checked and repaired here. The shed is a vast green and white structure with a corrugated iron roof on pillars. Train drivers sometimes use it as a resting place.

Nearby, a group of rail employees, mostly working with relief trains, is gathered on a green belt under the deep shade of old trees. They are having tea together. One of them, Asghar Ali Jutt, is a middle-aged mechanic. He has completely given up on the railway. “I can give you a tour of this colony so that you get an idea about just how bad the situation is for the workers at the lowest tiers of the railway,” he says.

It is obvious that no additions and improvements have been made to their residences that were built before Partition. “I have spent more than 1.5 million rupees from my own pocket to repair my residence. The department has never spent a single penny on it,” he says. Yet the department charges five per cent from every worker’s salary in the name of maintenance expenses.

There used to be a sewerage system here but it has disappeared over time, Jutt claims. The colony gets canal water to drink — something that has not changed since British times. “This water is mixed with sewage and carries solid waste particles,” he says. “If the railway minister even consents to wash his hands with it, I will stop complaining.”

The colony appears inordinately expansive if one looks at the number of railway employees in Khanewal. Abandoned in large parts and neglected, it has become vulnerable to encroachment. The residents of a number of houses in the colony, according to Jutt, are not the railway’s own employees. “Those workers who do not need official housing have sublet them to people who are doing other jobs.” 

From many other housing units, bricks and other materials are slowly disappearing. “People just come in [without any let or hindrance] from the outside and take away these materials,” says Jutt.

Another person in the group is Chaudhry Muzammil, a member of a union of railway workers associated with the religious political party, Jamaat-e-Islami. He remembers a machine shop in the loco shed where wheels for steam engines were repaired. Another workshop repaired other train parts and there was a separate shed for maintaining goods trains, he says. “There used to be a lot of activity here when I first arrived here [in 1990],” says Muzammil. Hardly any repair work is taking place in Khanewal now. “There is a lot of waiting around for work.”

Inside a carriage on a train en route from Rahim Yar Khan to Sukkur | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Inside a carriage on a train en route from Rahim Yar Khan to Sukkur | Mohammad Ali, White Star

Jutt is cynical about everything. He makes fun of Muzammil over how unions have failed to unite workers. When he joined the railway, he says, he would receive a travel allowance every time he needed to leave Khanewal on official assignment. He also received his salary on time — a practice discontinued at many railway stations over the last few years even though, as he acknowledges, those working in Khanewal have started to get their salaries without delay again. “We had to hold protests to get our salaries [during the previous government’s tenure],” he says.

Both Jutt and Muzammil claim the number of rail workers in Khanewal alone was more than 1,000 a couple of decades ago. At the loco shed and workshops alone, close to 200 people worked in each of the three shifts every day, says Muzammil. Many others worked at the station and in the signal section. Now, according to him, the strength of railway staff in Khanewal is slightly over 200.

The decrease has been an ongoing process for a very long time. According to Pakistan Railway’s yearbook, the department’s total strength was recorded to be 75,242 in 2015-2016. A year earlier, it was 78,031 and it stood at 81,880 in 2012-2013. In comparison, the total number of the rail staff in 1987 was 128,047 whereas it was 136,649 two decades before that.

Ghulamullah Billah shares a residence with his son Sanaullah inside Karachi’s Railway Colony. The lodging provided by the railway has unplastered and unpainted walls. Its roof is caving in at a number of places and puddles form on the floor when it rains.

They moved here only recently. “My son had to travel for two hours to get to work [next to the station]. It was getting difficult for him,” says Billah, 70, as he explains the reason to leave their rented house in Bhittaiabad, a working-class neighbourhood on the edge of Karachi’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal area. Sanaullah pays five per cent of his salary for its upkeep, something that makes his father extremely angry.

He also has many other grievances. During the British Raj, he says, railway workers were promoted every five years but that changed sometime after Partition. “People who joined as helpers when they were young have white beards now but they are still working as helpers,” says Billah.

He would love to see his son become a driver but the railway is no longer hiring drivers from among its own staff. There used to be a 10 per cent quota for those employed in workshops if and when there were vacancies for assistant drivers but that quota has been abolished as well, he says. Assistant drivers recruited from the workshops had experience of maintaining and looking after train engines, he says. “They knew how to identify faults.”

As the conversation progresses, Manzoor Razi, an elderly man in his late seventies, enters Billah’s dilapidated home without much fanfare. He is chairman of the Railway Workers Union’s open-line section — one of the two main operational sections in the railway; the other being workshops.

Razi retired from the railway in 2004 but continues in his role as the head of a labour union that has about 17,000 members. It is still one of the largest trade unions in the railway. As he struggles to takes off his sandals, he becomes quite agitated when he speaks about the deplorable condition of housing for rail workers.

He says he was never inclined to become a labour leader. His colleagues and his father pushed him in that direction.

Razi’s father, Noor Mohammad Khan, was also a railway employee. He had migrated to Karachi from Punjab in 1928. “I was born in the railway colony next to Karachi’s City Railway Station in 1945,” says Razi. “Outsiders were not allowed to get into the workers’ colonies then. Even the police could not enter the colonies without permission,” he recalls.

Railway colonies all over Pakistan got electricity and sewerage systems in the 1950s and 1960s, much before many cities and towns did. They also had their own schools and healthcare facilities. The administration would organise movie nights for railway employees and their families. The films would be screened through a projector on a special train that moved from town to town with its stock of films and equipment. His list for amenities railway workers enjoyed in the past goes on and on — until suddenly a train is mentioned.

In the 1960s, many newly employed railway workers in Karachi lived in areas such as Shah Faisal Colony, Malir and Landhi — at a great distance from the Cantt and City stations where most rail-related jobs were located. The administration decided to run a local train to help these workers travel easily between home and work, say Razi. This was the beginning of what is now known as the Karachi Circular Railway.

The Railway Workers Union organised a strike in October 1967 in solidarity with a student movement protesting against the military regime of Ayub Khan. The strike resulted in a complete shutdown of the rail service for 13 days.

Razi was a poet and writer at the time. He wrote on political subjects but was not interested in joining protests and strikes. His father, however, was a close associate of Mirza Ibrahim, a veteran of a crippling rail strike against the British Raj in 1946 and a legendary labour union activist with a long history of fighting against military dictatorships and struggling for improvement in the working and living conditions of railway employees.

“One day I went to the strike camp at Cantt station. It was occupied by hundreds of workers. Many leaders there were tired after having made speech after speech. Suddenly someone announced that here is this young poet, his name is Manzoor Razi and he will now recite a poem. I read a poem I had written about the Vietnam War and against American imperialism,” he reminisces. The police arrested him for reciting the poem. “They thought I was a leader or something.”

Razi started crying when he first landed in jail. He spent around one month and 14 days there along with hundreds of other labour and student activists. He was also sacked from his job as a booking clerk in the railway.

Ayub’s regime would fall not long afterwards and the new government would reinstate him. The success of the movement would also launch his career as a labour activist. He would later go to jail many times but he claims he never cried again.

A railway staffer on the train from Karachi to Quetta | Mohammad Ali, White Star
A railway staffer on the train from Karachi to Quetta | Mohammad Ali, White Star

The following day, Razi goes to see Muhammad Naseem Rao who works as a head clerk with the railway. He is one of the founders of the Railway Mazdoor Ittehad, an alliance of the railway workers that cuts across ideological and sectional divides. Its founding objective was to resist the trifurcation of the rail system and the likely privatisation of it – in parts or as a whole – as was proposed in 1997 by the then federal railway secretary, Javed Burki.

“The problem is that there has never been an attempt to include the unions in any policymaking,” says Rao. “If the unions are not involved in making policies, how can one say that they have a role in the railway’s decline?” he says, responding to the often repeated criticism that inefficiency and corruption among railway employees and protest and strike politics have together hampered positive change in the Pakistan Railways.

If workers and unions were behind the problems plaguing the railway, those problems should have been addressed, at least partially, by now because the number of workers today is almost 50,000 less than it used to be about three decades ago, he observes. “Where there were four people working in the past, there are only three now,” he says.

These retrenchments, carried out under the directives of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have hardly improved the performance or productivity of the railway in any significant way, say Rao. On the other hand, he says, “the situation for labour has become really dire”.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the first ruler to divide the railway workers by introducing a union associated with his own Pakistan Peoples Party in the 1970s. He also introduced separate unions for workshops and open-line sections. “During the heyday of union activity under Mirza Ibrahim, workshops were the centre of activism among the railway workers but the split between the two sections broke their unity,” says Rao.

Then Ziaul Haq put an outright ban on labour unions and maintained that ban throughout his rule. Election for collective bargaining agencies (CBAs) – elected bodies of the workers legally mandated to negotiate with the administration in different sections of the railway – did not take place for many years after 1981. Zia also promoted the union backed by Jamaat-e-Islami. “The government understood the workers’ power,” says Rao. “One of the first major rallies as part of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy against Ziaul Haq was taken out by railway workers.”

The next shock to the unions came in 1993 during the government of interim prime minister Moeen Qureshi. Even though the Zia-imposed ban on unions was lifted by then, the government declared the entire open-line operations of the railway as an essential service, effectively barring the workers from going on strike. When Pervez Musharraf came into power in 1999, union activity in all parts of the railway was banned again.

The impact of these external shocks was only increased by the inept and non-committed leadership of the unions, says Abdul Razzaq, the sub-engineer in Sukkur. Many sections of the railway staff – drivers, guards, stationmasters – have become disenchanted with unions. They now have their own associations. But unlike the unions, these associations do not have internal elections. They are also ineligible to contest referendums to become CBAs.

Razzaq himself is a member of the All Pakistan Railway Signal Association. In 2016, his association announced a country-wide partial strike. Its members were to work for eight hours rather than 24 hours. He remembers not attending a call to fix snapped wires. But what he and his colleagues got out of the strike was only a meeting with the divisional superintendent who promised that their demands will be met. That promise was never fulfilled.

Railroad to nowhere

Numerous documents are gathering dust at a library inside the Railway Headquarters in Lahore. Many of them date back to pre-Partition times. It is obvious from some of the old reports that outside consultants were issuing regular warnings as early as the 1960s that Pakistan Railways needed modernisation of its operations.

Among the documents at the library is a 1973 speech given by Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, then minister for political affairs and communication. The speech presents a gloomy picture of the railway at the time.

Jatoi started his speech by saying that Pakistan inherited a railway system that was extensively used during World War II but its replacement and rehabilitation was deferred or neglected for one reason or another before Partition. The situation the railway was in at the time of independence was critical but the plans to address it were no more than listings of urgent needs for obvious repairs and replacement, the document states.

He then highlighted the state of the railway in the run-up to the time of his speech. “The result has been that the overall condition of railway assets, considered an integrated unit, has continued to deteriorate.” Given the situation, “the operational and financial performance of the railways is bound to suffer”.

A decade later the deterioration in performance predicted by Jatoi became painfully obvious to the government as well as passengers. Pakistan Railways entered dire straits and there it remains.

Everyone who was in the know understood the need for a complete overhaul and not just partial reforms. In 1987, a private firm, Canadian Pacific Consulting Services Limited, compiled an assessment report for the purpose. Titled Action Programme for Pakistan Railways Restructuring, it points out four outstanding problems: a sharp decrease in the rail’s share of the transport market (from 66 per cent to 15 per cent in just 25 preceding years); a general deterioration of the standard of services offered and the inability of the railway to match the services offered by road transport services; financial losses the railway incurred each year — it was put at 1.3 billion rupees at the time; the unnecessary involvement of politicians in affairs which should ideally be handled by a professional management.

The entrance to Pakistan Railway Carriage Factory in Islamabad is closed. Inside, the first thing that comes into sight are trees planted by various railway ministers and secretaries of the past.

The factory was built in a year’s time in 1970 and is the only facility in Pakistan for manufacturing new carriages for passenger trains. Built with around 89 million rupees, it is sprawled over 76 acres of land though its buildings – that include 667 residences for staff – covers only 13 acres. The factory can manufacture up to 150 carriages every year and employs 735 people.

Asad Farooq Chishti is deputy mechanical engineer here. The factory’s original technology came from Germany, he says. For a very long time, carriages used in Pakistan were manufactured only with that technology.

The first change came in 2003 when, according to Chishti, the then railway minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed signed an agreement with a Chinese company to manufacture 175 coaches each year for Pakistan Railways. Out of these, 120 were to be manufactured in Pakistan under a technology transfer clause in the agreement, says Chishti.

Another agreement with another Chinese company, signed in 2009, provided for the manufacturing of 202 coaches every year for Pakistan Railways with the latest available technology. This technology has also been transferred to Pakistan where 70 of those coaches are being built each year, he adds.

Coolies wait at the Lahore Railway Station | Arif Ali, White Star
Coolies wait at the Lahore Railway Station | Arif Ali, White Star

The factory consists of many workshops and sheds where different processes are carried out — from the construction of bogeys to their attachment to chassis frames and wheels and from paint to the installation of interiors and other fixtures. Once the exteriors and interiors of a carriage are complete, it is put to a water test to check for and mend leakages. A finished carriage is then transported to Rawalpindi Railway Station.

Abdur Rehman, a young engineer at the factory, excitedly walks to a shed where a rusting carriage awaits rehabilitation. The rehabilitation is part of an attempt by the railway to save money. The run-down carriage is being stripped down. Side walls, roof, seats, bathrooms, windows, chassis frame, wheels — everything is being taken out for repair, refurbishing and replacing, if required. “This carriage is made with German technology,” says Rehman.

Some brake vans can be seen a little distance away. These are to be used as safety coaches for trains transporting coal from Karachi to power stations being built in central Punjab. The railway is inducting 15 such brake vans — five of which have been made.

Rehman then walks towards another workshop where a newer Chinese bogey is being readied to be placed on chassis and wheels. These Chinese carriages are fit to travel at 160 kilometres per hour, he says proudly.

A new gleaming locomotive made by General Electric, an American company, is parked at the locomotive shed inside Karachi’s Cantt Railway Station. It is one of the 55 locomotives purchased recently from the United States. By the end of this month, according to a performance report, all these engines will arrive in Pakistan. Procured at a cost of 213.689 million US dollars, these are reportedly able to haul around 3,400 tonnes of coal in a single trip.

The engines are going through trial runs in Karachi. Recently, consultants from United States and China visited the shed to teach local workers how to maintain them. These will be used to haul coal from Port Qasim to power plants in Sahiwal and other areas in Punjab.

The locomotive workshop in Lahore is assembling freight wagons to be attached to these engines.

An old steam engine is perched on a raised platform inside the locomotive workshop built in 1912 to manufacture and overhaul steam engines. These days it only repairs and rehabilitates imported diesel engines. (Another factory located in Risalpur town of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, about 145 kilometres to the northwest of Islamabad, employs more than 550 people and assembles diesel-electric engines “with the collaboration of different countries”, as per its Facebook page.)

The workshop employs 1,843 people — 473 short of its sanctioned strength. The biggest gap between the sanctioned strength and the actual number of employees is in the ‘skilled labour’ category where 1,181 people work against 1,465 approved posts — that too at a time when the workshop is getting massive amounts of work.

Ahsan Zamir, a young assistant works manager, points to some stripped down trains parked in one corner of the workshop. Their wheels and chassis frames are being rehabilitated. The project also involves the rehabilitation of 27 diesel engines that have been taken apart completely. Their faulty parts are being replaced and additional components are being added to them to modernise their functions. Only 12 of the 27 engines remain to be rehabilitated, says Zamir. The cost to rehabilitate them stands at 6.284 billion rupees.

The Pakistan Railways has 457 engines in total but only a little more than half of them are functional. The ratio was even worse a few years ago.

When Khawaja Saad Rafique took over the ministry in 2013, the department had only 180 operational engines, says Shahid Aziz, a mechanical engineer at Railway Headquarters in Lahore. “We are now operating 290 engines,” he says. Out of the recently added engines, says Aziz, “53 have been purchased from China, 20 are rehabilitated old engines and the rest have been made functional through a special repair project [costing around five billion rupees]”.

These improvements have helped the railway to operate on average 10 freight trains a day. Four years ago, only two freight trains were operating per day.

Junaid Qureshi lives a comfortable life in Karachi’s Defence area, making regular visits to his son who lives in the United States. The soft-spoken man, in his mid-sixties, worked as general manager operations of Pakistan Railways between May 2012 and August 2014. It was a time when the railway’s performance was at its lowest. Its public image was even lower.

Only a couple of months before Qureshi took charge, Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, then chief justice of Pakistan, ordered National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to initiate an investigation into the disposal of 39,000 metric tonnes of railway scrap allegedly sold in violation of prescribed rules. Those who received the contract to buy the scrap were allegedly close to Ghulam Ahmad Bilour who was then railway minister.

Saeed Akhtar, who was working as general manager of operations at the time, was due to retire on March 14, 2012 but the then prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani gave him an extension, allowing him to retain the post. The Supreme Court hit back and ruled that the extension was illegal. Akhtar was arrested by NAB on March 29, 2012, for his role in the scrap contract as well as for the purchase of 69 engines from China during the government of Pervez Musharraf at a price of 98 million US dollars without checking whether they suited the local lines and railway stations.

Qureshi, however, does not blame Bilour for the railway’s woes. In his opinion, the biggest setback to the railway over the last couple of decades has been its trifurcation in 1997 under the recommendations made by former cricketer Javed Burki who at the time was working as federal railway secretary. The objective of the move was to split the rail’s entire system into three smaller entities – a passenger unit, a trade unit and an infrastructure unit – in order to facilitate private-sector investment in each of them. The government hoped the private sector would be interested in getting the control of trade and freight operations, thereby generating revenues that could then be invested in other parts of the railway.

“This plan was tried for three years,” Qureshi says, but was rolled back after it did not bring in the much-anticipated investment and revenues. It was also not efficient as it deprived the rail system of its unity of command, he says.

The second major move in the wrong direction was the decision during the government of Pervez Musharraf to downsize by banning new hiring. “What the government did not realise was that rail system works like a nursery,” says Qureshi. Drivers are not hired directly, for instance. They are promoted from apprentices and assistant drivers. Once a ban was imposed on hiring apprentices and assistant drivers, it gradually started having an impact on the number of drivers, thereby depleting the railway’s human resource over time. One of its major effects was that labour morale went down, he adds.

The third major problem, according to Qureshi, have been the ambitious targets set in Vision 2025, a planning document prepared by Ahsan Iqbal, federal minister for planning and development. The document envisions expanding the rail’s share in transport from the existing four per cent to 20 per cent. This will require a massive upgrading of the rail network. It is not clear how this upgrading will be financed, says Qureshi, given that the railway is still running at a loss even when it has increased its revenue. “The railway is a capital-intensive organisation. You need a huge amount of money to run it.”

A major hurdle that expansion plans face is that every piece of equipment and machinery has to be imported, says Qureshi. Various efforts at technology transfer and import-substitution in engine manufacturing and carriage-building have been either insufficient or flawed, he says.

A related issue is the time rail-related imports take. Other than in India and Pakistan, broad-gauge rails are not used anywhere in the world. Any order that Pakistan places for imports takes about three years because the manufacturers have to comply with our specifications and requirements, he points out.

The fourth floor of the building where the railway ministry is headquartered in Islamabad is cramped and congested but the staff here is accessible. This is where the policies are made. It has a completely different ambience – of austerity and simplicity – from the decadent bureaucrat-is-king culture at the headquarters in Lahore from where operations are run.

Muhammad Aftab Akbar, spokesperson for the ministry and secretary Railway Board, says the rail’s large infrastructure requires funds before it can generate returns. Highlighting the problems, he says: “Until recently, there was uncertainty. Trains were not adhering to their schedule. No safety standards were being maintained. Rail officials did not know when a train’s engine would stop working,” he says. He then lists the achievements of the current administration: revenues have doubled to 36 billion rupees in 2015-16 as compared to 18 billion rupees in 2012-2013.

Akbar claims the political leadership has started to pay attention to the railway and has begun to allocate funds to it. Khawaja Saad Rafique has brought professionals from the private sector into the management and has stopped the tradition of shuffling officers from one post to the other, the secretary says.

A senior ministry official, Mazhar Ali Shah, has been working closely with the Chinese on CPEC-related projects. He travels to China frequently and is often in meeting with the Planning Commission in Islamabad. He says the government has declared the improvement and upgrading of the main Karachi-Lahore-Peshawar railway line as a high priority project under CPEC. The railway has already completed its feasibility report, he says, adding that the bidding process will start as soon as the final agreement is complete.

Shah expects work on the line to begin by August this year. It will be completed in the next five years, he says, and will transform the entire railway system. “The current 65-70 kilometres-per-hour train speed will go up to 160 kilometres per hour.” The Chinese will also help Pakistan in connecting Gwadar with Jacobabad and Quetta and also Quetta with Dera Ismail Khan, he says.

With these projects in the pipeline, Akbar rules out privatising the railway, a policy almost all previous governments have pursued since the 1980s. “Privatisation is not an option. What we are interested in is public-private partnership in areas other than main operations,” he says.

Javed Anwar Bobak is effectively the chief executive officer of Pakistan Railways. Working as general manager operations, he operates from a spacious office at Railway Headquarters in Lahore. He joined the railway in 1984 and has worked in almost all sections, except workshops.

A major problem with the railway, according to him, is that none of its secretaries or chairmen since 1991 have been individuals familiar with this field. Officers from police, customs, commerce, and audit and accounts services have worked on these two top posts, he says, but no one from the railway. Someone who has worked in the railway is supposed to know more about its functions and flaws than someone from another department, Bobak argues.

He gives the example of Javed Burki. “He was not a rail man.” That is why his trifurcation plan only created a lot of chaos. There was “no unity of command” left as a result of it. Though the government reversed major parts of the plan, it was “never fully undone”. The railway has been in free fall since then, says Bobak.

The other disastrous move, according to him, was reconstitution of the Railway Board during the second government of Nawaz Sharif (in 1997-1999). The original board included senior most officers from all sections within the railway. The government, instead, constituted a board to be headed by the railway minister and to have all but one member from the private sector. The reconstituted board never became fully functional, allowing the chairman to set up an ad hoc body for taking decisions, Bobak points out.

He argues that Pakistan never had an integrated transport policy. And whatever policy there was, he says, it was never consistent. In the absence of a focus on policy, governments chose to pump money into their pet projects. That, he claims, has been changed by the current administration. “We are not just showcasing one new train. We are making changes that will last.”

The writer is a staffer at the Herald.

This was originally published in Herald's June 2017 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.