The state of Pakistan Railways

Published: August 7, 2011

The Pakistan Railways (PR) is another one of the loss-making giants of the state sector. PHOTO: EXPRESS/FILE

An embittered railways minister, Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, predicting the death of his portfolio on a daily basis because no one in Islamabad listened to him, has finally been promised a Rs11 billion bailout fund. Out of this, Rs6 billion will be raised from the banks as commercial loans. The Pakistan Railways (PR) is another one of the loss-making giants of the state sector, dragging the national economy down and filling the common man with despair. The abbreviation PR is ironic because the railways is one sector where the state is getting its worst PR (public relations).

PR needs a thousand locomotives but has only a couple of hundred, out of which most break down on the way or cannot run because diesel is hard to purchase owing to the circular debt issue in the economy. TV networks are showing people suffering at railway stations, putting PR property to the torch and beating up the staff whose salaries are usually in arrears. Trains are late by 10 to 12 hours on average, making the passengers rue their decision to rely on PR — those who used to travel by train in the past are down to half.

Mr Bilour wanted the entire Rs11 billion package from the State Bank. PR, which made a loss of Rs26 billion last year, is not likely to recoup and repay unless it raises tariffs by 40 per cent, which it won’t. The high interest rate on the package will be footed by the government while PR goes to China to buy some of the 150 locomotives it plans to acquire and to buy spare parts to repair the earlier ones bought from China that are rotting in its godowns. The news for passengers is not good. Even if PR succeeds in clinching another deal with China, it will take six months for it to get enough engines on track.

State sector enterprises are rarely successful because the subsidy they receive is likely to make them complacent and not profit-driven. Add to that trade and labour unions and corrupt non-specialist politicians who run PR and you have the beginnings of a systemic failure and finally a failed state. PR is amongst the biggest employers in the country along with Wapda and both are in the financial doldrums. In addition, PR is the richest in the country if you count the going rate of the property it owns. Politicians regard it as a juicy ministry to run because of the lucrative contacts they get to enjoy with squatting mafias and a steadily thieving bureaucracy.

Pakistan and India inherited the world’s best railways network from the British. Pakistan has allowed its tracks to decay and began shedding branch-line trains in 2007 to cut losses. On the other hand, India came out of its loss-making phase in 2006 and posted a profit of $2.5 billion in 2008. It is today the world’s largest railway network running on its own steam.  Pakistan is down to its last financial breath but its foreign policy remains warlike and unpragmatic, accepting isolation when it should be networking with the entire world against terrorism. No one trusts that money given to Pakistan will be correctly spent because it is more interested in accumulating fissile material for making more bombs. PR is indebted to the tune of Rs80 billion while its overdraft to the State Bank exceeds Rs40 billion. It can’t pay its pensioners on time — an amount that comes to Rs19 billion — and its working manpower at times gets paid only from the sale of tickets.

It is doubtful that the Rs11 billion bailout will have any change for the better. Those who travel on it don’t have much of an option, road travel has become unsafe because of the sharply worsening law and order in the regions of transit and airlines are too expensive for the majority of the population. Even if chunks of PR are to be privatised, it first needs to start becoming functional. Alas, the PR bureaucracy still thinks that all that needs to be done is to privatise the loss-making routes when in reality the organisation needs an overhaul.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2011.

Reader Comments (8)

  • Anonymous
    Aug 7, 2011 - 8:10PM

    Benazir bhutto died and people of pakistan torched down many trains and PR lost billions
    of $ since then it got worst.Recommend

  • AnIndian
    Aug 7, 2011 - 8:34PM

    A clarification:
    India is NOT the world’s largest railway network, with respect to the track length. It is the world’s fourth largest. (Wikipedia: USA – 226,427 Km, Russia – 128,000 Km, China – 91,000 Km, India – 64,000)
    With respect to the annual number of passengers, Indian railways is the world’s largest, with 6.2 billion people traveling every year (which means an average Indian travels in a train 5 times in a year)
    Indian railways employs 1.6 million people and is the world’s second largest employer after Walmart.

    A suggestion:
    Outright privatization is not the only solution. Both Pakistan Railways and Indian Railways should seriously think about privatizing the management of the railways. Thereby, the institution will be under public sector which guarantees the running of the services; and, the private management will ensure efficient running.

    Recommend

  • Kasim.Lahore
    Aug 7, 2011 - 11:20PM

    @AnIndian:
    Dear Indian,

    The difference between PR and IR are

    1). IR is profit maker; PR is loss maker;

    2). IR earns 74% revenue through Commercial goods; PR earns only 33%.

    3). IR electrified 82% of it’s Tracks; PR had hardly electrified 15%. (So more requirement of Diesel which is again costlier than Electricity).

    4). IR earns 13% through commercial ads. PR hardly earns 2%.

    My relatives are there in Mumbai and I got an opportunity to visit Mumbai and saw the working of Mumbai Suburban train system. Simply superb. Heard about Delhi and Kolkatta’s Metro Trains.

    I can tell you we have not developed such a strong system or Project since Independence. Atleast we should make Lallu Prsad Yadav as our Railway minister who brought IR to this level.

    Khudha Hafiz.

    Recommend

  • Hatim
    Aug 8, 2011 - 12:27AM

    Why do foreign relations have to be dragged into everything published on the Tribune? On another note, PTCL has become much better after privatization and KESC is falling suit. PR should be privatized along with PIA ASAP.

    Recommend

  • Rashid Khan
    Aug 8, 2011 - 10:02AM

    Over the past six decades, the Pakistan Railway has been subjected to constant haemorrhage by a combine of its own employees and corrupt members from the public, they gnawed its innards.
    Every railway employee considered it his birthright to misuse authority and privileges. Thus it was a common sight to see hordes of relatives travelling without tickets any effort to check the malpractice would be considered an affront to the dignity of the railway officials. Several side routes, linking the hinterland to cities such as the Narowal to Lahore line, were frequented by a majority of ticketless travellers who blatantly refused to purchase tickets and on some smaller stations there were wasn’t any staff available to sell tickets at certain hours and passengers requesting tickets were viewed as senile by the very guardians this institution.
    Many employees took pride in abusing this institution and failed to realise their actions amounted to outright theft and cheating. On retirement, these same employees encroached on railway lands in defiance of legal injunctions resting their claims on humanitarian rights and the years of (dis)service to the organisation.
    Efforts by honest and dedicated officers, a rare breed themselves to rein in corruption and instil accountability and discipline were resisted by strikes and countermanding actions patronised by corrupt superiors in the higher echelons.
    On a grander scale, railway ministers and bureaucrats fixed percentages in all orchestrated railway lands grabs, purchases of stores and equipment and contracts for services.
    The common people who suffer today also had a role in the gradual decline of this institution. They travelled without tickets, whenever at every opportunity and wherever they could get away with it. Mobs intoxicated by their power of numbers targeted property to vent their frustrations. Recount railways engines and tracks damaged by such mobs?

    Recommend

  • raj
    Aug 8, 2011 - 4:21PM

    @Kasim.Lahore

    Great info.

    Please write a blog on Express.

    The senior people at Pakistan Railways need some educationRecommend

  • AnIndian
    Aug 8, 2011 - 8:26PM

    @Kasim

    Thanks for the info.

    You see, we are still talking about conventional railways, while China already has the largest hi-speed rail in the world…

    Both, Pakistan and India need to improve efficiency in the railways and take up large scale, cost-efficient modernization…

    Best,
    AnIndian

    Recommend

  • Pritash
    Aug 26, 2011 - 1:08AM

    @ Indian
    The article says ‘It is today the world’s largest railway network running on its own steam’, ON ITS OWN STEAM. It means its operations are self sustained. It does not rely on government to pay for its operations. BTW good analysis on the IR. I liked it.

    Recommend

More in Editorial