The collapse of Pakistan Railways

Published: September 20, 2010
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An integrated transport policy would benefit the national economy. DESIGN: FAIZAN DAWOOD

An integrated transport policy would benefit the national economy. DESIGN: FAIZAN DAWOOD

The government – a major stakeholder in rail, road and air transport – needs to design an integrated transport policy where goods are enlisted for economical carriage. Pakistan also desperately requires a transport ministry to regulate and control the industry, similar to what is being done in the UK, India and other developing countries.

According to a study conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, transportation of one ton per kilometre by road will cost five times more than if it were carried by rail.

Despite losses, the rail network provides a comparatively safe, affordable and reliable mode of transportation to a significant portion of the country’s population. Pakistan Railways, a legacy of the colonial period, is also one of the largest employers.

The Pakistan Railways network has a total of 945 stations, approximately six kilometres apart, to meet operational, safety and communication requirements.

Till the 1970s, Pakistan Railways was a self-sustaining organisation run by an autonomous four-member policy forming Railway Board which constituted a Member Traffic, Member Mechanical, Member Civil and Member Finance.  Apart from the nominee of the finance ministry, the other three were senior railway employees specialising in their respective fields – the chairman of the Pakistan Railways was also appointed from one of these three technical specialists at the discretion of federal government. A vice chairman, the fifth member, was an executive who oversaw daily administration.

In 1990, the government appointed an officer from the Civil Services of Pakistan chairman and from then on there has been a rapid decline not only in performance but also the balance sheet of the organisation.

Today, with an allocation of Rs13.63 billion in this year’s federal budget, Pakistan Railways is in dire financial straits, with scarcity of funds and serviceable locomotives to keep it on track. Transportation of goods, which previously constituted 40 per cent of its revenues, has been reduced to between 25 and 30 per cent.

It is presently being run by a non-functional board, one that mainly exists on paper and operates without any strategic planning mechanism. Furthermore, railway accounts are not subject to scrutiny by the Auditor General of Pakistan, a key factor for revenue and procurement pilferage.

A depreciation fund, which was meant for scheduled preventive repair and maintenance of locomotives, carriages and tracks, has been disbanded.

Till 1990, the carriage factory in Islamabad was exporting freight wagons and coaches to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, in addition to meeting local requirements. Rather than augmenting this facility, the lure of kickbacks has resulted in its virtual shut down and orders were placed for import of carriages.

Although Moghaplura has facility to produce High Capacity (HC) wagons, the same were imported from China. These imported wagons have the handicap that they cannot ply on branch lines because of axle load limitations. Pakistan Railways had compatible locomotives from GE, Hitachi and other companies – all with different axle loads but compatible with the railway tracks. Our main line tracks have the capability of handling a load of 22 tons per axle, while branch lines can sustain 16.5 tons per axle.

Former president Pervez Musharraf appointed General Javed Ashraf the railway minster, General Saeed the chairman and General Hamid Butt the general manager of manufacturing and services, all of whom had no prior experience in railways.

They imported from China ‘Group 1’ locomotives with axle load of 23 Tons per axle, although the limitation was 22 tons per axle. Similarly, orders were placed for ‘Group 3’ locomotives with loads of 19.3 tons – while the limitation was 17.5 tons per axle.

A special dispensation was issued by the Railways allowing their operation on sections where it could prove dangerous and this is still in force. This has led to numerous accidents and loss of precious lives.

Trials conducted on Chinese Group 3 locomotives revealed that while their fuel consumption was higher the hauling power was much less than the specifications listed jointly by the manufacturers. Their performance was worse than the existing 30 to 40 year old locomotives.

The 64 Chinese locomotives, based on vintage Russian technology, had an additional impact for spare parts procurement valued at $15 million annually, making them the most expensive locomotives ever procured by Railways. Earlier, the annual allocation for maintenance and repair would never exceed $10 million for the total fleet of 530 locomotives.

More recently, in 2009-2010, an additional order for 75 brand new locomotives has been placed with the same Chinese middleman Dong Feng Trading House (DFTH) and Mishan Locomotives Works, the manufacturer.

As if this was not enough, 200 passenger carriages at an exorbitant cost are also being procured, although the same could be manufactured by the factory in Islamabad with imported raw material.

Yet another major source of pilferage is the sub-standard manufacturing outsourced to local contractors – most of these firms owned by front men of senior officers. The Chemist and Metallurgical Centre, responsible for testing and analysing raw materials and spares, boasts obsolete equipment.

Pakistan Railways is not a member of UIC, the international standards regulatory body and therefore cannot have access to their specifications and drawings, nor has railways upgraded their own systems, that could facilitate quality control of procurement.

At the end of the day, economics decides the fate of an industry and an integrated policy would benefit the national economy.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Sep 20, 2010 - 2:34PM

    Can somebody explain why 3 corrupt generals, with absolutely no knowledge or experience in railways were allowed to go and order procurement of defective engines from China, which only led to several accidents and deaths of hundreds. It is not that China does not have the technology to manufacture good locomotives, but the fact that illwill and deceit of those assigned to procure engines resulted in this highly defective purchase. In the process the poor masses are suffering. Since these 3 thugs evaded any accountabilty and pocketed millions of dollars in kickbacks, it only encouraged the present government to order 75 more locomotives through the same middleman and from trhe same manufacturer, of ill-repute. This shows how institutionalised coruption is in Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of prime real estate belonging to Pakistan Railways have been doled out to individuals for commercial use. One such example is the club located in Lahore on the previous Railway Golf Club to a party, which has minted billions in the process. All this railway land could have been auctioned to generate enough funds to overcome the operational losses and still have enough reserves for replacement of old locomotives. It is shocking that the Islamabad Carriage Factory is lying unutilized by this mafia, which has the backing of every government, be it elected or unelected.Recommend

  • Aman
    Sep 20, 2010 - 3:48PM

    it is really a pitty, Govt must contirbute its maximum to resolve the railway problemsRecommend

  • Shumaila S Khanzada
    Sep 20, 2010 - 8:53PM

    It is a pity that after so many years of independence we as a nation have not been able to develop an important infrastructure like railways..

    It is unbelievable that there is no quality control department. The most surprising fact is that we have been spending money in the purchase of locomotives not in sync with our available axle load?????? Wrong decisions not taken once but repeatedly, why? Is there no one to intervene and stop this? To me it appear that these decisions are being taken with the knowledge of all…

    The money is being wasted for the purchase of passenger carriers when the same can be manufactured locally? How conveniently the money of poor nation is being wasted….

    Our elected government has been openly blaming past government for all our sufferings today and promises to bring gradual change, my question is that do they intend to bring change by making the same mistakes on a much larger scale??? Why the order was given to the same manufacturers by this government? ??? The Government owe an explanation to the NATION Recommend

  • Sep 20, 2010 - 9:58PM

    It is the tax payer that funds Pakistan Railway ,PIA and NLC, So why not put all these transport entities under the control of one roof, a Ministry for Transportation, so that an economic enlisting of goods for transportation is evolved. In any case politicians with absolutely no technical background should avoid getting involved in procurement of engineering products with specifications and limitations such as locomotives, airplanes, oil tankers and trucks. Railways should be kept running because it is an essential logistic, which is required for national security and economical transportation.Recommend

  • Shakeel S Khanzada
    Sep 20, 2010 - 10:52PM

    Is it really hard to believe that in the present regime of PPP government, a political party whose founder Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s admiration for technocrats is still appreciated among think tanks of all ages, one of the most technical organizations of Pakistan Railways like many others is being run by money makorats instead of technocrats? No obviously its not, as it has become more of a competition than a norm for our rulers and governments to “Kaam Bachao Paise Banao”. Such a mind set of our so called leaders if not refuted at this stage then a day is not far away when the fate of entire Pakistan will not be much different than that of Pakistan Railways, and all its natural resources would either remain unutilized like Islamabad Carriage Factory or would vanish in a corrupt deal like above mentioned locomotives procurement deal. Recommend

  • mariam tauqeer
    Sep 21, 2010 - 10:10AM

    a very good article. its about time that the government pays heed to the railways as well!Recommend

  • mariam tauqeer
    Sep 21, 2010 - 10:22AM

    a very good article, its about time the government pays heed to the railways!!Recommend

  • Sep 21, 2010 - 1:23PM

    Railways suffers not because of lack of passengers or freight, but corruption at the top, especially during the last ten years, in procurement deals. One of the key robbers responsible during Mush era is sitting in the Senate alongwith the man who is responsible for all the ills during past 2 years. The issue is why is the government sitting idle while the state and its exchequer is being plundered. The NLC is another factor. If only the freight was carried by rail, the 11,000 ISAF containers supposed to be for NATO could never have disappeared. It is the poor people of Pakistan, who have been robbed of their transport, while those who robbed it are either living comfortably in Europe, USA, Gulf and Canada or their ill-gotten assets are located there. If the government has the political will than they can catch them just as Hamesh Khan has been caught.Recommend

  • Mureed Abbas Bhutta
    Sep 22, 2010 - 11:27AM

    Much informative and a road map for restoration of “Public Transport” Rail. Recommend

  • azher
    Sep 26, 2010 - 10:48AM

    solution to all these problems is apointments on merit.if gov’t have appointed the chairmen’s of karachi stealmill,railway,PIA on merit instead of these foolish generals,these problems have never been occoured. untill and unless govt will not apoint charted accountants on these key positions these departments will never perform.For these key posts govt should call world wide resume and peoples should be apointed on merit. feasibilities should be made for future restructuring of these departments from international economic firms. slowly railway should be privatized.workers should be given golden hakehand.this will be only one time expense. if the same railway should be sold to privat owner with in 6 months he will start making money,it means railway is profit making department rather loss making. Motorway police, NADRA and passport office is run by good governce (Transparancy International report2009), these are all pakistani peoples then why other departments can not run likewise.Recommend

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