What went wrong with the Railways in Pakistan? A Railway Engineer weighs in-

Trains are a technical matter to begin with — I mean, to take you from one place to another there are so many moving parts to the whole operation. From the moment you buy a ticket, a whole carefully orchestrated and perfectly timed operation will move you from point A to point B and ensure you get off safely, baggage in hand, at your destination.

Engr. Mian Ghias-ud-Din’s book goes into many technical details of train track specifications and stuff that frankly I know nothing about, but there is a big chunk of the book which is dedicated to delineating in detail what went wrong with the railways, and so with the entire country of Pakistan itself. Hence the long and depressing title:

‘My years with Pakistan Railways. What went wrong with Railways in Pakistan and with Pakistan itself.’

There are several anecdotes, lists and references to point out the many problems that ultimately led to the decline in the railways services standards. But he chalks it up to bad governance and corrupt politicians and crynosim. He even has a graphical representation. A triangle with the words ‘debacle of railways in Pakistan’ and on top of the triangle are politicians and generals.

So what’s new?

Well, okay, so not much really. Still, it is interesting to note how the railways were affected by the political upheavals, coups and floods and other events since the country became independent. The book is full of anecdotes of his own personal brushes with corrupt officials and unfair postings. In a section titled ‘Post Independence Management Scenario’ he lists some of the ills that have afflicted the railways since 1947. Posting it below verbatim:

“-In Pakistan, just after independence, the Railway Board was abolished.

-The management of Railways was placed under the control of Communication Ministry.

-The Railway Division or Wing was controlled and looked after by a Director General under the Ministry of Comunications.

-Separate identity of the Railway Finance was also done away with.

-The arrangement of Railway Wing under the Ministry of Communications, did not work well and resulted in delays and difficulties.

-This regressive feature was liable to impair the sense of authority/responsibility, initiative, progress and business to the extent which was fatal to any commercial organization.”

On that last point about Railways being a commercial organization, here’s an elaboration of the point by the author.

“During the entire decade of the 1980s when a railway man was incharge of the railways, the overdraft of the railways with the state bank of Pakistan hardly ran into 100 million rupees on average. Considering the turn over of an organization of the order of 10 billion per year, this was just 1% of a normal figure for any commercial enterprise.”

“However, with the ascension of non-railway man at the top rung during early 90’s the overdraft started climbing vertically, starting at 3 billion in 1994 to over 20 billion in 1999. Besides on ground the railway operations were coming to a halt with goods traffic reaching a dismal figure of 4 BTKM or so. The World Bank and independent observers predicted, based on computer simulations, that if the catastrophic slide down of the railways was not halted, it will have nothing to carry by the year 2004-2005.”

Well, he may have been a little too pessimistic: the railways are still chugging along today, but certainly a shadow of their former glory.