Pakistani residents gather beside the wreckage at the site of the collision of two trains on the outskirts of Multan on September 15, 2016. InternationalIndiaAfricaAneela RashidDespite serving as the main connection between many cities and towns of the country, Pakistan’s railway network has seen decades of neglect that has taken a heavy toll on the service. The heyday of its railway raj, when the train was an elegant and romantic mode of travel, is long gone to be replaced by ghost stations and shabby carriages.Anyone who has been to Pakistan knows that trains and railway stations were once the backbone of the country’s economy and commerce. The country inherited a vast network of well-developed railway system and road network during the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. At the time, railways formed the most valuable capital asset of the country and were the largest single national commercial mega project.© AP PhotoIn this September 1947, file photo hundreds of Muslim refugees crowd on top a train leaving New Delhi for Pakistan. After Britain ended its colonial rule over the Indian subcontinent, two independent nations were created in its place _ the secular, Hindu-majority nation of India, and the Islamic republic of Pakistan. The division, widely referred to as Partition, sparked massive rioting that killed up to 1 million, while another 15 million fled their homes in one of the world’s largest ever human migrations. (AP Photo, File)In this September 1947, file photo hundreds of Muslim refugees crowd on top a train leaving New Delhi for Pakistan. After Britain ended its colonial rule over the Indian subcontinent, two independent nations were created in its place _ the secular, Hindu-majority nation of India, and the Islamic republic of Pakistan. The division, widely referred to as Partition, sparked massive rioting that killed up to 1 million, while another 15 million fled their homes in one of the world’s largest ever human migrations. (AP Photo, File)Much has changed since, but despite general deterioration of the railway networks, just weeks ago, bustling railway stations in big cities of Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta were abuzz with passengers – smiling porters running around carrying massive luggage on their shoulders, women and children in colorful clothes excited to board a train, ‘chai’ shops and snack bars full of travelers. The energy of the train stations was alive with people greeting each other happily, or sadly seeing their loved ones off.Then suddenly in July 2022, torrential rains and the resulting floods brought everything to a standstill.Trains and stations across the country, especially in Sindh and Balochistan came to a complete halt, as floods caused an unprecedented damage to the whole network.The train service between Quetta and Karachi divisions was suspended after a railway bridge collapsed due to floods in the region, cutting off the main supply chain between the two main cities. The track between Nawabshah and Bocheri station, 301 kilometers away from Karachi, was completely submerged in floodwater.Another five express trains on the Main Line-I between Karachi and Peshawar were also brought to a halt because the destroyed tracks needed to be rebuilt. Moreover, in several other cities the tracks are still submerged under the floodwater, while in other parts of the country trains have toppled over and lie on destroyed tracks.In just two months, Pakistan Railways have incurred a loss of more than Rs 11 billion (over $49 million), including a damage worth of Rs 8 billion (over $35 million) to the bridges and tracks. Further Rs 3.5 billion (over $15 million) have been wasted in diesel, ticket refunds and suspension of the overall train operations.Many of these suspended stations are situated in the commercial hubs of the country and their destruction is greatly affecting economic revenue that the railways bring. According to railways CEO Farrukh Taimur, the train services cannot be fully restored unless the bridges and tracks were cleared of the floodwater.© AFP 2023 / ARIF ALIPostal service workers prepare to load delivery parcels of Pakistan Post onto a train carriage at a railway station in Lahore on October 7, 2022.Postal service workers prepare to load delivery parcels of Pakistan Post onto a train carriage at a railway station in Lahore on October 7, 2022.One more issue that these suspended trains pose is that the freight trains which could carry relief goods for the flood-hit people are unable to reach victims with the much needed aid. Hence, they are receiving aid by boats, which is taking much longer.According to the country’s climate minister, Sherry Rehman, “The country is broken. The widespread destruction of the country’s road, bridge and rail networks has taken us back half a century, so access is by air or naval boats. The crisis is multidimensional and complex now. The health emergency caused by destroyed clinics, miles of swampy water and water-borne diseases is potentially deadly,” as reported by Nikkei Asia.It will no doubt take months before the Pakistan Railway will be fully operational again. It will also require a lot of money and effort to provide safety of passengers and operations staff and rehabilitation of broken track and other infrastructure related to the railway network.However, it is important to note that the grim situation with Pakistan’s railway did not happen just now. For decades the country’s train network has been in a very bad state. Every new government promises a list of reforms and governance to the railway network, meanwhile the common man continues to suffer.
Looking to the Past: Colonial Era Trains
During the independence of Hindustan from the British Raj in 1947, Pakistan comprised an under-developed area, primarily agricultural in nature. The great port cities and major business centers of trade and industries, during the presence of Britain, were mainly situated in India.However, Pakistan did inherit a vast network of well-developed railway system and road network that connected the country from the Hindukush mountains in the north, all the way to the Arabian Sea in the south.“At that time, Pakistan railway (north western railway) carried the most significant amount of goods and passengers in Pakistan,” according to the archives of Govt, of Pakistan, National Planning Board, (1957: 487.)The comprehensive network of the railway system inherited from the British was declared the backbone of transport (Govt, of Pakistan, National Planning Board, 1955: 485) and received a greater percentage of investment than did roads, when the five years budget plan was put together post partition.However, in the following decades railway network’s budget started getting cut and it so happened that in the last sixty years the transport sector has received 15 to 24 % of the total development budget in Pakistan, according to research paper by Muhammad Imran and Waheed Ahmed.Up until the 1970s, railways were the primary mode of transportation in Pakistan. However, after that transport policies and investments favored development and maintenance of roads over the railways. Therefore, Pakistan Railways’ market share declined tremendously both for passengers and freight traffic.
Pakistan’s Railways: Hazard and Nuisance?
At present, statistics show that Pakistan Railways is declining continuously in terms of its network of passenger and freight capacity. Although even today millions of Pakistanis use trains for intercity travel and freight trains carry tonnes of goods between the cities, it is still much lower than what it was just a few decades ago.Today the network employs about 80,000 people, but even prior to the flooding lack of investment in the over-aged infrastructure and failure to maintain the tracks from wear and tear were causing a railway crisis in the country.In 2013, dozens of protesting passengers laid their children across the tracks in the city of Multan in southern Punjab province. They were angry at Pakistan Railways because a journey that should have taken 18 hours had lasted three days – and they were still only halfway to their destination.There are many similar stories of “bad train journey” experiences all over the country. Most of the trains are in very run down conditions and have no air conditioning or proper ventilation. Only in first class trains people can have privacy and their own toilets, but tickets are expensive and such luxuries are not for the common man.© AFP 2023 / AAMIR QURESHIPakistani villagers gather around the wreckage of three trains following a crash in Ghotki, 13 July 2005. Three crowded passenger trains collided in a devastating crash at a station in southern Pakistan, killing up to 150 people, injuring 1,000 and leaving many others trapped, officials said. Rescuers were trying to extract hundreds of people still trapped in the mangled carriages of the three trains, which lay scattered amid piles of debris and body parts, and police warned the death toll would likely rise. Pakistani villagers gather around the wreckage of three trains following a crash in Ghotki, 13 July 2005. Three crowded passenger trains collided in a devastating crash at a station in southern Pakistan, killing up to 150 people, injuring 1,000 and leaving many others trapped, officials said. Rescuers were trying to extract hundreds of people still trapped in the mangled carriages of the three trains, which lay scattered amid piles of debris and body parts, and police warned the death toll would likely rise. The intercity trains are rarely on time, hence, unreliable. They are also quite crowded, usually with no fans, hence much needs to be improved for those who use them to reach their destination on a daily basis.If that was the worst of it, then it might have been unfair to call the current railway network in absolute crisis, but unfortunately, there are more sinister issues going on – deadly train accidents.Hundreds of people die or get severely injured due to train accidents in Pakistan every single year. It is a public safety concern, which has a long timeline.Two express trains collided near Daharki, a city located in the Ghotki district of upper Sindh in 2021, killing at least 31 passengers and injuring over a 100. The rescuers and villagers worked for days, pulling injured people and bodies from the wreckage.© AP Photo / Waleed SaddiqueSoldiers and volunteers work at the site of a train collision in Ghotki district in southern Pakistan, Monday, June 7, 2021. Two express trains collided in southern Pakistan early Monday, killing dozens of passengers, authorities said, as rescuers and villagers worked to pull injured people and more bodies from the wreckage.Soldiers and volunteers work at the site of a train collision in Ghotki district in southern Pakistan, Monday, June 7, 2021. Two express trains collided in southern Pakistan early Monday, killing dozens of passengers, authorities said, as rescuers and villagers worked to pull injured people and more bodies from the wreckage.As many as 22 people including 20 Sikh pilgrims were killed and many others were injured when a train rammed into a passenger coach near Farooqabad in Sheikhupura district, about 70km from Lahore.In another incident in 2019, the Quetta-bound Akbar Express crashed into the back of a goods train at Walhar railway station, near Sadiqabad, leaving 21 passengers dead and 85 injured.In the same year on October 31, tragedy struck again when 74 passengers were killed, with 90% of them burnt alive. Further 40 people were severely injured, when three coaches of the Rawalpindi-bound Tezgam Express caught fire near Rahim Yar Khan.In 2017, a train crushed two motorized rickshaws on an ungated crossing, killing seven schoolchildren in Punjab’s Lodhran district. Another five children and a rickshaw driver were critically injured.In 2014, fifty-eight people died and many others were injured following a collision between a passenger coach and truck near Theri Bypass in Khairpur.The list of such horrible accidents goes on and on, however, there is never any news of compensations being paid to victims’ families, nor are there any reports on how exactly the government is working to fix these issues.It certainly seems that the successive governments have paid little attention to people’s sufferings and to improving the poorly maintained signal system and aging tracks.
Railway Networks After Floods: The Misery Continues
With the current floods, the railway network has further been damaged and it has resulted in another tragic scenario – joblessness for thousands of people.The workers who have spent years in various departments of the railway network are now left with no earnings for the foreseeable future. Porters who were picking luggage of travelers at the railway stations, had to pack their bags and leave the big cities for their hometowns, as the train stations are now empty.Won’t Take ‘Begging Bowl’: Pakistan Demands Richer Nations Pay for Climate Change-Induced Flooding6 October 2022, 12:10 GMTIn interviews with local media outlets, porters have expressed their sadness and frustration with the current situation because they have been without any wages for weeks, while their families in villages depend on them to send money timely for food and to pay the bills.According to one porter who works in Karachi’s Cantt train station, the government had promised to pay Rs. 20,000 ($89) to each porter, but so far they have not received any money. They don’t know where to go or who to ask for compensation, pointing to the fact that there are no “help centers” for their guidance.Furthermore, standing water at the railway tracks and the surrounding slums, which are often home to many poorer families, is becoming a breeding ground for water borne diseases.According to some authors, such as Muhammad Imran and Waheed Ahmed, what Pakistan’s railways need are “governance and management improvements and a reasonable share of funding devoted to existing and new infrastructure and services.”Moreover, institutions in the country need to develop transport policies that take into consideration railways’ unique needs and priorities in order to make them the backbone of the transport system in Pakistan once again.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Sputnik.