The dwindling sustainability of Pakistan Railways (PR) continues to be of great concern to the pride of Pakistani people in general and causes a serious dent in the image of Pakistani management prowess in particular. While the PR operations shrink with each passing day, across the border in India, the Indian Railways in contrast is hailed as the largest national employer that not only posts a healthy yearly profit, but has also been successful in expanding and improving its services over time. The PR annual budget, and in addition the funds required annually to plug its operational losses (in order to keep it operational), has in recent months generated a lot of euphoria. Sadly, the overall management structure of Pakistan Railways as it stands today does not inspire any confidence for improvement in the organisation’s fortunes in the days ahead - a Railways Ministry that seems out of sorts and, perhaps, lacks the leadership to meet the challenges it is confronted with; an advisory board (for turnaround of PR) that has barely met since its formation; an army of employees which is neither sustainable nor motivated; and last but not least, a management environment that focuses more on day-to-day survival endeavours than on providing any kind of long-term vision. A culture laden with dodgy deals, half-baked initiatives like those of the business train (good in theory, but poorly implemented), route privatisation, partial outsourcing to overcome glaring inefficiencies, and a complete lack of discipline that invariably leads to strikes, project delays, vandalism, theft and security breaches like the one we, unfortunately, saw at the Lahore railway station last week, are all elements that issue a stark warning that this great asset of the country is be being pushed to the brink of closure!
On the other side of the border, the Indian Railways is like a mirror that constantly puts our working to shame. According to the recently announced Indian budget, their railways is set to expand annually by nearly Indian Rs1.50 lakh crore (whatever this mega number computes to as my maths has become weak by not being exposed to such figures in Pakistan and by the way, approximately double it to arrive at an equivalent number in Pakistani Rupees). It will become an even more productive revenue earner for the Indian exchequer by, in addition, paying a newly levied service tax from the new fiscal year. However, the Indian Railways management wants more and is still not satisfied with the announced pace of the expansion plan. They feel that the potential to grow is much more and they have with them concrete proposals, which can see the growth of their railways at double than what the Indian government has presently ascertained. Ironically, the debate at our end is instead about survival and curtailment with organisational expansion/growth figuring nowhere in the frame?
Further, it is very important here to take note of the global developments in this domain. The resurgence of railways worldwide is due to the recognition that this is the most sustainable form of land-based mass transport both for passenger and freight segments. Even the US, the flag-bearer of car ownership with huge road infrastructure, is now faced with congested highways and is looking to the growth of railways, rather than road expansion. So also is the case with the European Union (EU) countries. China has already put itself in a leadership role in this sphere. The Institute of Transport Development, India, in its seminal, comparative assessment of the impact of rail and road transport on environment clearly establishes the environmental benefit of rail-based transport. The overwhelming advantage of rail over road in terms of energy consumption and substantially lower social costs on account of accidents and pollution clearly establish railways as the most socially sustainable form of future transport.
Notably, a new initiative named ‘Marco Polo’ has recently been launched by the EU to further promote railway travel by financially incentivising shift from road to rail and other modes with fewer emissions. The objectives of the programme, by their own account, can be summarised as enabling a shift from the road to more environmentally-friendly modes, leading to shifting 30 percent of road freight over 300km to other modes such as rail or waterborne transport by 2030, and more than 50 percent by 2050. Under the programme, financial incentives will be given through grants of various types of action, resulting in shifts of 500 tonne-kilometre multiples aggregating to 35 percent of project cost. The budget of these grants has been kept as nearly Euro one billion over five years. Do we even think on such lines?
Finally, what is important for the policymakers to remember is that the scope of the PR’s role in the country is much wider to be merely contained within the ambits of financial equations and emission control measurements. The PR is instrumental in keeping the nation gelled together by invoking the sentiments of nationalism and equality amongst nationals from different ethnicities. It serves as an anti-trust instrument that can be effectively used to maintain equilibrium in the national transport and travel sectors and above all, it promotes a kind of equality and comradeship within Pakistanis from all walks of life. Disunity’s curse as we know is not just limited to social depression and human deprivation, but also has much wider economic implications. The state’s neglect, corruption and poor PR executive managements over the years are responsible for the institution’s current woes. Inequitable distribution of resources, skewed policy choices and excessive borrowing to supposedly provide for the lagging operations, but in reality spent injudiciously are primarily responsible in bringing the PR to the brink of closure. What PR today needs is a Pakistani ‘Marco Polo’ programme, albeit one that is driven by our own needs and ground realities, and one that realistically accounts for the prevalent challenges and limitations!
n The writer is an entrepreneur and economic analyst.