EDITORIAL: Claims made by train drivers following recent accidents involving railway coaches, which is really nothing new, seems to have nonetheless opened a Pandora's Box of things that are really wrong with the department. According to Pakistan Railways' drivers association, the condition of the country's main line, which runs from Peshawar to Karachi through Lahore, has become so bad that it is no longer safe for train operations. But authorities, who understand the situation very well and know that the broken down condition of train tracks is responsible for an unprecedented spike in accidents, have done nothing to fix the problem so far. Instead, they have repeatedly brushed aside all the concerns shared by the staff and continue to run even the most dangerous routes despite the potentially fatal risk to passengers, drivers and vehicles. It turns out that the Multan-Sukkur and Sukkur-Karachi sections are "really pathetic", which explains why there were more than 100 accidents on this route last year, all the way from minor to fatal, notable among them the Tezgam fire tragedy that gutted at least 65 innocent people. The only action that authorities are considering is shutting down the Sir Syed Express as well as the once iconic Shalimar Express train, but that decision seems to be driven by financial considerations not any compelling data-backed analysis of the absurdly high number of incidents in just the last two years - since this government took over.
The ruling PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) is right to the extent that these problems have their roots in times of previous governments, and some of the things some of them did to this department in pursuit of political considerations are simply unforgivable, but that does not even begin to explain the paralysis that has gripped this particular administration. If they got control of the department when it had already been run into the ground, and some of the busiest parts of the main line were simply too dangerous to be used any longer, then why did they choose to go about business as usual even when the number of incidents kept increasing? And what, in the two years that they have been in power, have they done to put things right? It's not as if the present railways minister, close political ally and personal friend of the prime minister, is any stranger to the ministry. Going by some of his press conferences immediately after taking charge this time, one got the impression that a revolutionary cleansing of the entire department was on the cards. Alas, nothing of the sort happened. And the new government that blamed old governments for all the problems continued to do, pretty much, what others had done.
It seems the government was just buying time because the Multan-Karachi section was due for an overhaul under CPEC's (China Pakistan Economic Corridor's) ML-1 project in the near future. But that doesn't nearly justify risking so many lives, on a daily basis, especially since people pay good money to use the railways and have faith that the government would not under any circumstances put their lives at risk just so it can trim its expenses while it waits for the Chinese to upgrade our infrastructure. And it speaks volumes about the government's attitude that drivers are now considering holding protest demonstrations if their masters continue to send them on the death track. There is, therefore, an urgent need to investigate the railways department's most urgent problems, and no matter how far or near the ML-1 project is, the government must immediately make sure that the route where hundreds of accidents are taking place every year is safe for railway travel again as soon as possible. It has been making tall claims and blaming everybody else without doing anything on the ground for the longest time.
This is not just a political matter. It involves people's lives and the state's resources, which is why the government must first explain why it has done nothing about it so far, and then pay heed to all that the drivers are telling it so it can do whatever is necessary to make passengers feel safe again.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2020