EDITORIAL: A few days ago, yet another passenger train derailed in the Sukkur region, killing at least one and injuring several others. Also, once again, rescue efforts dragged on into the dark of the night and hence a number of victims had to spend the first night after the accident inside the wreckage. Relevant ministers handing in the resignation letter after such incidents isn't the norm in Pakistan, despite the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf's (PTI's) desperate desire to make it so as long as it was in opposition, but the usual drill is well under way.
Yet while another inquiry is ordered and carried out only to never see the light of day, it is worth investigating just why the number of train accidents has increased quite sharply since the PTI government came to power. It's not that the present administration is doing something to cause them, of course, but it could be that it is not doing what might have become necessary to preserve the integrity of the train track between Karachi and Lahore. That has after all proved to be the most dangerous route, especially the region in Sindh just around the Sukkur district, where most incidents seem to take place.
Such facts simply fly in the face of official claims that the Pakistan Railways (PR) is being turned around. The reality, sadly, is that after having haemorrhaged a good Rs1.2 trillion over the last half-century, railways has become a problem that the government has no idea how to solve. Shuffling ministers has clearly done nothing to stop the leakages or check the incidence of accidents. That makes it understandable why the government's best bet is the $6.8 billion, CPEC-pushed makeover of the Main Line-1 (ML-1), which runs from Peshawar to Karachi and will therefore upgrade the track from Lahore onwards as well. Hopefully, that will at least lead to a reduction in the number of accidents and people will use trains more than before, doing the financial health of the company a big favour in the process as well.
But that will still not do much about the real rot in railways. The biggest problem lies in the way this entity is run, which has been caused by stuffing it with incompetent and corrupt political appointees since at least the so-called decade of democracy of the 1990s. The present government is gambling with handing parts of operations over to private contractors to improve efficiency and produce profits. We are keeping our fingers crossed. Hopefully, the government hasn't itself lost track of the initiative because it could be the game-changer it needs not just in railways but in other similarly sick State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) as well. For even smart ideas like ML-1 will only go so far if the corrosion within the department is not addressed.
Last week's unfortunate incident was, going once again by the department's record, still a minor one because only one life was lost. Besides, it was just one more accident where only eight coaches were derailed. Yet it is precisely such incidents that make railways such a train wreck for the government. Now Imran Khan is once again being reminded of the many times he said over the last 20 years that heads should roll in the federal cabinet after just such accidents; and that they reflect a breakdown that goes all the way to the very top. And, when all is said and done, this issue will subside from the news cycle till the next such incident. The question, then, is when will it be one accident too many for things to go on like this?
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021