Pakistan government has announced on the eve of visit of US Vice President, Joe Biden, that it will not allow any Great Game in the region. In order to demonstrate its commitment to this stand, the government has announced to close, bit by bit, the last relic of the Great Game, namely Pakistan Railways. History tells us that the Railways was an effective means of playing the Great Game on this side of the Durand Line. The need to connect India to Afghanistan through railways for transporting the troops was felt when Russia extended it rail network to the Khanates of Central Asia. Since 1861 when the first railway line was laid down between Karachi and Kotri, the expansion of the railway network by the British came at a rapid pace up until 1947. The driving factors for this growth were strategic and economic in nature. For instance to thwart the Russians from the West, the British built the Khojak tunnel, the fourth largest at that time, in seemingly inaccessible areas of Balochistan to reach Chaman railway station. But after 1947, little has been done to expand and maintain this network.

According to Pakistan Railways, the network forms the life line of the country by catering to its needs for large-scale movement of freight as well as passenger traffic. It not only contributes to its economic growth but also promotes national integration. Pakistan Railways endeavors to run the trains strictly in accordance to time-table and maintain high standard of punctuality. The progressive freight train sport organization operated by professional management and competent staff committed to provide reliable, competitive and economical service of recognized standards to its customers.

This life line, like others, is being effectively squeezed. This public state enterprise which is also the largest civil employer in the country is facing the worst crisis of survival. Over the years, lack of attention, poor policies, increasing expenditures, misappropriation of funds, pilferage, nepotism and most recently, the floods have left the Railways with huge deficits running in billions of rupees. Pakistan Railways had already shut down 39 freight trains because of fuel shortage. Karakoram passenger train on Thursday, which left Lahore for Karachi was delayed by an hour at the Faisalabad railway station because it was not refilled at the Lahore station. Sources from PR said that due to the financial crunch, an estimated budget of Rs613 billion is unlikely to be met as after six months of the present fiscal year, it has just received Rs21 billion.

The major losses faced by the Pakistan Railways today are a direct result of decreasing revenues with increased expenditures. The expenditure recently crossed Rs.51 billion in one year out of which Rs.20 billion were allocated for salaries and pensions. The revenues are dwindling to about Rs.23 billion per year. Revenue share for freight trains has declined from 40 per cent to 25 per cent as a direct result of neglecting this cheap mode of transportation.

While on the other side of the border, Indian railways expanded due to transportation of goods across the country, here in Pakistan another institution called National Logistic Cell (NLC) was setup for the transportation of goods– an institution that directly competed with Pakistan Railways. As NLC’s role grew in the Afghan war and in the later years, Pakistan Railways was sidelined further as it became irrelevant with each passing day.

The rising oil prices and scarcity of locomotives forced the Railways to focus on passenger traffic more than the transportation of goods. The fares were kept low as the government kept subsidizing the department. Pakistan Railways recently absorbed Rs.14 billion of taxpayers’ money in the form of direct subsidies. Out of 522 total engines only 220 are in working order, out of which 100 are in poor condition. According to DAWN, nature has not been too kind to Pakistan Railways either. According to the National Disaster Management Authority, the recent floods have caused a loss of Rs.6.7 billion to the railway network as several hundred kilometers of lines were washed away. The railway coaches were also the targets of angry mobs and arson attacks after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination resulting in huge losses.

The newspaper quotes a recent report of Auditor-General Pakistan which revealed that Pakistan Railways has also been maltreated by other institutions as it has often failed to recover its outstanding dues. “Overall receivables of Pakistan Railways shot up to Rs 1.438 billion until June 30, 2009, while one of the major receivables — amounting to Rs.254 million — is related to Defense Department — which is yet to be recovered from certain department,” claimed AGP. Similarly the recent scandal of Royal Palm Golf and Country Club only highlighted a wider practice of illegal encroachment of land of railways over the years.

With a rapid increase in the losses incurred and suspension of many trains over the last few years, the graph of Pakistan Railways is only going down and its future looks uncertain.

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