LAHORE: The occurrence of a fatal accident involving the Hazara Express, resulting in the loss of 35 lives and injuries to 100 individuals, has prompted renewed inquiries into the state of train safety inside the nation, particularly in light of a series of like occurrences in recent times.
Numerous countries not only make substantial annual revenue through their highly built railway networks but also utilise them as a means to enhance tourism. On the contrary, the railway system in Pakistan is currently experiencing regression rather than advancement.
India’s neighbouring country has made notable progress and is on the brink of implementing high-speed rail systems known as bullet trains. Despite the challenges posed by ongoing conflict, Afghanistan has made significant strides in the development of its railway infrastructure.
The persistent issue inside the nation pertains to a significant number of individuals experiencing loss of life or enduring physical harm as a result of several railway accidents that have occurred throughout the years. On January 4, 1990, Pakistan experienced its most fatal railway incident, whereas the initial significant occurrence took place in close proximity to Jhampir in 1953, resulting in the unfortunate demise of 200 individuals.
On April 27 of the current year, a distressing incident occurred wherein a fire broke out in a compartment of the Karachi Express, a train en route from Karachi to Lahore. Tragically, this incident resulted in the loss of seven lives, one of which was a female individual. These occurrences highlight the urgent necessity for enhancements in train safety and infrastructure throughout the country.
Given the aforementioned instances, it is noteworthy that the Pakistani Railway authorities have placed significant importance on initiatives such as the ML-1 project and the Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan Railway initiative. These endeavours are aimed at revitalising the railway system and directing it towards a path of prosperity.
Pakistan Railways encounters a significant obstacle in the form of its expenditure on salaries and pensions, surpassing the whole revenue generated by the train system.
The remuneration received by retired individuals surpasses that of present-day employees, hence intensifying the existing financial difficulties. A considerable proportion of the railways’ revenue is devoted towards these expenditures and the procurement of diesel fuel. During the fiscal year 2022-23, an approximate amount of Rs47.36 billion was allocated for the expenditure related to these goods.
Pakistan Railways is confronted with a significant financial strain due to its workforce including more than 61,000 personnel. During the corresponding fiscal year, the aggregate sum of their salaries surpassed Rs35 billion, while the cumulative count of active pensioners surpassed 111,000, with pensions amounting to over Rs40.50 billion.
The necessity for prompt intervention to mitigate financial losses and enhance the safety and efficiency of the railway system is apparent. Despite attaining a notable revenue of Rs62 billion in the fiscal year 2022-23, the railway sector failed to meet its projected objective by Rs7.42 billion.
The railway sector has established a financial objective of Rs80 billion for the fiscal year 2023-24, aiming to surpass the previous year’s income by a margin of more than Rs10 billion.
Nevertheless, Public Relations (PR) encounters a significant obstacle in the form of increasing costs associated with salaries and pensions, surpassing the overall revenue earned.
The remuneration received by retired individuals surpasses that of present-day workers, hence intensifying the existing financial difficulties. A considerable proportion of the railways’ earnings is devoted towards these expenditures, including the procurement of diesel fuel.
During the fiscal year 2022-23, an approximate amount of Rs47.36 billion was expended on these commodities.
Pakistan Railways, with a workforce of 61,000 individuals, encounters a substantial fiscal encumbrance. During the same fiscal year, the aggregate sum of their wages surpassed Rs35 billion, whereas the count of actively receiving pensioners surpassed 111,000, with the overall pension disbursements amounting to over Rs40.50 billion.
Despite attaining a notable revenue of Rs62 billion in the fiscal year 2022-23, the railway sector failed to meet its projected objective by Rs7.42 billion. The railway sector has established a financial target of Rs80 billion for the forthcoming fiscal year 2023-24, with the objective of surpassing the previous year’s revenue by more than Rs10 billion.
The occurrence of fatalities resulting from train accidents is a matter of significant concern. From 2018 to March 2021, a significant number of railway accidents occurred, leading to the unfortunate loss of life for 230 individuals and causing severe injuries to 285 others.
These occurrences encompassed individuals who were either passengers, pedestrians, or employees of the railway. The annual accident report released by Pakistan Railways in January 2021 disclosed that a total of 137 vehicular accidents had place in the year 2020, leading to 56 fatalities and 58 injuries.
Moreover, a multitude of fire-related occurrences have been documented in various railway cars. The aforementioned incidents have resulted in severe ramifications, exemplified by the occurrence of the Jafar Express derailment in Sibi in 2022, which resulted in injuries to six individuals. Additionally, a significant disaster in Pannu Aqil resulted in the unfortunate loss of life for 307 individuals.
Previous data released by the Ministry of Railways have indicated that between May 2013 and March 2017, the nation experienced a total of 304 train accidents, which encompassed 20 particularly perilous occurrences.
Dilapidated track system
In a disconcerting disclosure, it has been reported that Pakistan’s railway track infrastructure has witnessed no substantial advancements since the inception of the nation.
The reliance of the nation on railway infrastructure, which was originally built by the British more than 150 years ago, underscores the pressing necessity for contemporary upgrades and upkeep.
A significant number of railway bridges in Pakistan have reached the end of their operational lifespan, with a majority of them exceeding a century in age. Nevertheless, there has been a noticeable dearth of governmental focus on the comprehensive renovation of these deteriorating infrastructures. In addition, a substantial number of individuals with a propensity for accidents
The Pakistan Railways officials have prioritised the ML-1 project as a means to revitalise the railways and promote its growth and development. According to Shahid Aziz, the Chief Executive Officer of Railways, significant advancements have been achieved following the visit of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif to China in November 2022, effectively resolving a four-year impasse.
The objective of the ML-1 project is to construct a dual-track railway system covering a distance of 1733 km, connecting Peshawar and Karachi. The envisioned train speeds on this line are expected to range from 140 to 160 kilometres per hour.
This ambitious undertaking will not only enhance the line capacity between the two cities to accommodate 100 trains in each direction, but it will also facilitate a reduction in the project’s cost from $10 billion to $6.6 billion through governmental initiatives.
In addition, there is an anticipation for the railways to significantly increase its market freight share from four per cent to twenty per cent. This expansion is projected to create employment possibilities for twenty thousand technical professionals and contribute to a substantial rise in Pakistan’s labour ratio, reaching ninety per cent.
The Federal Minister of Railways, Khawaja Saad Rafiq, underscored the importance of the ML-1 project in connection with the Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan railway plan, as it holds the ability to foster economic growth and bring about transformative changes throughout the whole region.
Protocols and road maps were formally ratified on July 18th, establishing connectivity between Pakistan and the regions of Central Asia, Russia, and the Baltic republics. The proposed comprehensive plan entails the establishment of a 191-kilometre railway track connecting Kharlachi, along with a further 674 km track connecting Kharlachi to Mazar Sharif. It is worth noting that there is currently an existing railway track in operation from Mazar-e-Sharif to Tirmaz.
The railway’s minister emphasised the grave situation confronting the railway industry, acknowledging substantial financial challenges compounded by the need to appropriate resources for pension payments.
Arshad Salam Khattak, the ex-CEO of Pakistan Railways, provided insights into the severe consequences of the devastating floods that occurred last year, resulting in irreversible harm to the railway infrastructure.
The submersion of around 400 kilometres of railway tracks led to significant damage of bridges and the isolation of some regions, namely Rohri, Sukkur, and Quetta. The railway incurred a financial loss of 500 billion rupees as a consequence.