It is easy recognize the importance of trains as a means of transport by looking at an European railways map. The European rail grid is interconnected and supersedes national boundaries. Even 'peripheral' European countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey feed into the transnational rail grid.
One assumes a geographically large and populous nation like Pakistan is ideal for the railways, especially as the country inherited a decent rail infrastructure at independence in 1947. Despite having the 27th largest railways network in the world, Pakistan Railways (PR) is a hopelessly underutilized institution. Still worse, PR is one more casualty in the list of mismanaged state institutions, particularly since the assumption of power by Zardari's Peoples Party government.
Pakistan Railways saw significant investment in new rolling stock and locomotives under Musharraf's regime. However, under the present government PR's financial and operational health has deteriorated to alarming proportions. Many trains have been cancelled; fuel is in short supply; functioning locomotives are scarce and staff demoralized.
Yet, there is a silver lining in these dark clouds.
The dire straits of PR has forced the authorities to involve the private sector in keeping the system alive. Presently, the Shalimar Express runs from Karachi to Lahore in the form of a public-private partnership. The train calls at various cities and towns en route. Additionally, the Business Express is a 'pure' private sector train also connecting Lahore and Karachi. Plans for another private sector train, the Jinnah Express, linking Karachi with Islamabad are being discussed.
I travelled the Shalimar Express from Karachi to Multan and the Business Express from Lahore to Karachi. Both experiences were a significant improvement over my journey on the Tezgam Express from Karachi to Multan in November 2011. Both trains also offered better service than the Karakoram Express on which I travelled from Lahore to Karachi in November 2011. In an environment where PR trains routinely arrive hours late, the Business Express kept to its schedule even reaching Karachi approximately fifteen minutes early.
To be sure, two train services cannot revive a flagging rail network. Nonetheless, the Shalimar and Business Express trains cast light on a brighter future for PR, i.e. a railway track network maintained by a central organization with many private sector companies operating trains 'leased' from PR. Just as there are several private airlines flying Pakistani skies, e.g. Shaheen Airlines, Air Blue, Pakistan International, etc., there may be many train companies offering competing passenger and goods services across the country. In due course, a complete privatization of PR may be the next step in revitalizing Pakistan's rail infrastructure.
Some say, "It is darkest before the dawn." I hope this is the case for PR. Not just because I enjoy train travel but also because a dynamic rail system acts as an enabler for economic growth. Pakistan Railways is an institution which should be a source of national pride for the country. I wish Pakistan Railways can reclaim its lost glory in the coming years.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at email@example.com.