Railways in Pakistan

Umar Farooq
3 min readFeb 29, 2020

Last evening, 28th Feb 2020, another accident took place where train hit a bus crossing the lines where there was no gate or barrier.

Recent history of Pakistan Railways (PR), state owned enterprise responsible for rail infrastructure and operations, is filled with such and similar incidents. Apart from the continuous decline in its market share of hauling good and passenger traffic, as an organization PR is rapidly losing its viability.

Train crossing Bin Qasim station in the southern province of Sindh, 2018.

Railways, deemed as one of the safest means to travel in the world is one of the least in Pakistan. There is an elaborate system of procedures and technology to ensure this safety. In PR the erosion of meritocracy, neglect of governments, decline of work ethic, corruption and incompetence has left procedures to be only superficially effective. Certain procedures are based on strict fundamentals of managing railways traffic and only because of these there aren’t more of the accidents taking place. This though is the last line of sanity beyond which it would be criminal to operate railways as it would be tantamount to deliberately risking lives.

Technology, specifically rail, globally requires electricity to be taken for granted. Without electricity it isn’t possible to run fast, efficient and safe railways in the modern era. In Pakistan, wheel is turning in reverse. Till 90s PR was operating a fully electric track between Lahore-Khanewal and electric locomotives were running trains between the two cities. Electricity shortages forced the government to ignore PR and one after the other, locomotives, electricity wires and then even the poles simply vanished. Stolen, sold, essentially scavenged as if we’re enjoying the spoils of a war without realizing that essentially we’re burning our own tax paid infrastructure.

A monkey can be trained to do basic tasks using positive reinforcement techniques by offering a banana every time it does something that you want it to do. Gradually, monkey begins to associate the goodness of banana with the task that it is performing. It doesn’t know that there is no causality between it’s action and reward but that artificial causality created by a human is enough for the training to succeed.

Merit and competence have a similar relationship. Rewarding incompetence via seniority-rule promotions, non-performer getting paid equally to a high-performer at same grade, no penalty for negligence, visual piety above integrity, non-decisiveness over innovation, and a lack of challenge to the lies has eventually trained the workforce to see the reward in being incompetent.

Work ethic is a broader problem in Pakistan, while some institutions still score above average on this, PR is certainly below when compared within the country. An officer or a staff member who doesn’t value punctuality in his personal life will certainly not be able to ensure whether his organization delivers on time for its customers. Keeping promises begins with oneself and then transcends into groups and societies, PR doesn’t believe in this philosophy anymore. When someone’s salary is not linked to the clean, timely and safe arrival of a train at its destination, there is very little that can be done to convince that individual why his working hours should be spent towards the fulfillment of such indicators.

Is there hope?

Efficient organizations do not have a variable of hope in their equations. It isn’t a natural event. Civilization has crafted methods, indicators, training and systems for entities to function well. At the moment, PR is not employing any such known technique to improve its condition which means it isn’t recovering anytime soon.

Do the PR passengers deserve their lives to be put on risk every time they board a train ? No. We’ve proven our worthlessness, it is time to stop putting people in harms way and convert PR into a grand museum where perhaps tourists can get guides to tell them how a nuclear armed nation can’t run trains.