The number of the state owned enterprises (SOEs) currently stands well over one hundred including the big money guzzlers like PIA, Pakistan Steel Mills, PSO and Railway. The reality is that very few of them are profitable entities and it is estimated that the government is spending Rs.400-500 billion annually to keep them afloat, which almost comes to 25% of the revenue collected during the year. For a resource constrained country like Pakistan requiring resources for other pressing needs it is not economically feasible to keep them in the public sector. That provides the rationale for the privatization of those enterprises. Though a number of the SOEs have already been privatized but there is a political resistance in the country over privatizing big entities like PIA and PSM. There is also some kind of national consensus on not privatizing Railway which people feel was a national asset of utmost importance and a dependable avenue of service to the masses in regards to their mobility and transfer of goods.

There has been a lot of discussion on the issue of revival of the loss bearing entities but not much has been accomplished towards that end and the government continues to bear the burden of keeping them going. However Railway seems to have turned the tables and embarked on a path of sustained reduction in the annual losses and ultimately turning into a profitable public enterprise, which the current Railways minister Saad Rafiq believes was achievable target within the next 15 years provided the direction set by him and his current team was faithfully followed by the coming governments.

One can hardly contest his claims in view of the discernible changes that have occurred in Railway during the last four years which are verifiable realities. Perhaps it would be pertinent to take stock of the situation in which the PML (N) government and the Railways minister inherited it. It is an irrefutable reality that due to lack of attention and incompetence of the previous governments Railway was in complete shambles. During 2012-13 it incurred a loss of Rs.35 billion. The major source of income that was earned through freight trains had almost dried up and during 2013-14 the number of good trains steaming out of Karachi was 182 per annum, which meant one train after every second day. Consequently the earning from freight trains constituted only 11% of the earned revenue in 2013 which by no means was a healthy trend. The Railways was generating an annual income in the vicinity of Rs.18 billion in 2012-13. A number of routes had to be abandoned due to the non-availability of operating locomotives. The punctuality of trains was merely 37% which probably was also one of the major reasons in forcing the passengers to go for alternate modes of transportation and travelling.

The Railway minister briefing the media in Islamabad deposed that his major focus was on the revival of the freight trains which he thought was absolutely imperative to enhance income of the institution. As a result of the efforts in this regard the number of good trains has increased from 182 in 2013 to 3318 trains annually raising the number of trains running on daily basis to 12. Railway enhanced the number of locomotives in the freight pool from 8 to 95 and has purchased 55 more locomotives from General Electric for the goods trains. Consequently the share of the freight revenue to the total income of Railway has increased from 11% in 2013 to 31% during 2017. This was made possible through bold and innovative strategies. Railways signed long term agreements with Maple Leaf, Best Way Cement, Gharib Wal Cement, Awan Trading Company and Chishtian Logistics which according to the agreements made advance freight payments to Railways not only considerably enhancing its income but also giving it considerable time for proper planning. Pakistan Railways Freight Transportation Company has also signed an agreement with the Chinese company Shandong Ruyi for transportation of coals for the coal power plant at Sahiwal. Reportedly Railway has also entered into an agreement with PSO for the transportation of oil.

Due to the addition of newly purchased loco motives and rehabilitation of the old engines Railways has not only been able to re-open some of the abandoned routes but is also contemplating to open new routes to link parts of the country which are not connected through Railways. Addition of new coaches and rehabilitation of the old and dilapidated ones has also helped in increasing the number of running trains. Railway is also running some trains in partnership with the private sector which has helped it in reducing expenditure and earning extra revenue. According to the data compiled by the Railway authorities the number of passengers travelling by rail has also witnessed an exponential increase. Currently it stands at 52.2 million as compared to 20 million four years ago. The net result of all the foregoing efforts is that the annual revenue of Railways has increased from Rs.18 billion in 2013 to Rs.40.1 billion. The actual losses have been reduced to Rs.27 billion as compared to Rs.35 billion in 2012-13. This could have been even lesser than that had the department not to incur an additional expenditure of Rs.11 billion on paying for the raised salaries of the employees during 2016-17.

The punctuality of trains has also gone up from 37% to 77%. Railways is also executing a plan to upgrade railway stations and the rolling stock that would help it to enhance the current track speed of 120 Km to 160 Km. In addition to this the Railways has already introduced a system of e-ticketing for the passengers and signalling system is being computerised. Railways has embarked on an initiative to reclaim its lands occupied by the land mafia and reportedly during the last four years 1055 acres of land valuing Rs.10 billion have been retrieved. While focusing on finding ways and means for increasing its revenue the management has made sure to initiate a number of measures for the welfare of its own employees, particularly the pensioner for whom a system of payment through banks has been introduced.

With Railway becoming part of CPEC projects the prospects of improvement and expansion in its network and consequent increase in income are almost assured ultimately making it a profitable public enterprise capable of providing excellent travelling facilities to the public as well handling the increased freight traffic. The plans for connectivity with railway systems of the neighbouring countries also offer prospective opportunities for financial health of the institution.

As is evident from the foregoing, Railways during the last four years has witnessed an unprecedented improvement under the stewardship of Saad Rafiq proving the fact that nothing is impossible provided one has the will and sincerity of purpose to accomplish it. Railway minister and his team deserve appreciation for the turn-around that has been orchestrated during the last four years.

 

n            The writer is a freelance columnist.