Pakistan Railways: A failure called Saad Rafique

(By K K SHAHID) Pakistan Railways’ false PR

  • Overhaul built on losses

Between giving 10 percent off on train fares (notice the “10pc off” a la salesmen and not simply “reduction in fares” as was more suitable to government communication) and being handed a notice of appearance from the Supreme Court of Pakistan for running the railways headlong into Rs60 billion(!) worth of losses, Khwaja Saad Rafique lost his credibility (if it had made it this far for anyone, in the first place). And to think the journey took only five days.

Gone are the days when tales of Khwaja Saad Rafique’s innovative renovation of Pakistan Railways were on everybody’s lips, singing praises of the Sharif faithful’s competent performance as minister of railways. The days of him being hailed as the saviour of the railways – the man who “saved” the department by preventing its auction and, ultimately, privatisation. Or are they?

To give credit where it’s due, yes, railway travel has certainly improved substantially under Saad Rafique’s ministership. He did give his fellow countrymen Green Line – which is now perhaps the best preferred of all the lines in the country – and renovated the existing ones. He did add a few new locomotives to the country’s existing fleet (two manufactured by the Chinese company CRRC Ziyang, and two by the famous American manufacturers, General Electric), giving it a fresh new outlook, and he did introduce e-ticketing to reduce the illegal sale of tickets, and to facilitate passengers. However, in doing so, he did also incurred the department a loss of Rs60 billion. 6-0 billion.

To put things into context, the department was running a debt of Rs11.5 billion in 2013, at the tail end of the Pakistan People’s Party government. Back then the amount – a fifth of the current amount of losses – was enough to render the corporation a lost cause: a white elephant that even the government refused to bail out. Enough for it the situation to require urgent action or be doomed for life.

The evasion, however, did not last for long, as Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar took suo motu notice of the heavy losses incurred by the railways, last Saturday, the 7th of April, and summoned Khawaja Saad Rafique to the court on Thursday, the 12th

Now, five years later, at the tail end of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government, the amount has multiplied over five times. It is not quite a debt, but any loss is a debt to and for someone. And what makes the news worse is that it comes at the end of what was widely believed to be the most promising spell in the department’s recent history. A demoralising blow, indeed – is no information the sacred truth anymore? Can truly no one save PR?

If the railways is to be believed, the losses were incurred during the existing fiscal year, and not beyond. Rs20.6 billion were incurred between July 2017 and January 2018. The progressively increasing losses amounted to as much as Rs3.2 billion in January 2018. It was to lure the public back towards the railways and halt the losses that the 10 percent “discount” was offered across all lines at the start of this month. However, the figures now presented by the railways appear a little contradictory to Khwaja Saad Rafique’s claim in November 2017, that none of the five companies under the railways that carry coal and oil across the country were in loss: “Transport of coal and oil are main sources of revenue generation for Pakistan railways. The entity has five companies of which four were established in previous governments while one was established in his tenure and currently no company was making loss,” he said. While it is still possible that the railways might be incurring a loss as a whole even if the five revenue-earning companies were profitable, or breaking even, yet the statement is still an attempt to mask the ugly truth – hence should count as evasion.

The evasion, however, did not last for long, as Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar took suo motu notice of the heavy losses incurred by the railways, last Saturday, the 7th of April, and summoned Khawaja Saad Rafique to the court on Thursday, the 12th. Saad Rafique has come a long way in a short time: from being hailed the messiah of railways, who was believed to be talented enough to reinvigorate more than just the railways as recently as three months ago, to the ‘homemaker’ who has been borrowing huge amounts just to make the home look more polished.

Khaaja Saab, it doesn’t count as an overhaul if it is being built on massive losses. Perhaps you – and the railways – were better of letting the government auction the department off to someone who could run it without costing the government Rs60 billion.

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