Friday, November 12, 2010

The Mismanagement of Pakistan Railway

Whenever Mr Bilour takes over the Railways, rather I should say “every time” Mr Bilour takes over the Pakistan Railway, it suddenly goes bankrupt, as if it wasn’t functioning at all previously. A few days ago, the honourable minister lamented, “We even do not fund to purchase bulbs for the trains.” This was followed by a news item that most of the engines were standing idle for want of spares, quoting the railway minister. It is amazing that while all trains run jam packed, the railway still run in losses. I would like to ask the minister what actions has he initiated for putting the railway back on track - ordering engines from a failed firm from China or something else? It hurts to see once very efficient organization become useless, inefficient, unyielding and dying.

I was once part of a study group on human resource development and management and we went to the Railway Headquarters in Lahore to get educated as to how they, the biggest non-army human resource intensive organization in Pakistan, were handling their HR effectively. And I and the remaining group were appalled to know that Pakistan Railway did not have a dedicated HR department. Now that is something very awesome and strange as such strategic organizations do not run on personal whims or past experiences. Like the airlines all over the world which have a pilot-crew-ground maintenance staff in a given ratio to each aircraft, the same ratio should also apply to the railway as well. Each train should have a ratio of drivers-guards-maintenance staff. Do we know this ratio or does the minister?

Recently, Pakistan Railway decided to cancel/suspend over 200 hundred trains for want of spares and shortage of funds. But what about the staff and manpower allocated for the suspended trains? Have those people been laid off or still getting salaries for doing nothing? A prudent minister should have ordered laying off the surplus/idle staff rather than lamenting the engines standing idle for want of spares. Even the services of these people were not utilized or offered to the Army and other agencies that were battling the recent flash floods and evacuating people. At least this idle work force should have been put to work rather than sitting idle.

The only time I remember that Pakistan Railway ever undertook a worthwhile modernization; it was during the “dictator” Ayub Khan’s time when the Lahore-Khanewal section was electrified to run electric trains. No government after the “dictator” could extend it to Karachi to save time and have faster trains service.

Even at this time, while most of the railways of the world are fuel, manpower and equipment efficient, our railways lacks any modern look. It works on the same vintage signal system, it is intensively manpower heavy which is a drag on the resources of the organization. Perhaps even the Railway itself would not know how many employees has it on its rolls or whether they are actually required or not.

Our railway does not computerized its ticketing system and no facility exists in this modern world within this giant organization to extend the facility of online ticketing to its passengers. Nor does it provide concessional packages for family travel or have a formula to apply on the fare during peak rush hours. Its platforms are the filthiest, infested with substandard cafes selling unhygienic foodstuff to passengers travelling in the trains. The trains are equally dirty despite the battalions of labourers and train staff to clean these and keep these so even during the travelling duration. One can still find cold drink sellers shabbily dressed carrying pales “balti” with ice and cold drinks and selling these onboard. It seems as if these trains are run by illiterates or by those who do not seem to have seen railways functioning around the world and how passengers enjoy a clean and hassle free journey abroad. We do not ask for bullet-trains in Pakistan, but at least these should be worth travelling.

I think time has come that affairs of failing and unproductive strategic assets like the Pakistan Railway, Pakistan Steel and PIA be handled professionally and instead of swarming these with unskilled workforce from political parties, a proper operation research be carried out to ascertain the actual requirement of the staff/workers/labourers and even management to operate these organizations effectively rather than pouring in money and still not yielding the desired effects, and make these parasites on national exchequer and tax payers money.

PS: This post was first published on Management Matters on 2nd Novemeber 2010

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