Pakistan Railways: Historical Evolution

After first successful commercial launching of regular train service from Liverpool to Manchester in 1830, railways networks were rapidly built in all the British colonies including India.  On April 16, 1853, the first train in the Subcontinent ran between Bombay and Thane. Drawn by three appropriately named locomotives (i.e. Sultan, Sindh and Sahib) this 14-carriage-long train took nearly 45 minutes to cover a distance of 21 miles.
In present day Pakistan, the first train operations started on May 13, 1861 when a private company Scinde Railway operated the first railway line for public traffic between Karachi City and Kotri, a distance of 108 miles (174 km).It was followed by the construction of 336-kilometer long Lahore-Multan railway line which was opened for traffic on 24 April 1865.In order to cater for the needs of coal for the steam engines, millions of acres were reserved along these railway lines at appropriate distances for afforestation. In the last quarter of the 19th century, rail networks in present day Pakistan was vastly extended for four reasons

  1. Great Indian Famine of 1878 in which nearly 10 million people, out of total population of the Subcontinent of 160 million, lost their lives, forced the British to improve the transportation network for speedy supply of food grains in times of emergency.
  2. After the civil war in the USA resulted in decline of cotton plantations in the south, British entrepreneurs started experimenting with the cultivation of American variety of cotton in their colonies. Among other regions of India, Sindh and Punjab responded very well to these experiments and there started a massive program of canal construction, colonisation and cultivation of cotton in hitherto barren areas. It necessitated the laying of railway lines to these areas to ease the relocation of people from other parts of the Subcontinent to these interiors. These were also needed to transport the raw cotton thus produced to sea port of Karachi for its onward transportation to UK. Needless to say, rail played a very crucial role in extracting resources for the British imperialism
  3. Colonial rulers strongly felt the need of a railways network in today’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan to transport their soldiers and military equipment in case of war or to quell rebellions and ward off internal strife. This was reinforced by the successful strategic move of the Russians in 1860s to connect their railroad system with Central Asia and started planning to extend it to Afghanistan, the Northern access to British Indian Empire. During the second Afghan War (1878–80) between Britain and Afghanistan, a new urgency was needed to construct a Railway line up to Quetta in order to get easier access to the frontier.
  4. Industrial Revolution in UK resulted in mass production of manufactured goods which needed markets for their disposal. India provided a ready and convenient market for these goods which needed better means of transportation for their rapid transportation to every nook and corner of India

In order to meet the massive costs of laying a rail network in desert and remote areas, the companies operating in other parts of India were ordered to dedicate a part of their profits for the proposed railway line, named as the “Strategic Railway Line”. Starting from 184-mile long Rawalpindi-Jhelum section which was completed in 1883, it was extended to Jamrood in 1901 and later on to Landi Kotal, the last outpost of British Indian empire was also linked to it. Similarly in Baluchistan, more than 1550 miles of railway lines were laid which passing through most inhospitable terrain connected the frontier regions of British India with the rest of the country. There were immense hardships in laying the railway lines in these remote regions. Thousands of workers and hundreds of camels were employed to construct these railway lines. Falling prey to the vagaries of weather, most of them died of cholera and malaria while hundreds were brutally killed by the tribesmen.
Initially received with awe, admiration and suspicion, train journey became the safest as well as the most comfortable and in some regions, the only means of decent transport throughout the Subcontinent. Different regions and communities were opened to the modern civilization by this new system of transportation which impacted every aspect of these communities; even their literary traditions and contemporary literature started containing references to rail journeys. The Railway network as laid out in the lengths and breaths of the British India  played a significant role in accelerating economic growth and development, rapid urbanisation, forging national unity, and most importantly it lifted massive areas of these regions out of poverty and helped towards achieving the goal of equitable distribution of the fruits of growth.
By 1885, there were four railway companies operating in what would become Pakistan; Scinde (Sindh) Railways,Indus Flotilla Company,Punjab Railway and Delhi Railways. These were amalgamated into the Scinde, Punjab & Delhi Railways Company and purchased by the Secretary of State in 1885 and named North Western State Railway in January 1886. Later on it was renamed as North Western Railway (NWR) which was inherited by West Pakistan (present day Pakistan) in 1947 when it gained independence.
Journey Since Independence
Since 1947 Pakistan Railways have come a long way in several dimensions.
Firstly, from predominantly strategic railways as mentioned above, it became overwhelmingly a commercial organisation, more by default and less by design. Sheer deficit of transport infrastructure in the country gave it ample opportunities to fill the gap and it transported millions of people from place to place and transported goods. However with the passage of time, road network improved and a vibrant private transport sector started providing better alternatives for travel in even remote areas of the country. Railways thus gradually lost its clientele, goods as well as passengers, to the buses, wagons and trucks. Later on, National Logistic Cell, a semi-government sector organisation took away the bulk of the remaining goods transport from the railways because of the greater state patronage to NLC resulting in uneven playing fields and rules of the game.
Secondly, as a result of above development, there occurred another transformation in railways operational strategy. It used to enjoy almost monopoly in long haul as well as short haul; that has been eroding a lot. Even in remote areas, now buses ply, giving tough competition to once most preferred means of travel in those areas. Thus from a means of transport which catered to the needs of all regions connected with railways,  it slowly and gradually became a long haul means of transportation for which it is perfectly suited. Because of the geographical contours of the country with a length of more than 2000 km from one corner to another, Pakistan railways is an excellent, efficient and cost effective means of transporting goods and services from Karachi to Peshawar. The Kot Addu-Kashmore line was constructed between 1969 and 1973 providing an alternative route from Karachi to northern Pakistan.
Thirdly, its composition of clientèle has also changed dramatically during the last 30 years. From a means of transport for all sections of society (even middle class ashrafia had a separate passenger coaches known as 1-1/2 class), it is now overwhelmingly a poor man’s transport, which has created its own issues. It cannot rationalise its tariff policy to cope with the increasing costs of its operations. Secondly, rich people do not travel by train thus it has lost its voice in the corridors of powers
Fourthly, in accordance with the changing times, Pakistan railways have become from purely state managed entity to one where private sector has been inducted to carry out its certain operations. This induction of private sector has paved the way for more privatisation of its nor-core functions. Even in its core functions i.e. running of trains, Pakistan Railways has introduced private sector while plans to operate freight trains run by private sector are in the offing. It is interesting to note that railways started its journey in India as a private initiative but was nationalised in 1885 by the Secretary of State for India on account of strategic imperatives. Thus after 150 years, it is again moving towards private sector.
On technical side it has transformed from multi-gauge tracks to broad gauge rail with few exceptions. Similarly, it has phased out stream engines which are now museum pieces. These have been replaced by diesel locomotives. For nearly four decades, Pakistan Railways operated a fleet of electric locomotives on its Lahore to Khanewal section but these have been discarded because of the dualization of railway lines which necessitated the dismantling of overhead electric lines in this section. Lastly, too much reliance on American and western technology has been reduced and now Chinese technology is gradually taking over the Pakistan railway in all its fields of operations.

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