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Sir Syed Express or 'Broken Promises Express'

BY SAVAIRA KAWISH

ON BOARD THE SIR SYED EXPRESS-- It would not be out of place to rename it the ``Broken Promises Express''. Projected and publicized as a train which would provide passengers with better travelling facilities, the Sir Syed Express between Rawlpindi and Karachi offers neither comforts nor the promised amenities.

Passengers travelling from Lahore to Karachi on July 29, 2007 realized that the tall claims and oft repeated statements of Federal Minister for Railways Sh Rashid Ahmed’s that “all efforts to raise the status of Pakistan Railway matching with international standards are in-hand” were just hollow statements and lip service to boost his image and popularity as “son of Pakistan.”

On the occasion of the launch of the Sir Syed Express to run between Rawalpindi and Karachi on March 8, 2007 he said “Railway ministry is determined to provide latest and modern facilities to passengers so that they prefer to travel on trains.” Ironically, a Medina based Pakistani family said that they would never AGAIN travel by train and would certainly not recommend this even to their worst enemy!!!

The woes of the passengers all started at Lahore Station, which was built during the British Colonial era. Characteristically the train was late in arriving at Lahore from Rawalpindi by almost two hours. Sweating under the sweltering summer heat, even in the evening, the hassled passengers ridiculed Sheikh Sahib – famous at the station.

There is no proper sitting arrangement for the passengers. The seats placed are not in proportion to the number of travelers and the huge number of relatives and friends who have either come to see them off or receive them. As such, disgruntled passengers could be seen leaning against pillars, sitting on the platforms hindering free movement of others including goods being ferried away by porters, and yet others could be seen sitting on their stockpile of luggage.

No reason for the delay was given to the passengers at the over-crowded station. Of course such information is not for the passengers and they certainly have no right to ask either. Access to information is still a distant dream here. Trains are habitually late in Pakistan. But it is a good idea to be on time at the station otherwise you might be in for a shock if the train by some miracle happens to be on time that day! A rare possibility but no need to take a chance. Anything can happen here at anytime.

Sir Syed Express did eventually arrive, two hours late. And then there was further delay as extra coaches had to be attached to the train to accommodate all the passengers. To the chagrin of the passengers, when they boarded bogie No. Ext 3, they found out that it was not the new Chinese bogie but an old bogie! At Lahore station the railways staff attached bogies of Jinnah, Sind Express and Tezgam. Bogy No. Ext 3 was that of Tezgam – an old train.

Mrs Ghazala Zahoor, Principal of a prestigious school in Karachi, was righteously outrageous. “We were given this bogie by fraud as we had paid the fare for the Chinese special A/C bogie. The railway officials have stooped so low as to fleece the passengers. This bogie is of third class condition!”

Before stepping into the train, they just did not expect the worst quality conditions and were greatly disappointed. Almost everybody taking the train shared identical opinions about the wretched condition of the train. Contrary to Sheikh Rashid Ahmad’s assertions that the Express would contain facilities including dining car, coffee shop, mobile library, luxury compartments, prayer facility and separate compartments for women, there were no such facilities available on the Sir Syed Express, which was run by the authorities from Rawalpindi to Karachi on July 29.

Sheikh Sahib, passengers can certainly do without having such luxurious facilities as coffee shop and mobile library on the train, but they cannot do without basic facilities like running water, proper sanitation, electricity and functional air conditioning. No one wants to read a book on the train after waiting for hours for the train; they would rather rest and sleep.

Rest and sleep were something which the passengers could not do as the coach was bouncy, thanks to worn out suspensions, the locks were broken and the doors were prevented from opening by placing bricks; the air conditioning was non-functional, air condition grill in some cabins was broken, dust bins were over-flowing and emanating a repugnant smell, wooden panes were defective, and the seats/berths had lumps.

A veiled lady said, “I suffer from motion sickness and this coach is so bouncy. It is so difficult to be sick while in a niqab (veil) and I can’t even remove the niqab as the door has no lock.” She could not even use the toilet as there was no running water in the toilets throughout the whole journey. At Multan station, attempt was made to fill the water tank but due to a broken pipe, the venture was abandoned.

Again, passengers complained about stinking toilets. To compensate for the absence of water, the railway staff did not even bother to provide the passengers with tissue paper and toilet paper. Passengers had no choice but to take their bottle of mineral water to the toilet. They also rued the lack of sanitation in the coach. At Lahore, the coach was standing on the track for over seven hours but no effort was made by the management to ensure its cleanliness.

The lack of proper sanitation facilities and non-functional air conditioning system triggered an asthma attack in a child in the middle of the night. Since there was no electricity the frantic parents had to grope about in the dark in their luggage looking for the inhaler. With the presence of mind the father grabbed his child and rushed towards the main door so that the child could get some fresh air.

Did all this and the plight of the passengers move the railway staff? Certainly not. Farrukh Siddiqui said, “We did go to the Station Master and complained, but no action was taken. Even on board we complained to the staff but they misbehaved with us. Guard In-charge refused to visit the coach despite the fact that we sent several messages through a policeman.”

Interestingly the conductor removed his name plate before coming to the coach but left immediately without checking the tickets of the passengers. The passengers said that throughout the journey they did not see him anywhere.

Talking about the unruly, uncooperative behavior of the staff, another passenger, Abdul Basit, said, “Incidentally, two employees from the Electrical section were travelling in the compartment, only Richard Paul was cooperative with us while his companion Anjum was extremely rude. He even said that we should not bother them with our petty complaints but should go and complain to Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmad as all this is his fault.”

Even Sheikh Rashid Ahmad did not bother to listen to the passengers. Attempts were made to contact him on his cell phone twice but he cut off the call both times rudely saying “I am busy”, and “I am travelling, call another time.” An SMS was also sent to him to seek his comments but reply, like his trains, is late in arriving. In fact it never arrived.

All the passengers had a litany of complaints and were very vocal in expressing them. Sohail A. Qureshi was quite indignant at the insouciance attitude of the railway staff and that of Federal Minister for Railways Sh Rashid Ahmed for turning a deaf ear and blind eye to their problems. “This is quite unbelievable! Nobody is responding to our complaints and no one is ready to accept their responsibilities.”

Mr. Qureshi further said, “I could easily travel in comfort by air but preferred to travel with my Saudi family on this train under the impression from the media that the railway conditions have been improved and updated as par foreign countries as announced by the Railway Minister.”

The incensed man, who was visiting Pakistan after 19 years, demanded that an inquiry be held in this botch up as soon as possible. He also threatened to file a complaint against Pakistan Railways with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Saudi Consulate in Karachi.

Sir Syed Express purported to run as a non stop train with only short stop over at Lahore, Multan, Rohri and Hyderabad, however, stopped at almost every small, unknown station on the route. Somewhere before Hyderabad Junction the train stopped for over an hour. No information was passed to the passengers who allowed their imaginations to run wild. “The track has been blown up”, “an accident must have taken place”, “terrorists somehow managed to board the train” and so the theories went. It later transpired that a faulty engine was on the same track as the Sir Syed and it took considerable time to get that engine on to another track.

It is not even six months yet since the Sir Syed Express has been on track but already its service has fallen to below standards. There is no accountability of the Railways to know where funds to the tune of Rs 3.5 billions given by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz on the launch of Sir Syed Express have gone.

Federal Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmad has often reiterated that the “Railway made profit of Rs 2 billion”. Where this huge profit is being spent is anybody’s guess. One thing is for sure: it is not being spent to provide ease and comfort to the passengers.

A survey of all the railway stations, condition of the trains and the perpetual delay in arrival and departure belies Sh Rashid Ahmed’s claims that Pakistan Railways would be made “a source of expedient service for the passengers”. No one would like to travel by train. It is only their financial problems that compel them to opt for travelling by Pakistani trains. If given the opportunity they would rather use other means of travelling.

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