KARACHI/MIRPURKHAS/SIALKOT: As many as 1,500 passengers were stranded on Saturday as Mehran Express, which leaves Mirpurkhas for Karachi daily at 5.15 am, was shut down unannounced by the Pakistan Railways.
More trains, including the Shalimar Express, will also be suspended.
One of those stranded in Mirpurkhas is Naeem Mughal who has to be in Karachi on Monday for a job interview, but had no idea that the train had been suspended.
Mehran Express is the preferred method of commuting for most of those who work in Karachi but are often in Mirpurkhas and surrounding districts, such as Tharparkar, Umarkot and Sanghar, because their families are there. It is also used by the traders and businessmen of interior Sindh to maintain their link with the country’s commercial capital.
The usual route was to take Mehran Express to Karachi and Shah Latif Express back to Mirpurkhas. The train took four-and-a-half hours to reach the Landhi station and about five hours to reach the Cantt station, from where traders could conveniently go on to Bolton Market, one of Karachi’s largest markets.
The train had resumed activity only six months ago after it had was gutted in the December 2007 riots following the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Since its resumption, the passengers, however, were no better off. Reservations could not be made in advance and the ticket counter, meant to open two hours prior to the train’s departure, would open only five minutes earlier.
Railways sources said that both train services were being closed due to corruption, and that the Railways staff and its police were involved in fraud. But chairperson of the Pakistan Railways Workers Union Manzoor Razi said that the department had buckled under pressure from the transport mafia.
Another train that has been suspended is the Sialkot Express that carried passengers and cargo from Sialkot to Rawalpindi five days a week. The train, which had three bogeys, left Sialkot at 6 am and reached Rawalpindi at 11:30 am, and was preferred by exporters who took Sialkot’s known products – footballs, gloves and other sporting items – to Rawalpindi. A return ticket cost Rs140.
According to Railways officials in Sialkot, the train was incurring severe losses leaving no option but to shut it down.
However, sources said that corruption was the real cause for the train’s closure. Railway police and ticket collectors used to carry two ticket books, of which the receipts of one book were sent to government authorities while they pocketed the revenue from the other ticket book. They also pointed to the presence of a transport mafia, which sources said, was functioning with the help of operators of private bus services that travel on the same route.
The largest bus services that carry passengers between Sialkot and Rawalpindi are the Daewoo bus service and the Niazi Express. Daewoo carries 52 passengers and reaches Rawalpindi in four-and-a-half hours. The price of a return ticket, however, is Rs550 which is almost five times that of the train. Niazi Express carries 26 passengers and charges Rs330 for a return ticket.
Pakistan Railways has also announced that Shalimar Express, which travels from Lahore to Karachi, will be shut down from July 29. Other trains to be suspended are Chiltan Express and Tezro from July 20. According to Pakistan Railways General Manager Ashfaq Khattak, the Railways is facing a deficit of Rs1.5 billion annually because of these trains. He said that engines of the suspended trains would be used to run freight trains as more than 60 freight trains are stuck at different stations for want of engines. He also refused to give a specific time for restoration of these trains’ services. (WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFAQ KHAN IN MIRPURKHAS)
Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2010.