PESHAWAR -- The Pakistani government is stepping up efforts to upgrade the country's rail sector by launching more low-fare, high-speed trains on various routes.
Prime Minister Imran Khan is set to inaugurate the Lahore-Mianwali Niazi Express train on July 19, Federal Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmad announced on July 7.
The event will follow Khan's inauguration of the Jinnah Express in March and the non-stop Karachi-bound Sir Syed Express earlier this month.
Another express train, the Rehman Baba Express, also began operating last December with fares aimed at attracting low-paid workers. The train reduces the travel time from Peshawar to Karachi to 26 hours, compared to about 32 hours on slower trains.
Pakistanis are taking more trains to destinations in the country as security improves and as the government reins in extremists.
At the same time, the government is trying to redevelop sectors such as transportation that militancy has devastated.
Increasing the number of passenger trains is part of a plan to boost trade and benefit the business community, Ahmad said in an interview at the launch of the Rehman Baba Express in December.
"Eight to 10 fleet trains and freight trains will be launched for the trader community that often travels to the business hub of Karachi from Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi and Peshawar," he said. "It will strengthen the financial position of the railways by generating revenue to pay off debts incurred by the railway sector in Pakistan."
The government also plans to lay new track from Karachi to Peshawar, and an agreement with the interested parties should be signed this year, he said.
The line will reduce travel times among major destinations in the country, Ahmad added.
The focus on improving the country's rail system already is paying off.
The profit of the freight division of Pakistan Railways increased by Rs. 1.2 billion ($7.6 million), compared to one year earlier, in the initial 60 days of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government, Ahmad said, referring to August to October 2018. That period's profit was Rs. 6.9 billion ($43.5 million), compared to Rs. 5.7 billion ($35.9 million) in the same period one year earlier.
New reservation system
New developments including stricter ticket monitoring have helped curb losses, and the savings will pave the way for the launching of new rail projects, said Ejaz Shah, the information officer for Pakistan Railways in Lahore.
Railway vigilance teams collected Rs. 320 million ($2 million) from passengers who were riding without tickets in the last quarter of 2018, said Shah.
Pakistan Railways' deficit shrunk from Rs. 36.62 billion to Rs. 32.59 billion ($232 million to $206 million) in 10 months, and authorities plan to spend Rs. 125 million ($791,000) on renovating the Karachi and Lahore railway stations, Shah said.
"To help and attract travellers, the availability of our reservation facilities has been increased to 24 hours, seven days a week," he added. "There has been an increase of 41,000 tickets sold by the railways in November due to these enhanced working hours."
Railway authorities have announced a free travel programme for senior citizens age 75 and older, while passengers age 60 to 74 can obtain fare cuts of 50%, he said.
These new developments reflect the ambitious plan initiated by the government to help ordinary Pakistanis use the trains, said Shah.
"We have started work on upgrading and rehabilitating major railway stations to provide better facilities for travellers," he said. "All major stations and train junctions like Rohri will be provided amenities that are available in stations of developed countries."
"Having a developed railway system is a factor that has always played a vital role in the promotion of trade and economic activities," said 35-year-old Rahim Dad, a businessman from Peshawar and a frequent traveller of Pakistan Railways.
"Time and the safe and economic transportation of goods are two aspects that are the top priorities of a businessman when ordering goods," he said. "These demands can be met only by a modern, speedy and affordable railway system."
It now takes about 32 hours minimum to travel overland from Peshawar to Karachi and businesspersons cannot afford to be away from work for so long, Dad said.
The launch of the low-fare, high-speed Rehman Baba express line has the appreciation of businesspersons who value time and cannot afford to fly, said Dad, who frequents Karachi to purchase fabric and hosiery from a factory situated in the SITE Industrial Area.
"We foresee prospects for better development ... that come from having speedy and on-time transportation of goods in the future," he said.