If you thought travelling by train in Pakistan is a journey fraught with horror and misery, a trip on the Pakistan Business Express (PBE) will change your mind. Everything about PBE is designed for the comfort and convenience of the passengers, starting from ticket reservation which can be made either online or at PBE’s air-conditioned offices at the station.
Their exclusive air-conditioned passenger waiting lounge is linked with the platform with attendants handling the luggage all the way to the cabin interior. But the best part of the service is, undoubtedly, that the train leaves and arrives on the dot.
Every cabin is well maintained and fitted with flat screens, wifi access for business class passengers and power outlets for mobiles and laptops. Emergency support is available through onboard paramedical staff and local 1122 direct access during travelling besides quality meals by Pearl Continental Hotel and umpteen rounds of snacks served within a short time after the train departs. After 7am sharp, an assistant knocks at your cabin door to provide you with a toothbrush and shaving kit.
There is a Business Class and the more affordable Budget Class while the cost of the snacks, tea, dinner and breakfast is included in the fare.
Yet, with every passing day, money matters between Pakistan Railways and Messrs Four Brothers, running the PBE become more complex. Nine months after its launch, the future of the first public-private venture now depends on the verdict of a private audit company engaged by the federal Board of Investment under directions from the Economic Coordination Council.
No-one from either side would talk on record for multiple reasons but the conflict over the payments is an open secret. The private party says that the mode of payment given to it was unrealistically high and unaffordable, incurring huge losses. Railway authorities term the claim of losses as an excuse to avoid the agreed payments.
The bone of contention is the payment of 88 per cent seat occupancy to Pakistan Railways, agreed at the time of signing the agreement. The Four Brothers find it inflated and hard to fulfil especially because of low clientele. Railways bill the stated difficulty as a ploy to avoid abiding by the agreement.
The rights to run the train were awarded through open bidding, while the 85 per cent ratio was picked from the seat occupancy of Karakoram Express (KE). It was reportedly promised that KE would cease to run and its passengers would automatically switch over to PBE.
Messrs Four Brothers won the bidding by offering payment of 88 per cent seat occupancy and began the operation on February 3 this year. But now its officials say the total seat occupancy of PBE has so far been just 60 per cent. It has already paid Rs600 million to railways, besides investing another Rs220 million on the system, and has no more strength to follow the payment mode because of losses. KE is still effieciently running, stealing passengers from PBE at an economy price.
The company claims that the 85 per cent seat occupancy shown at the time of bidding was unrealistic. It also included discounted and free seats which Business Express does not offer. With only fully-paid seats, the occupancy rate comes down to 50 per cent.
When the company presented its case to the railways secretary, they were advised to approach the federal cabinet as he had no decision-making authority. The cabinet accepted the appeal and then ordered the Economic Coordination Committee to look into the matter. Railways officials say that the company defaulted from day one and was unable to make the promised payments despite repeated notices.
The company admits this but links it to low rate of passengers, saying it took them many months to build the railways' lost reputation of a reliable and safe journey. The train finally won recognition in the summer which invited a series of notices for payments which were very discouraging. The company says that Pakistan Railways is giving it a step-motherly treatment to discourage private investors' involvement in an already sunk sector. “They are simply disallowing us to function on the pretext of Rs300 million-loss whereas they are rendering a loss of Rs10 billion to the country by running just 10 trains,” says an employee.
He said that the company was given 22 rickety coaches, four of which are in reserve. They were also upgraded to the international level at a cost of Rs40 million, providing services which are not available even in the famous Indian Rajdhani Express. “Karakoram Express is a pain in the neck as it is snatching our passengers. It has spare rakes which are employed in case the train is late. But we have to cancel the next day's operations if we have a delay,” he says.