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Pakistani train inferno was decades in the making

Country's train safety record has not improved since Imran Khan became prime minister last year

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The train that caught fire on Thursday killed at least 75 people and injured 43 - one of the worst railway accidents in Pakistan's history. The railway minister refused to resign.

Delhi

WHEN a passenger train rammed a rickshaw in Pakistan in 2017, killing seven schoolchildren, Imran Khan rolled the tragedy into his campaign to become prime minister, holding up the accident as a hallmark of government incompetence and corruption that only he could fix.

"The railway minister must resign," he said at the time, insisting that it was the proper response to such a failure in a democracy. "Otherwise, he can influence the investigation." But Mr Khan, now the prime minister, took a very different stance when a train caught fire on Thursday, killing at least 75 people and injuring 43 - one of the worst railway accidents in Pakistan's history. He stood by his railway minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who, in turn, blamed passengers who had used a prohibited gas stove.

Mr Khan's promises to restore transparency and good governance helped catapult him to victory in the August 2018 general election, but as the country mourns the train-inferno victims, there is a sense of resignation that Pakistan only seems to be getting worse. Its economy is stagnant, its infrastructure is decrepit, and its political class seeks to absolve itself of blame, regardless who is in power.

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The government and Mr Khan "have not done anything; there have been no improvements in our country", said Ramzan Mohammed Azeem, a 33-year-old passenger who escaped the fire by jumping from the speeding train. "And I don't expect the government will take any action after this accident."

The country's train safety record has not improved under Mr Khan, according to figures provided by the Standing Committee on Railways. In the year ended in July, there were 74 accidents versus 67 the year before.

Neighbouring India, with a vastly larger rail network, reported 73 accidents in 2018.

On Friday morning, the train was still smouldering, and the sunlight peeping through broken windows revealed the charred remains of steel chairs and bunk beds, and pots and pans scattered across the ash-strewn floor.

Inside, a photographer for The New York Times came across the blackened bones of what appeared to be a small child and another set of bones underneath a bunk bed.

Officials said it appeared that a portable stove had exploded as passengers used it to cook breakfast, the flames quickly sweeping from car to car. The train's emergency brakes did not appear to work, and it kept barrelling along at full speed, fanning the flames, while passengers risked their lives by leaping from the train.

"It is not the fault of Pakistan Railways," Mr Ahmed said on Thursday of the state-owned company his ministry runs. "The passengers are responsible for this."

Portable stoves are forbidden on Pakistani trains specifically because their gas canisters are prone to such explosions, and Mr Khan has ordered an investigation. By Friday, some families of the victims, along with television commentators and politicians, demanded to know why the rules had not been enforced and demanded that Mr Ahmed resign.

When Mr Ahmed was appointed railway minister last year, he promised to turn the ministry around, vowing to increase revenue, improve safety, open new lines and halt the endemic corruption and inefficiency that he blamed on previous governments.

A veteran politician, he tried to shake up the ministry, holding lengthy meetings and adopting a tough attitude that many said was barely disguised haughtiness. He lamented that the ministry's bureaucracy - which lives in palatial, colonial-era bungalows - was out of touch with the needs of ordinary people.

In many ways, Mr Ahmed mirrored Mr Khan, promising a flurry of reforms and governance that would take care of who they called "the common man". But more than 14 months after they took office, Pakistan still suffers the same problems that afflicted previous governments.

Pakistan's rail service has been plagued by scandal and mismanagement, but it remains a popular mode of transport and vital link connecting the country's cities and towns. Most of the infrastructure is colonial-era, built under British rule before it was handed over to Pakistan at independence in 1947.

During a recent session in Parliament, Mr Ahmed made a startling revelation: out of 3,000 railway crossings, 1,800 are unstaffed, the same flaw that led to the 2017 train accident Mr Khan had said as a candidate that he would rectify.

Khan's government did boost Pakistan Railways' revenue to 54.59 billion rupees (S$476 million), in 2018-19, from 49.5 billion rupees the year before. But two new lines Mr Ahmed launched were quickly discontinued because of financial losses.

When Mr Ahmed first took over the ministry, he met with quick disapproval from its administrators. In August 2018, Muhammad Hanif Gul, chief commercial manager of Pakistan Railways, said it was impossible to work with the minister and sought leave of 730 days. "The attitude of the new minister is extremely nonprofessional and ill-mannered," he wrote in a letter that went viral on social media at the time.

Even if an investigation finds Pakistan Railways is at fault for the deadly fire, many Pakistanis doubt Mr Ahmed will be held accountable. He is seen as close to the country's powerful military, which was widely accused of having meddled in the 2018 election to guarantee Mr Khan's victory - an accusation it denies. NYTIMES