by Mahnoor Makhdoom
Pakistan and China are two nations on planet earth that enjoy such a bond of love and friendship that cannot be described in words as there is no other match to this relation amongst any other two nations.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his vision of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the China Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC)emerged as the most vibrant component of BRI. Since CPEC was focusing mainly the fields of energy, power, infrastructure, trade and industrial activities, the transportation mechanism also surfaced as a major factor for the development and sustainability.
At this stage, the importance of laying down a modern and latest technology based railway track for the Main Railway Line of Pakistan was taken into serious consideration. Although in the general Pak-China Cooperation projects, the establishing of high speed rail link between Pakistan and China is already on the agenda,the laying down a modern 1872 Kilometers long ML-1 was the challenge to be addressed immediately.
The original plan was the construction and up gradation of the rail infrastructure between Peshawar and Karachi in two phases and to complete it by 2022. The decision to split the project in two phases was made by the previous government due to the high cost and extensive work of this project as it requires the refurbishment and expansion of the main railway line. The project’s initial cost of $8.2 billion was based on a joint feasibility study.
However, the present government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan, took Chinese government into confidence and both sides decided to bring some amendments in project to make it equally profitable for both sides.
There were very conflicting media reports about the ML-1 project, with some suggesting that there were serious differences between both sides over the project's financial costs and funding modules. Some media reports suggested that Pakistani side wanted to introduce a new framework agreement. According to the framework agreement for the ML-I, China was supposed to provide 85% of the project cost as a concessionary loan and the previous Pakistan government had agreed to it.
But all such reports and rumors were shot down when Prime Minister Imran Khan paid a high level visit to Beijing and the ML-1 agreement was signed between Pakistan and China.
The official announcement in this regard by Pakistan said that Pakistan and China had agreed to upgrade ML-1 railway track from Peshawar to Karachi and that an agreement to this effect was signed between China and Pakistan in Beijing on 28th April.It further said that Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad and Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing signed the Declaration for Preliminary Design of ML-1, phase one. Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang witnessed the signing ceremony.
The recent agreement is about the first phase and preliminary cost of the complete project is about $8.2 billion, to be completed in three phases.
The accord of ML-1 with China is being regarded as one of the most important accords of the recent history of both countries and is deemed to be the back bone of the CPEC. Country's Railway Minister has already announcedthat ML-1 project will create at least 150,000 jobs to locals at different levels while the officials of the Ministry of Railways expect the number of new jobs under ML-1 could touch the 200,000 mark.
The officials said that the scope of the project was induction of 50 locomotives, 300 passenger coaches and 2,000 freight wagons and up gradation of Walton Training Academy. Along with completion of ML-I, the freight volumes of Pakistan railways would considerably increase and the peoplewould also get state of the art rail travelling facilities.
The upgradation would enhance speed; reduce travel time; enhance the number of trains per day and, hence, generate more revenue while decreasing the burden on roads. It was said that ML-1 was said to be the lifeline of Pakistan railways because of the main earning from this route, which connects Peshawar to Karachi.
Touching on the scope of the ML-1 project, the officials asserted that it would include upgradation and doubling of the main line-1 from Karachi to Peshawar and Taxila to Havelian (1872 kilometres). The officials further told Senators that a mid-term project to establish a new rail link between Gwadar to Mastung and Besima to Jacobabad would begin in 2025 and end by 2030. Establishing a new rail link from Havelian to Khunjerab would be a long-term project, which would commence in 2030.
In a country like Pakistan where the road travelling is not considered to be very comfortable due to lack of modern busses, especially in the remote areas and due to bad road conditions, Rail travelling has always been the first choice for common people. However, due to old technology and nonexistence of any upgrading of railway track and other multiple problems for many years, people were suffering a lot, both financially and physically. The delay in the train schedules due to non-availability of double tracks had been one of the main sources of irritation and trouble.
With the ML-1 bringing double tracking of Railways, coupled with modern technology, people are very jubilant to have far better travelling and freight facilities in years to come. It could very easily be said that that the ML-1, after its completion, will redefine the Iron Brotherhood and will take the Pakistan-China friendship to an entirely new horizon with introducing new heights of cooperation between the two nations.
The Author is a Special Commentator for Gwadar Pro, and Associate Editor ( China & CPEC Affairs) of Islamabad-based English language newspaper, The Daily Mail.