by Bilal Ahmed Sabri
May 13, 1861, was a historic day when the first railway line measuring a distance of 169 kilometers was opened for public traffic between Karachi City and Kotri, a city on the right bank of the Indus River in Sindh province of Pakistan. It all started in 1858 when the first survey for the construction of the railway lines was started, which initially proposed railway lines from Karachi to Kotri, then via steam navigation through the river Indus and Chenab up to Multan, a city in Pakistan's Punjab province. Later, the project was extended to Lahore - the capital of Punjab - and from there on the railway tracks found their way into Peshawar city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, formerly known as North-West Frontier Province.
Different sections of the railways in the subcontinent, which now comprise Pakistan Railways, were constructed in the last quarter of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century. Unlike other rail networks in the subcontinent during the British era, most of the sections were constructed as strategic lines to safeguard the British Empire in the subcontinent. It is an interesting coincidence that the present alignment of railway lines from Peshawar to Karachi closely follows Alexander's line of march through the Hindu Kush to the sea in Karachi.
Karachi–Peshawar Railway Line, which is referred to as Main Line 1 or ML-1, is one of the four main railway lines in Pakistan being operated and maintained by Pakistan Railways. When the railway tracks were opened in the 20th century; what normally took days and months to travel between Karachi and Lahore and beyond, used to take hours to transport passengers and cargo.
However, since independence in 1947, Pakistan Railways is in continuing crisis because of various reasons. Lack of leadership & discipline, inadequate locomotives, obsolete technology, and poor infrastructure are a few, to begin with. Managerial failures, overstaffing & asset issues, poor transport policy, decreasing the budget and increasing liabilities and losses are the other factors continuously contributing to the dismal condition of the rail transport system.
Lack of maintenance of the coaches of Pakistan Railways, which put the lives of the passengers at risk, is another important factor. Recently, it emerged that several economy class coaches of different trains are marred with electrical and mechanical faults and seats, windows, and even the doors are needed to be replaced. Due to the faulty wiring, some coaches do not function at night as fans inside the coaches do not switch on and bulbs keep flickering on and off. On several occasions, the fire erupted because of a short circuit and resulted in the loss of luggage and cargo. Poor hygiene of the washrooms adds insult to injury. If the media reports are to be believed then at least 50 percent of coaches in Pakistan Railways are not functional and the department is striving hard to make such coaches useful.
Transport is one of the basic necessities in the present era and being one of the most important aspects. Perhaps, that is why the Pakistani and Chinese delegations often meet to discuss the future shape of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) - a major component of China's Belt and Road Initiative that will connect China to Europe via central and southern Asia through a string of ports, railways, roads, and bridges.
Pakistan for the first time, after the British rule in 1861 when the railway lines were opened for public traffic for the first time, will have a new railway track under CPEC. After 157 years, 11 months and 17 days, Pakistan and China inked an agreement on April 29 this year to upgrade the ML-1 Peshawar to Karachi railway tracks. After May 13, 1861, this was another historical day when the Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad and Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing signed the declaration for the preliminary design of the phase one of the ML-1 project and Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang witnessed the signing ceremony.
Though the final agreement on the project’s cost, financing and the available resources and options will be signed later, but under the agreement, Pakistan Railways and China’s National Railway Administration would start working on the project. Before signing the agreement, Pakistan and China had agreed to amend the framework agreement on implementation of multi-billion dollars ML-1 project in a bid to reduce the size of the strategically important scheme.
ML-1 - the single-largest project of CPEC - was initially planned to be completed in three years will now take at least six years to complete from the day of its groundbreaking. The original plan was to construct and upgrade the rail infrastructure between Peshawar and Karachi in two phases and to complete it by 2022. According to the original framework agreement of May 2017, China would provide 85 percent of the project cost as a concessionary loan for the tactically important project for both countries.
The amended agreement has reduced the length of the project from 1,872km to around 1,680km and excluded the component of building a new 163km long double line between Karachi and Hyderabad from the scope of the framework agreement. Similarly, the Havelian-Textile rail track has also been excluded from the project. The ML-1 project will be completed on the Engineering Procurement and Construction (EPC) mode under a sovereign deal.
At a cost of US$ 8.2 billion, the new track from Peshawar to Karachi in addition to the existing one – turning it into a double track route – will be fenced. In addition to the new tracks, bridges and crossings will also be constructed. Importantly, the project will increase the speed of passenger trains from the current 65km to 110km per hour to 160km per hour, while freight trains will be operated at 120km per hour. It has been estimated that the travel time from Rawalpindi to Karachi will reduce from 22 hours to 10 hours and trains will cover the distance between Lahore and Rawalpindi in just 2.5 hours. Moreover, under the project, the numbers of trains will double which will help Pakistan Railways to increase the present capacity of carrying roughly 70 million passengers to 100 million.
The project will not only reduce traveling time and ensure safety as the track will have a computer-based signaling and control system but it is expected to create 20,000 direct and 150,000 indirect jobs - addressing major issues being faced by Pakistan Railways in one go.
ML-1 project or the high-speed rail line, which was first discussed in the first meeting of the Joint Cooperation Council (JCC) on August 27, 2013 during the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government, has come under discussion in several JCC meetings and the framework agreement was signed during April 20-21, 2015, visit of President Xi Jinping to Pakistan.
Political experts believe that the major issues of Pakistan Railways would be resolved once the project is completed as it addresses most of the problematic areas. In a telephonic conversation with a few politicians and experts, they said that no political party has opposed the idea of CPEC and its projects, especially ML-1 project, adding that everyone wishes to have its party's name attributed with the project. Interestingly, while pointing out an important flaw, one of them revealed that like the PML-N government, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led government has not yet decided whether the Chinese loan for the ML-1 project will be taken on the books of the Ministry of Finance or that of the Ministry of Railways. He said that the federal government will be responsible for the project's servicing if the loans are taken on the books of the finance ministry. The project is so important and huge that the Federal Minister Sheikh Rasheed had recently announced that he would get retirement from politics after completion of two mega projects; one of them is ML-1.
Muhammad Moeen Watto, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)’s Member National Assembly (MNA) and Chairman Standing Committee on Railways, said that ML-1 project is very crucial for sustainable development as the project will not only upgrade the railways system but also give a boost to the trade delivering.
MNA Amjad Ali Khan of the ruling PTI, who is a member of Railways Committee, said that “ML-1 project is a gateway to prosperity” and it is an important part of CPEC. “If this project is completed within the stipulated timeframe, it will give a boost to the railways system at 90 degrees. The population of Pakistan is continuously increasing and the project will be beneficial for the coming generations,” he said. He mentioned that the ML-1 project will play a pivotal role in trade & business, adding it will decrease the time of delivery and increase the speed of trains.
Another member of the Railways Committee Senator Mirza Muhammad Afridi from the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which was merged with neighboring province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2018, said that ML-1 is a long-term project. “It is the first time that we’re upgrading our centuries-old dilapidated railways system. It will enhance the capacity of railways in term of transportation and would be beneficial for the industrial revolution. He suggested that the Karachi-Peshawar rail track should be connected to the industrial zones.
Typically, the railway structure is recognized as the lifeline of any nation and that is why the second main component of the CPEC is the composition and up-gradation of the railway system of Pakistan.
Who would have thought in 1861 that the track being built would turn out to be so significant that it would become a source of connecting the whole region after a century-and-a-half. So next time, when you hear the soft female or male voice: "Attention please! Shalimar Express is ready to leave Platform Number 2", you might be traveling in the high-speed train on the newly build tracks that may take you from Karachi to Peshawar and beyond in no time. Get ready for the change because the station masters are all set to blow the whistle for the much-needed project.