LAHORE: The hurdles in the path of Pakistan Railway's long-awaited flagship project, Main Line-1, have been apparently been overcome, renewing hopes of revamping the country’s dilapidated train infrastructure of the colonial era.
ML-1, which is expected to be executed at a cost of $8.2 billion in five years, has been cleared by the Ministry of Planning and Development, after Railways Minister Shiekh Rashid expressed his reservations over the slow progress of this strategically important project under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
On his recent visit to China, the railways minister announced in Beijing that the ML-1 project had been finalised. Railways Chief Executive Officer Aijaz Ahmad Buriro said he was hopeful that the project would start materialising soon.
"The framework of the project has already been signed and we have already sent its PC-1 to the Ministry of Planning and Development," Buriro said told The Express Tribune.
“It is an important project for us as its completion will help us manage train operations smoothly for the next 150 years,” he added.
"We are still using a 150-year-old infrastructure, which is restricting us from operating at our maximum while the number of passengers has increased significantly and so have accidents.”
The Pakistan Railways is currently struggling to regain its lost momentum. It passed through its worst era between 2008 and 2013 where its revenues dropped to an alarming $18 billion.
The previous government tried hard to put the cash-strapped corporation back on track and took many initiatives which proved to be fruitful.
It managed to increase railway revenues from $18 billion to $40 billion in five years, and prepared the framework for ML-1 with Chinese authorities. Unfortunately, the project could materialise during its tenure.
The frequency of train accidents has increased during the tenure of the current government because of a low budget and the old infrastructure.
As per the feasibility report of the ML-1, the $8.2 billion project is divided in three packages and work will be executed in three provinces -- Sindh, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
The first package, which will be executed at a cost of $2.4 billion, includes rehabilitation of the 52km Kaluwal-Pindora, the 105km Lalamusa-Rawalpindi, the 183km Nawabshah-Rohri and the 42km Peshawar-Nowshera lines. Besides, the upgrading of the Walton Railways Academy and land acquisition, supervision, escalation and security initiatives are also part of the first package.
The second package includes the revamping of the 339km Multan Lahore, the 132km Lahore-Lalamusa and the 182km Kiamari-Hyderabad tracks and the establishment of a dry port near Havelian.
The third package includes the rehabilitation of the 132km Nowshera-Rawalpindi and the 749km Hyderabad-Multan tracks. The cost of package two and three is yet to be decided.
The entire ML-1 covers a 1,872km track. It also includes the laying of a new track with improved subgrade for 160km/h speed, rehabilitation and construction of major bridges, provision of modern signalling and telecom systems, conversion of level crossings in to underpasses/flyovers and fencing the entire track to run trains on fast track.
"This project will be a paradigm shift for railways and for the country's overall economy, it will increase the line capacity from 138 trains to 171 trains each day,” Buriro said, adding: “It will also increase the freight volumes from six to 35 million tons per annum by 2025 thereby increasing railways share of freight transport volume from less than 4% to 20%.”
Many Railways officials said the corporation had no other option but to opt for Chinese financing for ML-1. However, Buriro said they also had a plan B.
"We have cleared all the hurdles stalling Chinese investment in the project, but in case there is a delay we can use Public Sector Development Program [PSDP] funds for revamping some crucial parts of ML-1, he added.