Implications of derailing ML-1 project

Dr Moonis Ahmar July 09, 2024
The writer is Meritorious Professor International Relations and former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi. Email:


Railway is the backbone of connectivity and economy of any country. Pakistan Railways got a jolt when the Executive Committee of National Economic Council (ECNEC) held in Islamabad on June 29 decided to defer the $6.7 billion Mainline-1 (ML-1) project. Designed under CPEC several years ago, the idea under the project was to restructure main railway line from Karachi to Peshawar by modernising tracks, signal system, coaches and engines so as to provide speedy and affordable railway facility to passengers.

The railway system in Pakistan is more than 100 years old, constructed during the British days. Since the country came into being 76 years back, the performance of railways has gone from bad to worse. The timeline of passenger trains from Karachi to Peshawar remained 24 hours. Railways also ended up with a loss of hundreds of billions of rupees over the last several decades. While making a decision at ECNEC to postpone ML-1 project its implications and ramifications should have been redeemed. Few years ago, the cost of the project was brought down from $9 billion to $ 6.7 billion compromising the speed, line capacity, rolling stock, axle load and fencing plan. Even the reduced costs of ML-1 and speed failed to convince ECNEC to launch the project at the earliest. The original project was 1,872 km long but after review it was reduced to 1,726 km. It means 240 million people of Pakistan will continue to bear the speed of less than 100 km per hour instead of the projected 160 km per hour which would have enabled passengers travelling from Karachi to Peshawar reach their destination in 10 hours.

According to reports, the project was revised by the caretaker government in October 2023. “Under the revised plan, the project consisted of three phases having a total length of 1,726km. Phase-1, 2, 3 and 4 comprise Karachi-Multan, Multan-Lahore, Lahore-Lalamusa and Lalamusa-Peshawar [routes]. The design speed would be up to 140 km per hour which can be increased to 160 km per hour on the upgraded track once the entire left/right of the track is fenced and some other upgrade work is done completely.” Now ECNEC deferred ML-1 project which means not only the cost of project will go up but the duration of its completion which earlier was 8 years will be further extended.

At a time when neighbouring India has the world’s largest railway network and meets the standards of modernisation, Pakistan is still grappling with issues which derail revitalisation of railways. In China the speed of railways is 350-500 km an hour, which shows how dismal and frustrating is the situation in Pakistan. No government made serious efforts to pull the railways from huge losses and modernise its functioning. Recent claims made by Pakistan Railways of earning profit from passenger and freight charges or to allocate Rs45 billion in the federal budget of 2024-25 for improving railways is peanuts. Occupation of thousands of acres of railways land by the mafias, rampant corruption, overstaffing and nepotism tend to erode prospects for reviving and modernising a fundamental means of communication and transportation. While China is using high speed freight trains to ship good to Europe and elsewhere, Pakistan Railways is still grappling with issues like lack of planning, investment and proper work ethics.

How turning around Pakistan Railways can benefit passengers and accelerate economic growth is not difficult to gauge. With a speed of less than 100 km an hour for passenger trains, how can one expect fast mobility of people from one part of the country to another? Requesting China to expedite ML-1 will not make any sense unless the Pakistan side completes homework for the timely completion of the project. Lethargy, laziness and non-serious attitude of officials at the Planning Commission and various state bodies further derail prospects for modernising railways. According to the details, “the Ministry of Railways forwarded the revised PC-1 of the ML-1 project to the Ministry of Planning. The revised PC-1 outlined the construction of an initial phase covering a 930-kilometre track to be completed within five years, costing $3159.7.million. Package one consists of a 397-kilometre track, encompassing Nowshera, Rohri, Khanpur, and PR Walton, while Package Two extends for 533 kilometers. Package Two includes tracks from Karachi to Nawabshah (296 kilometers) and from Khanpur to Multan (237 kilometers), with a total expenditure of $3,159 million. The second phase of ML-1 incurs a cost of $3,518.8 million, covering a track length of 796 kilometers. Package Three links Multan to Lahore (334 kilometers) with an expenditure of $799 million. Package Four includes tracks from Lahore to Rawalpindi (288 kilometers) and Rawalpindi to Peshawar (174 kilometers), along with the Havelian Dry Port. The total cost is $2,719 million, with an expected completion within four years.”

One can figure out three major implications of deferring ML-1 project.

First, railways which are essential for connectivity and promoting national integration will suffer in Pakistan. If the state gives priority to fast connectivity, economic growth and development, it would have given preference to ML-1 and ensure its completion in three instead of eight years. People of Pakistan deserve fast and comfortable mode of transportation in the shape of railways which since the inception of this country has not been available. Imagine, if trains in Pakistan are running with a speech of 350 km an hour, the distance from Karachi to Peshawar can be covered in only 6 instead of 24 hours! When an overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan cannot afford to travel by air and commutation by road in public transport consumes time, railways are the only mode of communication which can give relief to them. Deferring of ML-1 will deprive the people of Pakistan a fast, affordable and comfortable mode of transportation.

Second, railways are a source of national integration because people from different lingual, ethnic and cultural backgrounds travel in railways instead of plane, bus or wagon. National harmony and integration is ensured when better interaction among passengers takes place. Unfortunately, neither ECNEC nor any other organ of the state is mindful of the fact that deferring ML-1 will be at the expense of saving time, economic growth and national integration. After all, when the country’s key decision-makers neither travel in public transport nor in railways how can they understand benefits of fast and modern trains?

Finally, deferring ML-1 will give a wrong message to CPEC and China because the failure of concerned state authorities of Pakistan to professionally deliver and expedite projects will come at the cost of credibility on the part of Islamabad. Instead of blaming IMF for opposing ML-1, state authorities should put their own house in order. Derailing of ML-1 is the reflection of a mindset at the elite level which is devoid of providing better transport facilities to people.


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