RAILWAYS' PLAN TO LINK BALOCHISTAN WITH NWFP

The project is going to cost Rs 19.2 million and is expected to be at the implementation level in a few months time.

FROM KHALID BUTT
Feb 13 - 19, 2006

The Pakistan Railways is working on an ambitious plan to connect major destinations in Balochistan with those of NWFP in the next eight months time. Sources told The Page that the project is going to cost Rs 19.2 million and is expected to be at the implementation level in a few months time. The total length of the track to be laid down is approximately 900 kilometers (KM). The distance from Bostan, a destination in northern Balochistan to Dera Ismail Khan is estimated to be 450 KM. The second part of the track from Dera Ismail Khan to Peshawar is estimated to be 350 KM. Work on both the tracks is expected to be initiated simultaneously. The 450 KM project is expected to take eight months time, while that of 350 KM six months time. The Economic Division has approved the allocation for the project. The Pakistan Railways Advisory and Consulting Services (PRACS) would be actually executing the project after receipt of funds through the Pakistan Railways.

The first phase of the track from Bostan to Dera Ismail Khan is expected to pass through Muslim Bagh, Killa Saifullah and Zhob before crossing over to NWFP. Killa Saifullah is one of the major transport entry point to Balochistan from other provinces through road routes. In NWFP, the first destination is SulemanKhel. The track is also expected to pass through Southern Waziristan, an otherwise volatile region and a scene of frequent skirmishes between foreign militants and law enforcement agencies. In the Waziristan area the track would touch Jandola before turning eastward to Tank.

From Tank it would enter Punjab briefly to touch Bhakkar. Re-entering to NWFP from Pezu point it would be laid down along the Indus Highway crossing through Lakki Marwat, Bannu, Karak, Kohat and finally Peshawar.

Here it is important to note that there are scattered tracks in various places in Balochistan and NWFP. Bostan and Zhob are connected but they are on the narrow gauge. Likewise, there are tracks between Kohat and other destinations in NWFP, but they are not connected to Peshawar or Karak. Likewise, Bannu is not directly connected neither to Kohat nor to Peshawar.

The promised expansion in the railway track along western borderlands would enable connectivity between Karachi and Peshawar through Quetta, Dera Ghazi Khan, Bhakkar and Kohat. Going by the fact that the physical terrain is variable in the area, there will have to be bridges and in some cases tunnels to manage the railway track through the area.

The track would be renovated in the process from the colonial period narrow gauge system to that of the new broad gauge. Here it is pertinent to note that many tracks in the Balochistan and NWFP provinces have never been renovated or converted into the broad gauge system, now prevalent all over the country.

The Pakistan Railways has been identified as not doing the needful to cater to the freight transport demand originating in the Indus corridor. In a study by the World Bank shared with the key economic policy making infrastructures, Pakistan Railways has been specifically pinpointed to amend what the World Bank calls disproportionate division between the road based and railway based freight options for the businesses.

The World Bank identifies the Indus corridor as major economic zone in Pakistan contributing almost 80 to 85 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product on average and covering 80 per cent of the population. The Indus corridor as per the World Bank definition starts from Peshawar and runs through Rawalpindi, Jehlum, Gujrat, and Lahore, Multan, Sukkur, Hyderabad up to Karachi.

The study criticizes what it calls over dependence on road linkages for merchandise transport. According to the World Bank estimates, road linkage accounts for 95 per cent of the freight transport, while Railways accounts for only 5 per cent.

The 95 per cent share of road transport option has been classified by the World Bank as not up to the desired efficiency levels. According to the WB yardstick, freight transport from Peshawar to Karachi takes on average three to four days, whereas the same area in European setting is covered in less than two days.

Likewise, the Pakistan Railways has been identified as a slow transit option accounting for almost three weeks time period to transport a freight carriage across the 1800 KM stretch from port to any upcountry destination.

The World Bank report also pinpoints track access unavailability and suggests that the track availability for Pakistan Railways freight business should be prioritized.

The study also pinpoints the impact of lesser participation by the PR in freight transport on road transport and indicates that the failure of the national organisation to take load has resulted in generating on average Rs 60 to 90 billion in extra costs for subsidies and fuel costs on diesel procurement from external sources.

The study also takes stock of the fact that there is no tracking information available to the exporter or importer, which keeps the prime stakeholder in complete darkness. Here what is important is the fact that Pakistan being an agricultural economy has much of the exportable merchandise in perishable form and current road or rail transport timelines adversely impact the credibility of the local exporters and accordingly cause losses.

The World Bank report, despite its emphasis on PR inability and the over usage of road linkages for freight traffic, seeks a wholesome attention of the Pakistan government to correct the things at all levels. The study advises the government to reduce container dwell time at ports to 3 days, port charges by 15 to 20 per cent and reforms in customs clearance and reduction of total land transport costs by 10 to 20 per cent.

The study specifically advise the government to look out for ways to encourage introduction of private sector management in the rail freight sector and create a commercial rail corridor from main lines to branch lines, besides an exclusive railway freight setup with separate human resource and inventory.

Meanwhile, the proposed dual rail-track from Shahdara to Rawalpindi would cost more than the usual estimates so far incurred on the various sections of the dual track in Punjab. The sources maintain that on account of the peculiar terrain along the way, especially the 40-kilometer area from Kharian point onwards, the area passing through the Kalar Kahar highlands and descending back into the southern outskirts of Rawalpindi division, additional engineering jobs would have to be undertaken to ensure high speed locomotive movement on an ascending and descending terrain.

Sources in the Pakistan Railways Headquarter told The Page that after conducting a basic survey of the area the PR has sent a comprehensive feasibility proposal to the Federal Government for approval. The feasibility exercise cost Rs 9.4 million, and if the project is deemed viable for execution, the PR would be making a concrete demand of Rs 6 billion for the project initially with the bill expected to escalate if the actual findings exceed the preliminary survey observations.

Here it is pertinent to recall that sections of dual track constructed between Lodhran to Khanewal, a project of 121 kilometers long track was estimated to cost Pakistan Railways Rs 3.2 billion. The second phase of the project between Khanewal and Raiwind in south of Lahore, approved in the ECNEC meeting held in August 2005, is stretched over 246 kilometers and is estimated to cost Rs 5.4 billion.

The dual track from Lahore to Rawalpindi has been commissioned on the premise that the track should have the endurance and strength to withhold locomotive movement to the tune of 140 KM per hour. With the 40 KM track between Kharian to Kalar Kahar identified as a difficult terrain, Railway authorities feel that the inflated bill would include among other things a new railway track bridge over Jehlum across the same difficult area. The sources maintain that the area selected for dual track will also go through a process of realignment, an engineering exercise that would ensure that the place is fit for the laying of the track. The project is expected to be completed in an estimated three years time, once the same is approved by the ECNEC.