ISLAMABAD: Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed gave free rein to his nostalgia for a bygone Karachi on Wednesday by recalling the trams that used to run during the 1950s and the 60s and even suggesting their revival during a hearing on the state of affairs in the Pakistan Railways.

At the same time, Justice Gulzar ordered the federal government to make the Main Railway Line-One (ML-1) operational in two years and the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) within four months.

The chief justice, who was heading a three-judge Supreme Court bench, asked the federal government to take over the KCR project instead of leaving it to the Sindh government, saying “they are not capable of delivering and might end up doing the same damage to the project that they have done to the city’s transport network”.

The SC bench had taken up a case relating to colossal losses sustained by the Pakistan Railways (PR) over the last five years.

In line with previous directives, Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar appeared before the court to update it about developments in the two projects.

“You don’t have the time to go into a slumber,” the chief justice observed, reminding the two ministers how the Chinese had built a 1,000-bed hospital within 10 days and how rail tracks were laid in the United States.

“Nothing is impossible, but you need the will to achieve something,” the chief justice observed. “I want to see Sheikh Rashid cutting the ribbons. I also want to see the revival of the old tram network through the efforts of the railway minister,” the chief justice said.

He recalled how a company, called Mohammad Ali Tramway, used to run trams in Karachi.

Sheikh Rashid assured the apex court that encroachments on a five-kilometre strip meant for the KCR project would be removed within a month. The authorities were facing resistance from the occupants of multi-storey buildings, he added.

The minister also said the assistance of police as well as the Rangers was being sought and that the Sindh government was already on board.

Already out of 43.12km with right of way (ROW) of 50 feet on each side of the track, 37.7km has been cleared and an area of 164,127 square yards has been retrieved.

The Supreme Court required the Railways to commence installation of the KCR infrastructure within a month after the removal of encroachments.

When the planning minister said it would be an unrealistic timeline to start building the infrastructure within a month, the chief justice remarked “should we scrap the entire project”.

“You are a seasoned executive who has the experience of running organisations and you have to make achievement,” the chief justice observed, addressing Asad Umar and asking him not to “drag matters”.

“You cannot secure the entire area if you leave it after removing encroachments,” the chief justice observed.

When the planning minister requested the court to ask the Sindh government to come up with an implementation plan, the chief justice rubbished the idea by stating that the Sindh government would not deliver.

“Nothing will happen if the federal government does not take over the project,” the chief justice said. He reminded the ministers that railway was a federal subject and the government should stick to the constitution.

The court directed the government to make the KCR operational within three months, meaning full operation of the project with passengers cruising.

“This is unrealistic,” Asad Umar interjected.

But the chief justice observed that there was no time to sleep as the people were waiting. “Please deliver since people are banking on your commitments,” he observed.

Referring to ML-1, the planning minister apprised the court that PC-1 of the project had been prepared, the execution of which will be done in the shortest possible time with Chinese assistance. Efforts will be made to get the Ecnec’s approval by April.

As part of the China-Pakistan Econo­mic Corridor, the project was concei­ved for rehabilitation and improvem­ent of the existing 1,860km ML-1 railway connecting Karachi and Peshawar.

Initially, the minister sought five years, but the court ordered its completion in two years. Had the Chinese been building the project for themselves, they would have completed it within two months, the chief justice observed.

The minister, however, said he would be filing a comparative study showing how much time the Chinese took to complete such projects in their country.

The court also dictated that whatever has to be done was to be done by the government of Pakistan and they will also ensure that the contractors engaged in the project complete their job within the stipulated period.

In case the timeline is not achieved, the Supreme Court cautioned, consequences will follow that may not be pleasant.

Sheikh Rashid confided to Dawn later that ML-1 was the future if the Railways have to survive.

The railway minister assured the court that he will examine and discuss with the concerned quarters for initiating appropriate measures so that the KCR was run by the federal government. The court will resume the hearing of the case after two months.

Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2020