LAHORE: As the third Belt and Road Initiative forum is set to begin on Oct 17 in Beijing, Pakistani and Chinese authorities are scheduled to sign an addendum to the CPEC’s framework agreement, replacing the mega $9.85 billion ML-1 project cost with a newly rationalised and agreed project cost of $6.678bn.

Since Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar and his delegation are set to attend the forum, the rationalised estimate for the ML-1 project, Pakistan’s first-ever state-of-the-art railway project, has been finalised under Article 10 of the framework agreement signed in 2017 and renewed after five years, Dawn has learnt.

The original/previous ML-1 project, with a budget of $9.85bn, was approved by Ecnec on Oct 31, 2022. It featured a 1,726km long track designed for speeds of up to 160km per hour, complete grade separation and fencing, making travel durations of 10 hours between Lahore and Karachi, 2.45 hours between Lahore and Rawalpindi, and 14.30 hours between Karachi and Peshawar.

Under the $6.678bn revised project called “Rationalised Upgradation of ML-1 at 140km per hour (upgradable to 160km per hour)”, the project length remains the same at 1,726 km. Another revised cost of $3.136bn, referred to as “Complete Track Rehabilitation (CTR) of ML-1 at 120km per hour,” was considered but found unsuitable by the authorities.

Addendum to be signed at BRI forum begining Oct 17

The rationalised upgradation option has brought down the cost of Karachi-Multan section to $3.138bn from $4.862bn; Multan-Lahore section to $799.388 million from over $1.535bn; Lahore-Rawalpindi section to $1.386bn from $1.876bn; Kalowal-Pindora section to $291.842m from $385.8m; and Rawalpindi-Peshawar section to $1.009 billion from $1.092bn.

Similarly, the project cost related to the Walton Academy and Havelian Dry Port has also been brought down from $58.969m to $32.1m.

The original salient features of the ML-1 project included a speed of 160km per hour, a 25-tonne axle load-bearing capacity, 454km of track doubling, 44km of new double lines, the construction of 2,212 bridges/culverts, 3,600km of fencing, 631/631-grade separation, and a travel time of 14.30 hours between Karachi and Peshawar.

However, the new design features a speed of 140km per hour, the construction of 2,096 bridges/culverts, 1,300km of fencing, and 165/631-grade separation, maintaining the natural ground level on the Up/Down track. The travel time between Karachi and Peshawar would be 17 hours and 15 minutes. The project, under this option, is expected to be completed within nine years, with a total project lifespan of 30 years. This is similar to option 1, the original design.

“We are set to sign the addendum on the eve of the BRI’s meeting in China next week, as all has already been discussed and agreed upon during the meeting of CPEC’s Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) held in May this year,” former Pakistan Railways (PR) chairman Zafar Zaman Ranjha, who is currently working as the ML-1 project team leader, confirmed while talking to Dawn on Thursday. “Everything is OK in this regard,” he added.

Regarding the rationalised upgradation, he said that PR authorities, in collaboration with the respective ministries, work hard to reduce the project cost, taking into consideration the country’s economic condition. According to him, the rationalised option focused on addressing critical aspects of the project. He also noted that the track would be capable of supporting speeds of 160km per hour, but the designated speed limit would be 140km per hour.

“There are 630 level crossings, and our priority will be upgrading the most critical ones. Similarly, we will not construct bridges over rivers, as after an in-depth study, we have concluded that these existing bridges can be strengthened through some additional work, extending their lifespan by up to 30 years,” Ranjha said.

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2023

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