The prime minister recently held live televised proceedings on the likely alignments for the proposed Kashgar to Gwadar rail and road links. Since the two pre-feasibility studies on the subject were conducted during my tenure as chairman Pakistan Railways, I thought that such an important issue being aired live was pretty useful.
The rail route from Kashgar to Gwadar would have some strategic but phenomenal economic significance. In addition to serving as a commercial and trade conduit for the two countries the new route has the potential of opening up those areas of the country that have been denied rail connection even 65 years after Partition.
The primary reason Kohat, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan and the interior of Balochistan have severely lagged behind the rest of the country is because of an absence of railway connection. Almost all of Sindh and Punjab have developed while only Nowshera, Mardan Peshawar, Haripur and Quetta-Chaman in the other two provinces have managed decent economic development. This is so because raw material and finished goods could be easily and cheaply transported by rail.
We should not forget that till the recent past the safest and quickest form of passenger communication was by rail and investors would shy away from cities that did not have railheads. Pakistan Railways has taken a severe beating over the last 20 years but it could be turned around – though not quite so easily.
It is, therefore, important to ensure that a route that serves the undeveloped parts of the country be selected for the rail and road corridor from Kashgar to Gwadar. It would be a tragedy for the marginalised areas of Pakistan if the new alignment is superimposed on the existing railway and motorways east of the Indus. That would have adverse economic consequences for much of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Strategic considerations demand that the road and rail axis not be concentrated close to each other.
Two parallel but geographically apart road and railway networks should be developed on either sides of the River Indus. I propose the following alignment for both the new railway and highway.
The route from Kashgar could pass through either the Kilik and Mintaka passes, since these are closer to Kashgar, or else under the Khunjerab Pass. The former passes were the traditional caravan route and would provide an alternate communication link to Gilgit, perhaps through the Ghizr area, and then to the rest of the country in addition to the existing Karakoram Highway. The exact alignment would be determined by detailed studies; two prefeasibility studies have already been undertaken by the Pakistan Railways in 2006. These need to be converted into feasibility studies leading to a detailed engineering and design investigation.
This route would then pass close to Gilgit and lead to Jaghlot and Raikot. The Skardu traffic would take off from Jaghlot. Since the KKH from Raikot to Basha (105 kilometres) would in any case be inundated by the Diamer Bhasha lake a new rail/road alignment on the left bank of the Indus would need to be constructed so that a tunnel could be bored under the Babusar Pass. From there through tunnels, galleries and ‘open to the sky’ rail-road it would be aligned towards Mansehra, then Abbottabad and on to the Havelian Railhead which is already connected to Rawalpindi.
From Havelian the new railway line should follow the general route of the motorway to Peshawar by crossing the River Indus near Hund. This would lead to Mardan, Charsadda and Peshawar and then to Kohat, Serai Naurang, Dera Ismail Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan and Kashmore. There is an existing railway line from Kashmore to Dadu and Karachi which, of course, needs improvement.
We must appreciate that the present right bank of the Indus route has already reduced the distance from Peshawar to Karachi by nearly 300 miles and the new railway line would also be short. No new line should be constructed along the existing railways, east of the Indus, but instead these should be strengthened to speeds of 140-200 kilometres per hour from Rawalpindi to Lahore, Multan and Karachi. In these sections rail speeds have to be increased by track and signalling improvements rather than by duplicating rail services.
The need to extend the dual line from Lahore to Rawalpindi is of course a priority. This arrangement would be more cost effective as well. The new railway line from Kashmore should open up Balochistan and needs to pass through or close to Khuzdar, Turbat and Gwadar. It would link Quetta with the existing track for the minerals of Saindak, Reko Diq and other mines to be transported to Gwadar for export. More importantly central Balochistan would be opened for communication leading to rapid economic growth.
Only those people who have seen Turbat, Punjgur, Awaran, Kharan and Khuzdar know how under developed these areas are. They deserve a better deal from the state. In the years to come Dera Ismail Khan will be the breadbasket of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after the province starts utilising its full share of water. Today the bulk of the export and import trade to and from Afghanistan uses the right bank of the Indus route with the activation of the Bannu-Mir Ali road leading to the Ghulam Khan Customs Post on the border. A pre-feasibility study conducted by the Railways in 2005 for the right bank of Indus line is available.
In the years ahead this railway line could be extended to Afghanistan as well because the Torkham line has a very steep climb. The Quetta-Chaman line is more feasible though is not without its technical difficulties. A railway line from Dadu to Gwadar would be a waste of money – money that could be better utilised elsewhere for the railways. The existing Gwadar to Karachi Highway is adequate to cater to the immediate needs of the port.
A decision is now due. What is required is getting the strategic vision correct even if it costs an extra year or two. The chief ministers of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan need to remain on board.
The writer is a former chairman of Pakistan Railways and Wapda.