On the right track

Proposed Pakistan-Afghanistan rail link is aimed at reviving the old transit and trade routes to create new North-South and East-West connections across Eurasia

On the right track

With multiple transitions in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, the visionary functionaries in the regional capitals have started dreaming of revival of the old transit and trade routes to create new North-South and East-West connections across Eurasia. These visionaries, during the last five years, embarked upon some ambitious, rather cautious, strategies to get their dreams realised and reap ample economic benefits in the fast emerging regional scenario.

To be more specific, the United States -- sole super power -- and China -- soon to be a leading global economy -- have launched their own projects to integrate the Afghanistan-Pakistan region with the rest of the world through a more viable maritime and land transit and trade routes.

China, as it has now become the hallmark of President Xi Jinping’s accelerant drive in planning, has launched billions dollars projects of "One belt One road, China new Silk Road, and Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB)" to link and integrate South Asia and Central Asia.

Similarly, as envisioned in 2011, the US has also practically started execution of its New Silk Road Initiative as a means for "Afghanistan to integrate further into the region by resuming traditional trading routes and reconstructing significant infrastructure links broken by decades of conflict."

The US thinks it is promoting the New Silk Road Initiative linking Central and South Asia in some key areas. However, the latest heart-warming initiative at least for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan came again from China last week when it was quoted on February 10 in Kabul by Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sirajul Haq Siraj, as promising to help build a hydroelectric power plant in a violent Afghan border in Kunar region, as well as road and rail links to Pakistan.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying also told a daily news briefing in Beijing that "China agreed to support relevant initiatives for projects including the Kunar hydropower plant and strengthening road and rail connections between Afghanistan and Pakistan."

The rail track will help defeat the spectre of terror and extremism in the region by giving youth jobs that would leave no recruits for terror outfits.

This remained a well-received news on this side of the border, more particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, during the last week or so. As put by the president of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KPCCI) Fuad Ishaq, if materialised, the project would revolutionise trade in the region, besides bringing a positive change in the lives of the people on both sides of the troubled border.

Presently, the Peshawar Cantt-Landikotal rail section of about 52 km exists that is just few kilometres off the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. According to the papers provided by Deputy Superintended Peshawar, Ali Muhammad Afridi, it was constructed and opened in 1925. Though there is no regular train service on this section since 1985, the section, because of its great historical significance, still offers attractive train journey through Khyber Steam Safari for tourists. No doubt the section is an engineering marvel and is laid over the most difficult terrain. It has peculiar features like very high banks, huge cuttings, sharp curves, about 126 bridges and 18 tunnels. However, flash floods and heavy rains in 2007 have played havoc with the infrastructure, damaging bridges and embankments of the track. Since then the train service has been suspended on the section.

It has also been pointed out in the papers that the railway track is passing on the Runway of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Base -- Bacha Khan International Airport -- near Hashim Killi station, which the PAF authorities have closed by constructing a wall on the Cantt Station end.

The PR requires a tentative amount of Rs427 million to repair the washed away and damaged bridges, retaining walls and embankments, etc, to physically restore even a tourist level service with the capacity of just one and a half passenger bogies on Peshawar Cantt-Landikotal section.

However, former general manager of the Pakistan Railways, Shafiq Ullah Khan, does not buy the idea of extending railway track to Afghanistan, saying the project is facing gigantic engineering, physical and even social and political challenges. The terrain is hard having various social and political sensitivities at both the crossings, he said.

He recalled that they had completed a feasibility report of Gwadar-Turkmenistan route in 2003-04, but there was a hitch on the Afghanistan side. "The Afghans did not like a railroad from Pakistan (Chaman) to pass through Kanadahar." Shafiq Ullah, who has also recently conducted feasibility study for the Peshawar Mass Transit Train, said the extension of the existing Pesahawar-Landikotal rail track will also require extensive re-tunneling and re-routing. The tunnels on the existing track are low and small constructed only for steam engines, he said, adding that it is a gradient track and a diesel engine even with dynamic brakes could not use it in the present condition.

Furthermore, it could not be used as cargo track as it is passing through the congested, rather slums-like, localities of the city. However, the Motorway-Shalman-Afghanistan seems more feasible in case its construction was technically and financially supported by China.

"Yes Peshawar is the sole and major feasible option for the project. Historically, Peshawar was one of the 25 main trading and cultural centres on the ancient Silk Road. Other cities included Astana and Almaty (Kazakhstan), Bishkek and Osh (Kyrgyzstan), Dushanbe (Tajikistan), Ashgabat (Turkmenistan), Bukhara, Kokand, Samarkand and Tashkand (Uzbekistan), Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif (Afghanistan), Hohhot, Lanzhou, Urumqi, Yinchiuan (China), Mashhad, Nishapur, and Tus (Iran), Ulaabaatar (Mongolia), Peshawar and Gilgit (Pakistan), Novosibirsk and Omsh (Russia) and Leh in India," says Muhammad Ishaq, member Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Board of Investment and Trade (KPBOIT).

"It will be a typical Chinese enterprise. Only Chinese, who have built the Qinghai-Tibet railway track quite literally on the roof of the world -- at an average elevation of 4,500m above sea level -- can do massive re-tunneling and re-routing through the hard terrain of Khyber Pass in Spin Ghar (Safa?d K?h) Range," Ishaq maintained.

He said that the "Chinese Grand Strategy" to revive the old Silk Road had both overland and maritime routes, but Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is still the best option for the overland link to Central Asia. It is best located to connect landlocked west of China, which the Chinese planners want to develop, to the Central Asia and Eastern Europe. It also represents the culmination of the long-held Chinese dream of connecting to the Central Asia.

Ishaq said the US has already provided technical support to expand the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) 2010 to integrate China, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan through trade routes.

There exists a $10 billion market for Pakistani goods in Central Asian Republics (CARs), Iran and Afghanistan which needs to exploited through inexpensive and safe transportation, he said.

Further supporting the idea, Director Afghanistan Pakistan Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry (APJCCI), and Chairman of the All Pakistan Customs Clearing Association Khyber Pakthunkhwa chapter, Ziaul Sarhadi said it was already planned that a rail track would snake along the Motorway (MI) and then Northern Bypass to cross into Afghanistan through Mulagori and Shalman areas in Pakistan and Lalpura valley in Nagrahar province to reach its capital Jalalabad. He said through Chaman rail section only 50 per cent of the Afghan transit trade was being carried out, while the rest of the transit goods are being transported through Peshawar railways section.

Ziaul Haq maintained that from 2005 to 2014, the Pakistan Railways continued earning Rs1 billion every year as freight charges on GITA (Goods in Transition for Afghanistan).

Fuad Ishaq, who was jubilant over the news of rail link between the two countries, said the government should seriously take up the Shalman rail link matter with both China and Afghanistan as it is not only feasible, but it would also prove to be economic spine for the inter-dependent region. It will help defeat the spectre of terror and extremism in the region by giving youth jobs that would leave no recruits for terror outfits.

It will also enable Pakistan to have access to the repository of vast energy resources such as oil, gas, and hydropower in CARs and meet its growing demand for inexpensive, efficient, and reliable energy, besides revolutionising transportation in the region, he concluded.

On the right track