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Pakistan Railways chugs to a halt after China waves red flag

The original proposal was to construct a railway line from Kashgar to Rawalpindi, where it would join Pakistan's existing railway network and provide access from western China to the Arabian Sea via Gwadar port

The Imran Khan government is struggling badly to keep Pakistan Railways on track after putting "all its eggs in the Chinese basket" and Beijing pulling the plug on financing various projects under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Pakistan daily The Express Tribune had in December reported that the Xi Jinping government had sought additional guarantees before sanctioning a $6 billion loan for Main Line-1 (ML-1) project "due to weakening financial position" of Pakistan.

ML-1, Pakistan's first and biggest transport sector project, is to be carried under CPEC in four Pakistani provinces from Peshawar to Karachi.

Khan, in an attempt to dissuade the fears, had stated immediately after that there was no reason to worry and the project will start a new chapter in the Pakistan-China fraternal relations.

"With the implementation of the project, Pakistani seaports will be better connected with land routes and the country's export goods would be able to reach international markets in a timely manner, helping Pakistan to earn valuable foreign exchange," he said during a review meeting on the Ml-1 railway project on December 28.
The cricketer-turned politician was only making a desperate attempt to douse out the proverbial house on fire. CPEC has not only become a flag bearer of human right violations – right from Gilgit Baltistan in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) to the port city of Gwadar in restive Balochistan province – but also pushed Pakistan's economy on the brink of collapse.

Data revealed by various government authorities, including by the Railways Minister Azam Khan Swati, has shown that losses of Pakistan Railways stood at Rs 17 billion in the last five months, between Rs 35-40 billion a year, Rs 187 billion in last five years and over Rs 1.2 trillion in the last 50 years.

"The cash-strapped PTI administration seems as clueless about its strategy for the railway's revival as any previous administration. It has, apparently, put all its eggs in the Chinese basket, hoping that the investment of $6.8bn on upgrade of the Main Line-1 (ML-1) connecting Peshawar with Karachi would resuscitate the dying company," Pakistan's Dawn reported today.

The long-awaited miracle would only happen if the ML-1 project sees the light of day.

"But for now the project has already hit snags on terms of Chinese financing, delaying work on it. The project was billed to be launched from January this year. Lack of money to outside the ML-1 is keeping it (railways) from rehabilitating old, rundown tracks, bridges, signal system and other infrastructure to improve passenger safety and service, and, more importantly, increase freight business, the main revenue earner for any railway in the world," the newspaper said.  

Even as a massive storm brews underneath, both countries are trying to show that the 'iron brothers' continue to stand united in the 70th year of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations.  

Nong Rong, the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, has made it clear that speeding up of CPEC projects will be discussed extensively as the two sides are in "close communication" and "serious preparation" for the upcoming 10th meeting of the CPEC Joint Cooperation Committee.

Nong had last week also met Swati and agreed on "expediting" the implementation of ML1.

"In the next stage, the two countries will take well-targeted steps in developing Gwadar Port, industrial parks, agriculture, science and technology, assisting Pakistan’s development towards industrialization, urbanization, digitization and agricultural modernization," Nong wrote in a piece titled 'The New Leap of China's Economy Benefits China-Pakistan Cooperation' on the embassy website earlier this month.

The benefits are there for everyone to see, but only in Beijing. The Pakistani junta will only be busy counting monumental losses which right now are being projected as blessings by their country's leadership.