The Orange Line Metro Train: Which way forward?

When will Pakistan’s first metro train be up and running? There is confusion at all levels of the project

Text and Photos by Saad Sarfraz for GEO.

The wide-spreading space, previously teeming with cranes and workers, is now dug up and abandoned. A half-constructed building, which was to be the Central Station, stands silent. Debris piled up around it. Here, in Lahore’s Harbanspura area is where the journey was to begin for Pakistan’s first metro train, the Orange Line. But work on the project came to a screeching halt, earlier this year.

Ignoring the on-ground reality, officials from the Lahore Development Authority (LDA), tasked to complete the project, insist that the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT) is charging towards completion. Work is 90 per cent done and all 27 train sets had arrived from China in April, they add. But that was April. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was in power then. Its chief minister, Shehbaz Sharif, had launched the project in 2014 and was personally overlooking its construction. He had hoped to have the train up and running through Lahore, Pakistan’s second most populous city, before the July election. That didn’t happen. Now its rival, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), has formed government at the center and in the Punjab province.

Go slow?

Once installed prime minister, Imran Khan, refuted any suggestions of a rollback on projects, such as the Orange Line, launched under the multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). But soon after, he promised to ensure more transparency going forward.

Last month, the prime minister’s commerce advisor was quoted by the Financial Times as saying that the CPEC “unfairly benefits Chinese companies” and suggested that such projects could be put on hold for a year to review the terms of agreement. However, the advisor later stated that his words were taken out of context.

Despite the assurances, work on the Orange Line has stalled. The remaining funds for the $1.6 billion project have yet to be released. The contractors haven’t restarted work due to non-payment since March, say officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Back at the Central Station there are few signs of activity. The Chinese workers, reached out to for comments, did not speak any English. No interpreter was present and their local counterparts avoided direct questions about the project. Till the sun set, the workers lay lazily around the site, against the backdrop of a blue locomotive gathering dust.

“The situation is quiet worrying,” said Khawaja Ahmad Hassan, the former chairman of a steering committee for the metro train. “There seems to be complete silence from the Chinese side. The new government has created an awkward situation.”

Money matters

Launched in 2014, in collaboration with a Chinese company, the train is expected to run 27-kilometers through Lahore, and transport up to 250,000 passengers a day.

China’s Exim Bank provided Rs150 billion for the Orange Line, adds Hassan. While the China Railway Corporation and China North Industry Corporation (CR-NORINCO) sublet the construction to the LDA, which hired two contractors, the Habib Construction and Zahir Khan & Brothers.

Even before the PTI came to power, the high-speed rail encountered many speed bumps. The OLMT was expected to run by October 2017. That deadline was missed, as it ran into legal troubles. Later, the Supreme Court gave it a go-ahead. A new deadline was set: March 2018. But that too came and went.

“The previous government gave us an unrealistic timeline,” an employee of the Habib Construction Services (HCS), who asked not to be named, told The HCS and ZK&B were responsible for the civil works, including laying the train tracks, and setting up the stations, which they have completed. “The project has now been handed over to the Chinese firm, CR-NORINCO, which will work on the mechanical and electrical aspects. Some minor construction from our side is left, but our bills have not been paid,” the employee added.

Defending the PML-N government, Hassan said that the delay in payments was due to the court hold-ups which led to a hike in the cost. “We needed an additional Rs 15 billion, which the then-chief minister said would be raised locally.”

Now the PTI government has “inherited the costly project.” In a speech to the Punjab assembly, Makhdoom Hashim Jawan, the provincial finance minister, estimated that the previous government owed the contractors Rs 60 billion. He further called the OLMT an expensive publicity project launched in the name of development. “The former government declared that it would cost Rs 165 billion, but Rs 250 billion were spent and the project is still incomplete,” said the minister.

Unplanned planning

Unworkable targets aside, the cost was also driven up by lack of planning by the outgoing PML-N government. The feasibility reports were hastily prepared and the construction started prematurely, explained a HCS employee. “A project like this had never been attempted in Pakistan, hence there were many hidden costs. The prices of which were underestimated.” Another senior representative of the company says, “The 22-month-long court stay and the rising cost of steel and concrete increased the overall overheads.” Their deficit, he claims, runs up to Rs 3 billion.

The issue of non-payment was also raised in the Supreme Court while it was hearing the OLMT case last year. The construction firms informed the Court that two cheques issued to the company by the PML-N government had bounced.

Meanwhile, a report in a local daily called the OLMT the most cost-intensive project in world, led to the CR-NORINCO releasing a statement on September 1 to put to rest any speculation: “It was mentioned in the [news] report that the government has procured 27 five-car trains (total 135 coaches), besides track laying and electrical and mechanical works by Chinese engineers, for whopping a $1,000 million, which is over 60 per cent of total project cost. However, the above-mentioned report disaccords with the facts after verification. As a matter of fact, the total contract value undertaken by the joint venture of China Railway Corporation and China North Industry Corporation (hereinafter referred to as “CR-NORINCO”) is $920 million.”

But the confusion persists, at all levels of the project.

No one even at the Lahore Development Authority wants to take responsibility. When asked to comment, assistant directors at the LDA would say, “We have nothing to do with the project,” before redirecting it to someone else.

But someone will need to step up. Someone will need to roar up the engine and personally helm the project towards completion, if Pakistan is to get its first metro train.

Originally published here:

Sheikh is a freelance writer based in Lahore

Usman Buzdar’s first month in office: Four weeks of uncertainty

By many, Buzdar is viewed as a filler, a temporary chief minister likely to be replaced in a few months

It’s August 20. Inside the civil secretariat building in Lahore, the staff is moving at a rapid pace, removing and replacing official photographs mounted on the walls. Below Quaid-e-Azam’s irreplaceable, all-seeing portrait is that of a man who has ruled Pakistan’s most populous province for a continuous decade. Shehbaz Sharif, Khadim-e-Aala, is Punjab’s longest-serving chief minister. Even when the central government changed hands, the 110 million-strong province remained the Pakistan Muslim League-N’s throne.

But 2018 had not been all that kind to the former prime minister’s younger brother. There is a new Pakistan on the horizon. Things are a tad bit different here. In the new order, the 66-year-old’s portraits must go; a new sheriff is in town.

Enter Usman Ahmad Khan Buzdar, an unknown. At first blush, he seemed withdrawn and low profile. He didn’t have Sharif’s demeanour or confidence or an assertive last name.

Prime Minister Imran Khan being received by Chief Minister Punjab Sardar Usman Buzdar upon his arrival at CM Office on September 01 – Photo: APP

Buzdar is from the underdeveloped southern stretches of Punjab, nominated by incoming Prime Minister Imran Khan on August 17. When his name came up, there was much shock and confusion. No one had a ready profile of the new man in office. Then, some controversy arose and the media licked its lips. A case registered in 1998 accused the chief minister of involvement in the murder of six people. But the allegations were quickly cleared. The accused was a mere namesake, with no connection to Buzdar.

On August 20, the 49-year-old was sworn in. Since then, his first month in public office has been quite interesting.

According to government officials, he is a mystery. At the end of a long introductory session with the Planning and Development Department (P&D) of Punjab, tasked with ensuring economic planning and development, Buzdar only asked one question, revealed an official in attendance who asked not to be named. The chairman of the department provided a detailed briefing of the P&D’s budget and objectives. Upon conclusion, “the chief minister gave a short, prepared speech, with no connection to the presentation,” added the official, “in which he also mentioned how he himself was surprised at his selection for the slot of the chief minister.” However, he did promise to support the bureaucracy and asked for their guidance.

Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar viewing the monitoring system during his visit to Punjab Safe City Authority on September 12 – Photo: APP

Sharif was a one-man show. His style of doing business was often excoriated for being authoritative. Buzdar, ostensibly, will be relying on his provincial cabinet, populated with strongmen, and the federal government for direction – at least that is how certain bureaucrats spoke to view it.

“Buzdar’s ministers have been given ample free reign,” said another official, on condition of anonymity. “They are in the process of formulating policies.” The CM is expected to look into administrative tasks, like removing land encroachments, while his senior minister Abdul Aleem Khan is likely to head the new provincial government’s 100-day agenda around education, energy, and health. 

Murmurs like these create confusion about the chief minister’s own vision. At the same P&D meeting, Buzdar promised no shuffling of the bureaucracy, but then soon after men were moved to Sindh and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. By one account, there are two to three transfers every day. But despite complaints by civil servants, an official admits that many of those relocated had been in office unfairly and for far too long due to their loyalty to the previous ruling party.

Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar. Photo: File

One transfer that generated the worst press was that of Pakpattan’s District Police Officer, Rizwan Gondal. He is said to have had an altercation with the first lady’s ex-husband, after which Buzdar, reportedly, intervened to have Gondal sent to another city. The case is now being examined by the Supreme Court.

But even if the chief minister started off on the back foot, come September he has revved up his administration style, which is now more reflective of the man before him. Civil servants say he has sent a warning to absent officials, and conducted surprise visits to police departments and district courts in Rawalpindi. During one such ‘raid’, the Deputy Commissioner Rawalpindi, Dr Umer Jehangir, and the Central Police Officer were missing from their offices. The chief minister was irked and only left when he was assured that the men were on an anti-dengue monitoring campaign.

But at the end of the day, despite the efforts, Buzdar is still viewed as a filler, a temporary chief minister, likely to be replaced in a few months. Punjab, the thinking goes, is too important a province politically to be handed over to an unknown and inexperienced man. Perhaps the new government is looking for someone who can outpace Shehbaz Sharif’s legacy a lot quicker.

Sheikh is a freelance reporter based in Lahore.

Originally published by GEO:

Note: The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Geo News or the Jang Group.