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Roads and railway

THERE is much cheer in the thought that a state-of-the-art highway is about to be built that will connect Karachi with Hyderabad, with plans to stretch it all the way to Lahore eventually.

Connecting Pakistans cities with a high-quality road network will undoubtedly yield many benefits. But it is worth asking: is this the best investment in our transport infrastructure? Consider just some of the plans that are being talked about these days: large coal-fired power plants in southern Punjab as well as an overland road link from Gwadar to the western provinces of China. Will a revamped road network really suffice to serve the incremental volumes of freight that will need to move as a result of these plans?

Of course, building roads is essential, but perhaps even more important for our future requirements is to build up the railway, and it is striking to see the level of neglect that this vital infrastructure is suffering from. In the last budget speech, for example, the allocation for roads and highways was Rs113bn, including urban and intercity roads, for a total of 74 projects. The railway, on the other hand, was allocated Rs77bn for 45 projects. Moreover, many of those projects were going to be funded by China, according to budget documents, and a number of them consisted of routine maintenance and some track upgradation in a few locations. The additional purchase of 500 locomotives was promised, from China again, against about 421 today, a claim that strains credulity absent details. Even now, the majority of visible work, which enjoys strong ownership from the top levels of government, is about roads with hardly anything being said about the railway.

Compare this with our neighbour, India, whose railway budget was just announced in February. The government there has made upgradation of the railway one of its top priorities, and announced an investment plan of $137bn over five years for the purpose. Of course, there are problems over there as well. Much of this money is expected to be raised by the railway from market lenders, and there is scepticism over whether they will be able to do it considering their revenue streams do not look like they can support such a massive debt burden. Also, many of the new projects announced sound a little bizarre Wi-Fi in train stations for instance and passenger fares have been left untouched, putting the financing burden on freight traffic instead. The proportion of cargo moved by the railway has, therefore, been declining over the years, but it still stands at 31pc of the total, compared with 4pc in our country. Roads need improvement in Pakistan, but the real requirement is in the railway, for passenger and freight movement. The overarching emphasis on roads is a clear case of misplaced priorities.

                                                                                                                                                                                                       Curtsy..Dawn News


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