Chinese Name: 拉合尔轨道交通橙线项目
Location: Lahore City, Punjab Province, Pakistan
Type of Project: Transportation (Urban Rail-Rapid Transit Line)
Main Contractors: Construction: CR-Norinco, a joint-venture of China State Railway Group Co., Ltd. (CR) and China North Industries Corporation (Norinco), subsidiary of China North Industries Group Corporation Limited; Design: Railway Engineering Consulting Group Co., Ltd. (subsidiary of China Railway Group Limited); Operation: Guangzhou Metro Group
Known Financiers: The Export–Import Bank of China and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China
Cost: 1.62 billion USD
Project Status: In operation (since 25 October 2020)
With a total track length of 27.12 kilometres, the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT) runs at 80 kilometres per hour from Dera Gujran at the northern end of its route to Ali Town at the southern end in the city of Lahore, with 26 stations along the line. It uses 27 energy-saving fully automated electric trains, each of which has five 20-metre long bogies with 60 seats. With a capacity to carry nearly a quarter million people a day, the OLMT has brought a two-and-a-half-hour long commute across one of Pakistan’s busiest cities down to just 45 minutes. The project was originally envisioned by the Transport Department of the Government of Punjab in 2007 in response to increasing passenger demand and in recognition of the need to develop sustainable transport systems in Lahore.
In April 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and witnessed the signing of the commercial contract for the Orange Line between the China State Railway Group Co Ltd (CR), China North Industries Corporation (Norinco), and Pakistan’s Punjab Masstransit Authority. According to the government of Punjab, initially in January 2014, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government floated an open international tender for the OLMT. Two Chinese companies, a joint venture between CR and Norinco and another joint venture called Sinorail, participated. However, in a meeting between Chinese premier Li Keqiang and then President of Pakistan Mamnoon Hussain the following month, the Chinese side proposed to fund the project on condition that it would be executed by Chinese enterprises using Chinese equipment.
The international tender was cancelled in May 2014, and an Inter-Governmental Framework Agreement was signed between the two countries. The Chinese side provided a shortlist from which the Pakistani side could tender from that included only the same two Chinese companies that had participated in the earlier open tender. In August 2014, CR-Norinco was the lowest bidder with a price of 2.139 billion USD. The Pakistani side negotiated to lower the overall cost of the contract, including requiring the less technically demanding civil works to be subcontracted to the Pakistani side. In the end, the contract awarded to the CR-Norinco consortium was worth 1.62 billion USD, including civil works, engineering and mechanical (E&M) works, the purchase of 27 train sets of Chinese rolling stock, and a contingency sum. Within the contract, the 532-million-USD civil works was to be the responsibility of the Punjab Masstransit Authority, executed through the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) and contracted to Pakistani companies. In February 2020, an eight-year operation and maintenance contract was awarded to a consortium consisting of Guangzhou Metro Group, Norinco International, and a Pakistan partner (Daewoo Pakistan Express Bus Service Ltd.). All the Chinese companies involved are state-owned.
Construction commenced in October 2015 and was originally scheduled to be completed by the time of the 2018 general elections. However, in August 2016 under a verdict by a Lahore court, the OLMT’s construction was suspended for passing through some UNESCO world heritage sites. This verdict was later overturned by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in December 2017, and construction resumed. The first trial run of the OLMT was initiated in December 2019. As Chinese and Pakistani contractors returned to work, the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic which restricted movement of Chinese engineers and workers, delaying the project further. The Orange Line was financed by a soft loan of 1.6 billion USD from the Export–Import Bank of China and 13 million USD in short-term financing from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.
Since its inception, the Orange Line project has been dogged by controversies and protests led by civil society members, workers, and local residents. In 2015, civil society activists, individuals, and groups representing civic and civil rights organisations gathered to protest against the Orange Line project. They raised important concerns related to environmental damage, forced evictions of local communities, demolition of low-income housing, and destruction of heritage sites.
In 2016, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), one of the major political parties in opposition at the time, staged a demonstration to pressure the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government into moving the Orange Line track underground in order to protect Lahore’s heritage sites. There are a total of eleven world heritage sites within 60 metres of the Orange Line. These monuments are protected and preserved under the Antiquity Act 1975 and the Punjab Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance 1985 that make any construction within 200 feet of these properties illegal if undertaken without prior approval of the Director General (DG) of Archaeology. The government’s Heritage Impact Assessment report warned against high risk of damage to the structures along the construction site and listed ways in which this damage could be controlled. As the DG of Archaeology is appointed by the ruling government, it is suspected that the DG approved the route of the OLMT despite the fact that the government’s building assessment indicated high risk of site damage.
In August 2016, however, the construction of the project was halted on orders by a Lahore high court. The Supreme court of Pakistan’s final judgement in 2018 nonetheless sided with the Punjab government, allowing construction of the project to resume on the condition that no physical damage is done to historical sites. Subsequent media reports revealed that while project construction had resumed, the court-instituted precautionary measures were not fully implemented.
Tensions also escalated when the Pakistani authorities began taking over private land in 2015 under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, which permits the government to seize private land in exchange for cash compensation, with the added provision that residents are notified in advance. The local authorities claim that market-value compensation packages were provided to residents and that during the eviction process the Punjab government followed all legal obligations. However, media reports documented evidence of coercion and excessive pressure, as well as inadequate and at times no cash compensation provided for affected families and business owners. In January 2016, civil society organisations, political leaders, workers, and members of local communities affected by the project held a protest rally pushing for the government to alter the project route and stop the imminent displacement of families.
Moreover, the project drew widespread criticism from labourers and labour activists over negligence in maintaining safety standards. Fifty Orange Line workers lost their lives due to fire, electrocution, or collapsed walls. Labour activists condemned the lack of support from the government and reported that labourers were being brought in by a convoluted network of Pakistani subcontractors on low wages from south Punjab with no safety or health protections. In May 2016, in response to a petition highlighting the absence of precautionary measures with regards to labour, the Lahore High Court directed the Punjab government to report all regulations that were being installed to protect Orange Line labourers. The court was also notified that an eight-hour-long loadshedding observed for the project’s construction led to the death of a patient on a ventilator at Mayo Hospital, Lahore.
The dangerous working conditions further sparked a protest in July 2016, when Orange Line labourers highlighted the government’s misplaced priorities in pushing for the rapid completion of the Orange Line over the safety and health of its workers. In response, the spokesperson of LDA shirked responsibility by stating that ‘the implementation of labour laws is the responsibility of the contractors’.