Transportation

Orange Line Metro Train Project

Lahore, Punjab Province, Pakistan
Written by Shirin Naseer on .
The first mass rapid transit train system in Pakistan, the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT) is one of the largest metro projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Built as part of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, the OLMT promises an affordable and environmentally sustainable option to travel across one of South Asia’s most transport-starved and congested cities, Lahore. The Line finally began operations in October 2020 after years of delays following controversies, criticism, and widespread protests against the project for endangering Lahore’s heritage sites and damaging the environment, as well as for the demolition of low-income housing and labour rights violations.

Basic Information

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)

Project Outline 

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.

Lahore Street, Lahore. Credit (CC): Guilehm Vellut

Project Impacts

  • Employment & labour rights: The OLMT project employed more than 7,500 workers during its construction and has created 4,000 jobs in Pakistan for its operation and maintenance, according to an official at the Punjab Masstransit Authority. Labour activists have highlighted the project’s heavy reliance on low-wage workers that were being subcontracted for its construction without any benefits, job security, or health and safety protection. A series of horrific incidents during construction led to the death of 50 locally employed workers; the families of the victims were rarely compensated, and the cash compensation when provided was widely deemed inadequate. Lack of transparency regarding worker’s locations, living conditions, and worker contracts on the side of the companies has been blamed for the difficulty experienced by trade unions in providing assistance to the labourers being exploited in the construction of the project.
  • Environment: Civil society organisations protested against the Environment Impact Assessment report by the project executing agency, the Lahore Development Authority (LDA), which, according to these groups, proposed remedies that were inadequate against the anticipated widespread removal of trees. The EIA report further mentioned the possibility of the contamination of groundwater, impact on soil and air, and noise pollution during construction. In response, the LDA committed to taking several precautionary measures, including planting 6,200 new saplings to replace the nearly 620 trees taken down for the project. During construction, the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued notices to the LDA against heavy dust pollution, but contractors ignored warnings at the cost of the environment and the health of local communities. When the Punjab government initiated a tree plantation drive at the project site in 2020, Muhammad Nawaz Ramay, a senior member of the Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA) Board of Directors, severely criticised the choice of trees during his site visit and deemed them as completely unfit for the environment. 
  • Land: In 2015, civil society activists filed petitions in a Lahore court and arranged protests to push the Pakistani government to change the route of the Orange Line, which they claimed violated the Antiquities Act 1975 and Punjab Special Premises Preservation Ordinance 1985 by running alongside Lahore’s heritage sites. Construction of the Orange Line was suspended in 2016 for threatening heritage sites; this verdict was later overturned by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Despite this reversal, the project has remained at the centre of controversy as local civil society kept protesting against its development and the resultant endangerment of Lahore’s heritage, culture, and history.
  • Local community: Over 200 families were displaced along the Orange Line route; residents suffered losses of ancestral homes and economic livelihoods. The metro line passes through a squatter settlement, shops, an institute for disadvantaged children, and the old town quarters of Lahore where local socio-economic networks used to thrive before the construction of the OLMT. Several disputes arose in the land expropriation and compensation process between the government and residents because of the use of excessive force in evictions, the lack of forewarnings to residents, and the inadequacy of compensation packages.
  • Fiscal impact: Partly in response to doubts about why the Orange Line managed to be included as a priority project in the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) cooperation, Shehbaz Sharif, the PML-N Chief Minister of Punjab (2013–18), has repeatedly said that the Orange Line was a ‘gift from China’. However, the fact that the Pakistani government borrowed from China to build the project, and had to pay large amounts of penalties due to project delays, has led many to further question the ‘gift’ rhetoric and the fiscal impact of the project. According to one estimate, the Punjab government will pay 5.62 billion PKR (about 36.9 million USD) in annual subsidies to make Orange Line tickets affordable to the general public. 
  • Governance: During the PML-N era, government officials would make frequent statements projecting CPEC as a ‘game-changer’. Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) from the main opposition party raised concerns regarding the lack of transparency during the awarding of the project contract and in the changes made to the terms and agreements since its initiation. The construction of the OLMT project was fast-tracked under the PML-N government, and some parts of the project were even started prematurely. The feasibility reports were also hastily prepared and news reports indicated that a lack of adequate planning in the construction of the OLMT project drove up the cost. 

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’. 

In-depth Sources 

  • Arshad, Yumna. 2017. ‘Orange Line Metro Train Project: A Threat To The Right To Culture,’ University College Lahore Human Rights Review, 7 July. Link
  • Nawaz, Ahsan, Xing Su, Qaiser Mohi Ud Din, Muhammad Irslan Khalid, Muhammad Bilal, and Syyed Adnan Raheel Shah. 2020. ‘Identification of the H&S (Health and Safety Factors) Involved in Infrastructure Projects in Developing Countries-A Sequential Mixed Method Approach of OLMT-Project.’ International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17, no. 2. Link.
  • Qureshi, Fauzia. 2015. ‘Pakistan: Lahore Orange Metro Train.’ In Heritage at Risk: World Report 2014-2015 on Monuments and Sites in Danger, edited by International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). Berlin: Hendrik Bäßler Verlag, 110–13. Link.
  • Ullah, Zeeshan, Shah Jahan, Sami Ullah, Muhammad Irfan, and Tallat Habib. Undated. ‘Effect of Transport Infrastructure Development on Health of Natives: A Case Study of Lahore Orange Line Metro Train Project’. Capital University of Science and Technology. Link.

Updated on 3 April 2021.


Shirin Naseer is a Research Assistant at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies and a PhD student at Palacky University, Olomouc. Her research focuses on the impact of China’s soft power vis-a-vis the Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia. She formerly worked as a Senior Research Analyst at Spearhead Research, specialising in Pakistan’s political risk analysis, with a focus on Asia Pacific developments.

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