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WHY DOES KCR NEED TO COST SO MUCH ANYWAY?

Official estimates say reviving KCR will cost Rs400 billion, but an alternate plan suggests it can be done in Rs30bn.
Updated Mar 22, 2020 10:22am

At the heart of the failure to revive the Karachi Circular Railway is the enormous estimated expense of the project, which no government in Pakistan can afford to foot. But what are the assumptions built into such a huge cost? We unpack them and offer a solution at a fraction of the price...



By now many readers must’ve come across plenty of articles about the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR). Some may even have read nostalgic accounts of how KCR started in 1964 and continued to rise in popularity, carrying as many as six million passengers a year in its heyday. Indeed, for over 25 years, the circular railway — which connected all major industrial, commercial, educational and residential areas of the city at that time — remained the Karachiite’s public transport of choice.

And then it all came to a halt.

Unable to withstand the pressures of a growing transport mafia fed by the spoils of the Afghan war, a deteriorating commuter service and an increasing culture of fare dodging, the railways’ incompetent bosses abandoned Karachi’s rudimentary mass transit system, instead of harmonising the service with the demands of the day. After another decade of wobbly and sporadic service, KCR finally shut down for good in 1999 — or so we thought.

Children play on a trampoline set up close to abandoned tracks near a railway station in Gulshan-i-Iqbal | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Children play on a trampoline set up close to abandoned tracks near a railway station in Gulshan-i-Iqbal | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

Nearly two decades later, the Supreme Court of Pakistan wants KCR to restart its journey. While the path to reviving the defunct metro rail system may be paved with good intentions, one questions the wisdom of such an undertaking — especially when considering the estimated high cost of the project.

Related: ‘28pc of KCR track cleared in two days’

According to estimates by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (Jica) the project will cost a whopping 2.6 billion dollars. This means that, over 30 years, 39.5 million dollars will have to be paid as interest. If principal plus interest are repaid on a quarterly basis, this would mean a repayment of 22 million dollars (3.4 billion rupees at the current exchange rate) every three months for the next three decades.

Besides the government debt and subsidies, the common user would also feel the burden of this enormous financial undertaking. The project’s high price tag would inevitably translate to more expensive, perhaps almost prohibitive, ticket prices. And then there is the social cost of anti-encroachment operations seeking to clear the land earmarked for KCR which have already caused unrest.

Of course, none of this takes away from the obvious fact that Karachi needs an efficient transport system. But Karachi today is a very different city from what it was back when KCR shut down.

There is a growing fear amongst KUTC bigwigs that the cost for revival of KCR may actually suffer costs overruns by as much as a billion US dollars. There is a feeling that a more realistic estimate for KCR revival may now be around four billion dollars.

According to the 1998 census, Karachi’s population was a mere 10 million back then. During the last 22 years, Karachi has also faced phenomenal growth of private vehicular traffic without the proportionate growth of public transport or road infrastructure. As per the Excise and Taxation Department’s records, the number of registered cars has increased from 300,000 to 1.5 million since 1998; the number of registered motorcycles from 350,000 to more than 3.5 million; and the number of buses has dropped from 22,000 to only 6,000. Consequently, these drastic changes have led to a clogging of roads, an exponential rise in the number of vehicular accidents — especially fatal for two-wheelers — hefty increase in noise pollution as well as severe degradation in air quality of the city. These conditions have taken a serious toll on the physical and mental health of the residents.

It is no wonder then that KCR is being considered as one of the answers to commuter woes in present-day Karachi. The problem, however, is the way this is being designed and implemented. In fact, KCR can be reincarnated at a vastly cheaper cost than is currently being envisaged. However, such an option would require some out of the box thinking and going back to the drawing board.


BRINGING KCR BACK ON TRACK

Before talking course-correction, we must take a closer look at the efforts that have been made to restart KCR, specifically by several Japanese agencies.

In 2006, the Japan External Trade Organization (Jetro) carried out a feasibility study for the revival of KCR. In May 2008, the Government of Pakistan incorporated the Karachi Urban Transport Corporation (KUTC) as a Public Limited Co., and the company was visualised as a regulatory authority for KCR implementation.

Jica, through its Special Assistance for Project Formulation (SAPROF-1&2), also conducted several studies between 2008 and 2012. The scope of these studies covered transport demand forecasts, design and technical specifications, cost estimates, etc. During and between these studies, Japanese advisers and experts kept pouring in to assist KUTC with technical planning, organisation, costing, socio-environmental considerations and even resettlement plans for the katchi abadis mushrooming in and around the KCR reservation.

The Japanese government also indicated its willingness to finance the KCR Revival Project under its Special Term for Economic Partnership (STEP) loan, carrying a 0.1 percent annual markup, repayable in 30 years. Yen Loan financing meant, of course, adoption of Japanese technology, machine and equipment, and Japanese railway standards.

A man walks on inactive circular railway tracks in Nazimabad | Tahir Jamal/White Star
A man walks on inactive circular railway tracks in Nazimabad | Tahir Jamal/White Star

Jica estimated a period of five years for the basic and detailed design phase of the project, and another five years for the construction phase — after signing of an agreement and sanction of the STEP Loan for KUTC, due approvals from the Ministry of Finance and the Economic Affairs Division of the Government of Pakistan.

A period of another five years was estimated for the construction of 24 kilometres of elevated sections, 16 kilometres of on-ground and several kilometres of in-trench and underground sections of KCR passing through densely populated neighbourhoods and katchi abadis.

It goes without saying that Jica made a tremendously commendable effort to understand and correct the traffic challenges in Karachi.

But perhaps it was all too good to be true. In 2013, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz took over the federal government from the Pakistan Peoples Party after parliamentary elections. A new government brought with it new priorities. And a never-ending tussle for control of the KCR Revival Project between Pakistan Railways and the Sindh Government finally drove the Japanese to withdraw their technical and financial support for the project.

Since time immemorial, railway authorities have been using encroachments on KCR reservations as an excuse to not revive the circular rail. But closer inspection of the Jica study indicates that the land required may be lesser than is being claimed by various stakeholders.

A glimmer of hope for revival of KCR appeared with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) gold rush. The railway authorities shared the Jica studies with their Chinese counterparts. And in December 2016, this readymade KCR project was included in CPEC during the 6th Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) meeting in Beijing. However, there is a growing fear amongst KUTC bigwigs that the cost for revival of KCR may actually suffer costs overruns by as much as a billion US dollars. There is a feeling that a more realistic estimate for KCR revival may now be around four billion dollars.

If that were not enough, the country’s sinking economy and firm dependence on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has stoked a general realisation in Pakistan, and even amongst some Chinese officials in high places, that, for all practical purposes, CPEC may be on the backburner. If that’s true, KCR is back in the stabling yard.

However, all hopes for KCR’s revival may not be lost as yet. Modifying the Jica study teams’ suggestions could give the project a new lease on life. And some alterations could also bring the costs down.


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There are a number of reasons why the Jica plans for KCR are so expensive. We will attempt to understand the assumptions, and explain how they can be brought down to more manageable levels.


GAUGING PRACTICALITY

Currently, almost all railway tracks in Pakistan are ‘broad gauge’, which means their width is 1,676 millimetres (five feet, six inches). Eighty percent of these tracks are 80 to 90 years old. But based on Japanese urban railway standards, the Jica study teams, had suggested converting KCR tracks to the ‘standard gauge’ width of 1,435 millimetres (four feet, eight and a half inches). This is the most widely used railway track gauge globally; over half the railways in the world are standard-gauge and nearly all high-speed rail lines use it.

While converting tracks to standard gauge would mean laying out expensive new infrastructure, Jica clearly hoped to achieve performance quality like that of the Tsukuba Express (a Japanese railway line which has a top speed of 130 km/h). Jica and KUTC also identified the required number of trains, car formations and the frequency of trains calling on 24 stations during peak and off-peak hours.

Google Earth view of Liaquatabad Station of KCR. A careful look at the latest Google imagery for Karachi reveals that roughly 90 percent of KCR reservation, of 25 to 50 metres wide, lies clear of all encroachments throughout the length of the circular loop
Google Earth view of Liaquatabad Station of KCR. A careful look at the latest Google imagery for Karachi reveals that roughly 90 percent of KCR reservation, of 25 to 50 metres wide, lies clear of all encroachments throughout the length of the circular loop

The Jica study teams envisaged 24 four-car sets, starting from Drigh Station and subsequently arriving at each of the other 23 KCR every six minutes. After circling the other stations located in Gulshan, Liaquatabad, Nazimabad, SITE, Wazir Mansion, along I I Chundrigar Road and Shareae Faisal, the trains would return to Drigh Station in an hour, running at an average speed of 43 km/hr.

But the new tracks will not come cheap. Fortunately, making use of broad gauge is neither out of the question, nor untested. There are examples of railway systems in other parts of the world that successfully use electric multiple units (EMUs) — trains based on self-propelled carriages — on broad-gauge tracks. EMUs do not require a separate locomotive and instead have electric traction motors installed in one or more carriages that are driven by electricity. EMUs are popular on commuter and suburban rail networks round the world due to their ability to quickly accelerate or decelerate to a stop and their pollution-free operation.

KCR could be reincarnated if KUTC tried to utilise in-country technical expertise, manufacturing and financial resources with some technology transfer, possibly from China.

Why go far? A modern home-grown urban train system based on EMUs runs on broad-gauge tracks in Mumbai. KCR also tracked on broad gauge for 35 years, and doing the same would lower the project’s revival costs.


BOGIES AND ELECTRIC MULTIPLE UNITS

The similarities between the Mumbai Suburban Railway (MSR) and KCR do not end there. MSR, better known as ‘locals’, consists of suburban railway lines augmented by commuter rail on the mainlines of Indian Railways to serve the extended metropolitan region. Every day, some 200 EMU trains of 12 and 15-car sets cover 400 kilometres of tracks in Mumbai. On average 2,342 trains carry more than 7.5 million commuters daily or 2.64 billion riders annually, making it one of the busiest urban rail systems in the world. All the MSR routes are electrified by 25 kV 50 Hz AC power supply delivered from overhead lines.

The EMUs for MSR are locally manufactured by the Integral Coach Factory in Chennai. These trains were designed and developed in collaboration with German company Linke-Hofmann Busch (LHB), under an agreement signed for transfer of technology to develop Light-Weight High-Speed Coaches for Broad Gauge in 1995. The shells of these lightweight coaches are made of stainless steel with aluminium interiors.


Light rails, suburban rails and commuter rails are passenger rail services that primarily operate within a metropolitan area or connect its industrial and commercial centres with suburbs and nearby towns. While such rail systems may be considered light or heavy, all three types of urban rails are usually EMUs.

The Integral Coach Factory, Chennai, locally supplies a 12 EMU car-set to MSR for 240 million Indian rupees. If Mumbai Suburban Railway had purchased trains manufactured by a foreign company such as Chinese manufacturers CRRC Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive Co., Ltd, each EMU would have cost them five to six times more than locally produced LHB coaches. This is also the basic reason why MSR requires no subsidy from Maharashtra State or the Indian Government and still runs in profit.

KCR could be similarly reincarnated if KUTC tried to utilise in-country technical expertise, manufacturing and financial resources with some technology transfer, possibly from China.

If KUTC decides to award EMU manufacturing contract on somewhat similar rates for supply of locally-built EMU rakes, an EMU for KCR would cost about 40 million rupees and a six-car EMU rake would cost 240 million rupees. Jica suggested 25 rakes averaging six-cars each. This would cost KUTC a total of 6 billion rupees.


CLEARING WAY FOR KCR

One of the most important prerequisites for any successful suburban rail system is the availability of an adequate ‘right of way’. Henry Campbell Black, the founder of Black’s Law Dictionary, defined ‘right of way’ as “a type of easement granted or reserved over the land for transportation purposes, such as a highway, public footpath, rail transport, canal, as well as electrical transmission lines, oil and gas pipelines.”

Illegal settlements have appeared on and around multiple defunct Karachi Circular Railway stations, but they are not as overwhelming as is being officially claimed | White Star
Illegal settlements have appeared on and around multiple defunct Karachi Circular Railway stations, but they are not as overwhelming as is being officially claimed | White Star

The Punjab government had to fork out over 13.8 billion rupees for right of way land acquisitions for the Orange Line Metro Train project. It must be pointed out, however, that, compared to Karachi, a much better public transport system existed in Lahore even before Orange Line project.

If government officials’ word is to be believed, one of the biggest hurdles in the revival of KCR has been that its route has been obstructed by illegal settlements that have mushroomed in its path. This reason has been shared time and again, to the point that some now appear to be losing patience. Just last month, Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed asked Pakistan Railways to revive KCR within four months. The chief justice used the examples of how the Chinese had built a 1,000-bed hospital within 10 days after the coronavirus outbreak. “Nothing is impossible, but you need the will to achieve something,” he had said.

Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed had assured the apex court that encroachments on a five-kilometre strip meant for the KCR project would be removed within a month.

In an order dated May 19, 2019, Justice Gulzar had also categorically said that people living in KCR reservations should be provided with an alternative. KUTC and Jica had agreed to provide such an alternative in Juma Goth, but the lack of implementation indicates that Pakistan Railways has simply walked away from its commitment.

Since time immemorial, railway authorities have been using encroachments on KCR reservations as an excuse to not revive the circular rail. But closer inspection of the Jica study indicates that the land required may be lesser than is being claimed by various stakeholders.

Formation width of KCR at ground station | Courtesy Jica study team
Formation width of KCR at ground station | Courtesy Jica study team

The studies had recommended 13.2 metres as the ‘formation width’ for KCR in ground sections. Six-metre-wide haul roads on both the outer sides of KCR were recommended only in the ‘trench sections’. (These would allow easy maintenance as well as make it easier to rescue passengers in case of an emergency.)

In fact, a careful look at the latest Google imagery for Karachi reveals that roughly 90 percent of KCR reservation, of 25 to 50 metres wide, lies clear of all encroachments throughout the length of the circular loop. The most prominent exceptions are existing secondary road crossings on KCR that need grade-separation.

A perfectly traffic-worthy Taimoria rail-over-bridge in Nazimabad was dismantled last year and will need rehabilitation. And the rest of the road crossings merely need inexpensive underpasses for neighbourhood connectivity. The average cost of such an underpass, with a traffic clearance of under 15 feet and 300 feet long, would be not more than 20 or 30 million rupees. Mumbai suburban trains have been ploughing on ground with similar remedies for the past 90 years.


ELEVATED EXPENDITURES

Another way to bring down the bill would be getting rid of elevated tracks.

For various considerations, the Jica study teams had suggested elevated tracks in some portions of KCR. Specifically, out of a total route length of 44 kilometres, 16 kilometres were kept on-ground, while 24 kilometres were envisioned as elevated service.

But the recent removal of encroachments from KCR reservations has eliminated the need for these elevated tracks. Elevated tracks would not merely mean construction of a 24 kilometres-long heavy-duty bridge capable of carrying carriages each weighing 40 tons; it would also mean construction of elevated technical support infrastructure, elevated railway stations, staircases, escalators, lifts and much more. All of this cost can be done away with.


TRACKING COSTS

Just like MSR in Mumbai, the KCR circular loop of 24 kilometres is augmented by 20 kilometres of Pakistan Railways mainlines. As during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, KCR should continue to use these lines for running trains between City Station, Landhi, Port Qasim and Pipri. If fresh-track-lengths are reduced from 44 kilometres (the KCR’s entire length), to 24 kilometres (the length of the circular loop), it will help substantially reduce the import bill for rail tracks for the revival of Karachi Circular Railway, Phase-1.

The Jica study recommends using heavy rail tracks with UIC-60 specifications for KCR. In simple English, this means 60 kg/m rail tracks in UIC profile, or 60 tons of steel rails per kilometre. If the same specifications are maintained, the 24-kilometre circular loop will require 5,760 tons of steel rails. According to a quote issued earlier this month, at the market rate of $650/ton (ex-factory), that would cost a total of 3.9 million dollars or 610 million rupees. Laying fresh lines of 44 kilometres, on the other hand, would cost 7.1 million dollars or 1.1 billion rupees.


SLEEPERS AND FENCING

Pakistan Railways’ in-house cost for each sleeper is 3,000 rupees. For the 52,000 sleepers required, the cost will be around 160 million rupees. For 44 kilometres, it is estimated to cost KUTC 286 million rupees. There will also be the additional cost of relocating the existing Pakistan Railways mainline section between Drigh Station areas to the Karachi City Station, as earlier decided by the railway company.

Additionally, to avoid human beings and stray animals getting hit by fast-moving trains on two-way tracks, there is a need to fence the two sides of the KCR loop. 24 kilometres is over 78,000 feet. For two sides, the running length will be 156,000 feet. With eight feet in height, this will translate into 1.25 million square feet. The estimated cost for a chain-link fencing is thus estimated at another 640 million rupees.


STATIONS

There are 24 stations over the total length of 44 kilometres of the KCR. Even to run a basic service, all 24 stations, their platforms and their allied facilities would need to be remodelled and rehabilitated. According to estimates by former Railway Constructions Pakistan Limited (Railcop) officials and railway contractors, the rehabilitation of each station will cost an average of 100 million rupees. The cost for 24 stations will thus be around 2.4 billion rupees.

Google Earth view of Gilani Station of KCR
Google Earth view of Gilani Station of KCR

In addition to the above, each KCR station will require prepaid card operators at turnstile access gates and public address systems at an average cost of 10 million rupees per station, or 240 million rupees for all 24 stations.

Over the years, Railcop has developed extensive expertise in the installation of Railway Signalling and Communication Systems in Pakistan and overseas. According to Railcop officials, the cost of such systems will not exceed 10 million rupees per kilometre, or 440 million rupees for the entire 44-kilometre KCR loop.


POWERING THE KCR

During its studies, Jica had approached K-Electric (KE) to ensure quality supply of electricity through four KCR-exclusive grid stations. KE’s current cost estimates for a new grid station is under a billion rupees. The financial burden to build four new grid stations for KCR is estimated at around four billion rupees.

Railcop experts agree with KE engineering estimates for ‘Alternate Current (AC) 25kV (Frequency 50Hz), Autotransformer Overhead Feeding System’ and associated paraphernalia, and say that it would cost around five million rupees per kilometre. Dual lines for a 44-kilometre network thus would cost around 440 million rupees. This estimate is based on KE’s quote of three million rupees per kilometre for their high 11 KV lines.


SO WHAT CAN BE THE COST?

The sum total of the above costs for the initial revival of KCR comes to under 15.5 billion rupees. Compare this with 2.61 (or 4) billion dollars or 400 (or 630) billion rupees under the plan currently being pursued.

These costs, however, do not include any duties or taxes, Railways’ in-house costs such as laying tracks, concrete sleepers, shunting yards and maintenance depots or resettlements, etc. There must be many other costs like rehabilitation of rail-over bridges and construction of underpasses for rail-road grade separation or construction of haul roads, etc. But even if the above notional cost of 15 billion rupees estimated for the Revival of Karachi Circular Railway in Phase-1 is doubled, such costs will still be less than 10 percent of any turnkey 21st-century imported KCR.

Unfortunately, during all these years, Pakistan Railways has neither made any plans nor has it conducted a single detailed study for the revival of the KCR. It continues to depend upon studies conducted by Jica and a hope that some overseas donor will fund the plan.

While indigenisation of the revival of KCR will provide affordable public transport for the people of Karachi, it will also generate economic opportunities worth billions of rupees as well as much needed jobs, and help develop in-country capacity to manufacture widely needed suburban trains across the overcrowded cities in Pakistan.

Last February, Minister Fawad Hussain Chaudhry accused the PML-N government of having spent billions of dollars on the Lahore Orange Line Metro Train project. He lamented that, for the people of Lahore to use the Orange line, the province will have to provide an annual subsidy of 15 to 18 billion rupees. Such a subsidy will be impossible for an already cash-strapped Government of Sindh, forcing it to ultimately transfer the burden to ordinary commuters. And if the commuters fail to pay, KCR will become another white elephant.


The writer is a former administrator of Karachi, currently working with the Dawn Media Group