With thick clouds hovering above and winds blowing freely, a group of workers working on the railway tracks along the main Mauripur Road try their best to finish their job before sunset. About six of them bring crushed stones from a pile nearby in baskets and throw them along the track, where two of their colleagues level them to hold the wooden cross-ties in place, which in turn hold the rails in place.
A tiny part of the giant project is supervised by Ghulam Muhammad, a railway contractor, who is sitting on a chair placed in front of a wooden table on which a large samovar and a number of teacups are waiting for the workers to call it a day.
“These crushed stones are known as ballast,” he says when I ask him why they are used on railway tracks. “Their purpose is to hold the wooden cross-ties in place… They are used to bear the load from the railroad ties, to facilitate drainage of water, and also to keep down vegetation that might interfere with the track structure.
“For years these tracks [along Mauripur Road] have not been used, so they needed some repair and maintenance. The job is almost done.”
Many Karachiites are sceptical about the job being done by Ghulam Muhammad and several other Pakistan Railways (PR) contractors and workers in different parts of their city. Years of unfulfilled promises, lack of political will on the part of various governments and seemingly unsurmountable hurdles in the way of the project have made it difficult for them to believe that operations of the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) are really going to resume within two months after a gap of more than two decades.
However, what inspires some confidence about the veracity of the claims about KCR’s revival this time is the force being exerted for the implementation of the decision.
In February this year, the Supreme Court issued orders that the KCR be relaunched within six months. A three-member bench — headed by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed and also comprising Justice Faisal Arab and Justice Sajjad Ali Shah — directed the PR and Sindh government authorities to remove encroachments from the lands needed for the relaunch of the long-delayed train service within six months.
The bench, while hearing a case at the apex court’s Karachi registry, had expressed resentment over the failure of the federal and provincial authorities to implement the court’s directives of May 2019 to remove encroachments from the KCR tracks, revive the train service and relocate the people to be affected by it.
Due to the lockdown and other restrictions imposed in view of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the project was delayed for a further few months. But now the authorities are confident that the first phase of the service would be launched by the end of the year. Housed in a colonial-era building at the City Station, the office of the PR’s divisional superintendent nowadays witnesses unusual hustle and bustle. After an hours-long meeting of the high-ups in the building, during a recent visit of Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the final plan for KCR’s revival was made public.
“The [KCR] service is being revived in three phases,” said a senior official. “In the first phase, which is expected to begin within the next two months, the route between the City Station and Orangi Town/Manghopir station would be made operational. Then the second-phase route between Orangi Town station and Gillani Railway station in Gulshan-i-Iqbal and finally the [third-phase] route from the Gillani station to Drigh Colony station would be resumed. The next two phases may take a few more months.”
The KCR was commissioned in 1964, originally to help the PR employees travel between their workplaces (at and around the City and Cantonment railway stations) and their residences in Karachi’s eastern neighbourhoods. The service later turned into a full circle of 44km in 1970 and connected Karachi’s four main work areas — the port, the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate, the city’s central commercial areas such as Saddar, and the Landhi Industrial Area.
The KCR remained the means of transportation of choice for the people of Karachi till 1984 when the number of its trains was reduced. Reasons for the move included lack of maintenance and repair, a yawning gap between expenditure rising due to higher fuel and operational costs and revenue decreasing due to subsidised tickets, and the government’s inability to spend money on improvement of tracks and stations. The KCR finally shut down in 1999, forcing thousands of its daily users to travel by buses.
Now, amidst the fast-shrinking number of buses as well as bus/van routes and almost a non-existent public transportation system in a city of over 20 million people, the announcement for KCR’s revival has emerged as a fresh promise for easy and economical travelling within the city for its dwellers.
“In the early 1980s, I remember how travelling within the city was cheap and convenient,” recalls Shamsuddin Ahmed, a retired banker, who used to travel more than 20km each day from his home in Model Colony to his workplace on the I.I. Chundrigar Road. “Anywhere in the city, whether you needed to go to office or see a relative in the Central District or visit someone in the South, circular railway was the first and last choice.
“If it is revived in the same way it was being operated in the 1970s and 1980s, it would revolutionise the city’s transport system,” he added.
If one sifts through facts, it emerges that the city’s transport system indeed needs a revolution.
A letter written by a deputy inspector general of traffic police to the transport secretary a few years ago had revealed that more than 50 per cent of the buses, minibuses and coaches in the city had disappeared from roads over a decade mainly due to “increase in fuel prices and government apathy”.
“Karachi has witnessed the disappearance of over 12,000 public service buses, minibuses and coaches in the last decade,” the letter said and called for urgent measures to save the public transport sector from total collapse. “There were 20,000 buses, minibuses and coaches in the city till 2000, but now only 8,000 are operational. Similarly, there were 200 routes of public transport buses and minibuses in the last decade but now 80 are operational.”
Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2020