EVEN though it is no cause for jubilation, as Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed would have us believe, it is no reason for going into mourning either. It is a bit of good news, and encourages us to believe that our rulers can sometimes do good. On Thursday, some two frustrating decades after it was wound up, the Karachi Circular Railway chugged along its tracks for a modest — and basically symbolic — run to conform to a Supreme Court order and thus avoid contempt. ‘Circular’ by nomenclature, the KCR’s initial run is rather straight, with trains taking an excruciatingly long 90 minutes to travel between Pipri and City Station, a distance of 46 km. Though the ebullient minister reduced the fare from Rs50 to Rs30, it is doubtful if the KCR trains’ speed will attract commuters en masse. To be worth its name, an urban mass transit system should be comfortable and fast. The KCR has neither of these attributes. In fact, it is absurd to think of the KCR in terms of a mass transit system for a sprawling city of many millions like Karachi. Even when the loop is complete after the Frontier Works Organisation has done its job on bridges and underground passages, the KCR will be a mere adjunct to Karachi’s ambitious and idyllic mass transit plan, which for decades has continued to exist only on paper.

In theory, Pakistan’s biggest city will have four bus rapid transit lines running along 113 km of roads. However, such is the ‘progress’ on the BRT project that the Rs16bn Green Line, on which work began in 2016, is still incomplete, while the cost has shot up to Rs30bn. Awaiting attention are the yellow, orange and red lines. This means a modern rapid transit system is nowhere on the horizon. Given Pakistan’s political ecology, it is doubtful if Karachiites expect the full spectrum of the KCR-BRT system to be operational before at least a decade. What is lacking is political will.

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2020

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