Standing at the corner of the General Post Office [GPO] at Mall Road, it’s hard to feel the seismic rumble under your feet. It’s either because you’re trying to find your bearings on this expansive, nondescript plaza where McLeod Road meets the Mall, or because the thick January smog is lingering all around you, and your laboured breath in your N-95 mask is fogging up your glasses.
Either way, you’re questioning your decision to be here at 9.30am on a Sunday morning, looking for a sign of the orange ‘elephant’ that has caused a tectonic shift in Lahore’s fabric. Its reverberations, every five minutes from 5.30am to 11.30pm, will continue to drastically transform Lahore, and the region, for generations to come.
I spot two, single-story, red-brick structures with arched roofs across the Mall. Those couldn’t be it. I almost ignore a similar structure right behind my back, until a couple of men walk out of it and down the dusty, dark grey marble stairs. It’s similar to the other two, except the exterior walls of this one are pock-marked with remnants of torn posters.
I peek inside: there’s a lone security guard sitting nonchalantly in a chair. The windows are tinted. The walls are bare. A couple of fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling add no charm. Nothing in the air says this is the entrance to the first underground urban train station in Pakistan.
Lahore, to an outsider like myself, is not just a city. Like all other big human settlements, it is a collective repository of dreams and despair, nostalgia and visions. Like all big cities, it simultaneously embraces and abandons its inhabitants. But Lahore is a little bit bigger than that. It’s a myth: larger than life, older than time, galloping into a future that is manifested in the dust it is leaving behind. I expected a more dramatic entrance to the Central Station of the Orange Line Metro Train.
Lahore’s newly inaugurated Orange Line Metro rail could be the beginning of a transformation of the city more profound than in the last 1,000 years of its recorded history. An urban design enthusiast rides it to feel its vibe
It is both surprising, and not-surprising, that in October 2020, Lahore became the first city in Pakistan to get a modern, urban, rail-based, mass transit system.
Surprising because Lahore never had one — not even in the imagination of its planners until 1991. Neither the 1966 Greater Lahore Master Plan, nor a 1980 Urban Development and Traffic Study, proposed a public transit system, even as they proposed rapid growth of the city along the south and south-west corridors. A 1991 Comprehensive Study on Transportation System in Lahore by Japan International Cooperation Agency [Jica] was the first one to propose a Light Rail Transit system along Ferozepur Road, only for it to be abandoned after a pre-feasibility study in 1994.
An Integrated Master Plan for Lahore by the National Engineering Services of Pakistan [Nespak] in 2001 makes no mention of public transit either. It is only in 2005 that the Lahore Rapid Mass Transit System [LRMTS] project by the Government of Punjab envisions a rail and bus rapid transit system for Pakistan’s second-largest city. Karachi, meanwhile, had already built, operated, destroyed and shut down the country’s only urban rail system, the Karachi Circular Railway [KCR].
But it is also not surprising because, from 2011 onwards, Lahore, under chief minister Shehbaz Sharif, ran with LRMTS so fast, that it coined a new phrase — the ‘Punjab speed’. The detailed feasibility for the first priority corridor, the Green Line, was completed in 2006, but it would take another five years, and downgrading the 2.4-billion-dollar rail-based line to a more palatable 300-million-dollar Bus Rapid Transit system to break ground. It was ready in a little over a year and started operations in February 2013.
Two years later, Islamabad and Rawalpindi got theirs. Two more years later, in 2017, so did Multan. In comparison, Peshawar BRT took three years and Karachi’s Green Line BRT has already taken five and still counting.
Shehbaz Sharif built these systems cheaper and faster than his grovelling counterparts in other provincial governments. Hardly surprising, therefore, that he would have built the country’s first rail-based Orange Line in three years, were it not for his own high-handedness that led to a 22-month moratorium on the project because of legal challenges. He paid a steep political price for his authoritarian streak: he didn’t get to cut the ribbon on the Orange Line.
Dawar Butt, a fellow urban enthusiast, an environmentalist, and a resident of Lahore, has arrived to take a trip on the Orange Line with me. The train has been operating since October 25, 2020, but not a single person I know in Lahore had actually rode on it. It doesn’t go where they live or work, plus the pandemic, they all said. This is also Lahore, I reason — comfortable and not curious.
Dawar and I enter the station and take the escalators down for our first ride. I feel a rush of blood to my head, in anticipation of the novel and the banal, that lies at the foot of the escalators.
It’s too early on a Sunday, I tell myself, as we walk down the pristine, white ceramic-tiled, largely empty station to a row of bulky ticket vending machines. They look menacing, even for the two self-proclaimed urbanists who have lived in other cities with functioning transit systems for a couple of years. I can’t imagine how they appear to someone who might see them for the first time.
Sheepishly, we ask the folks lingering around where to get a pass from. We are directed to a glass cube. As Dawar negotiates with the person inside the cube, I crane my neck to look at familiar objects — turnstiles, information screens, tracks, platform gates, the trains. The next train is three minutes away. The announcement on the PSA system triggers anxiety. Maybe it’s the bad acoustics, or the muscle memory of catching the next possible train kicking in, even though I have nowhere to go and a train departs every five minutes.
It would take another 15 minutes for both Dawar and myself to get our passes. The systems are new and the operators are still figuring their way around. The pass is issued from one computer, but the payment is processed on another. System issues, they say. Or is this Lahore’s regular pace, I wonder? I think of the beautiful system diagram of the proposed ticketing system in China Railway and Norinco’s technical proposal for the project. Apparently, the system is lost a little bit in translation on its way from Beijing to Lahore.
You feel the train arriving way before it pulls into the station. The slightly scratchy PSA system announces it. Words and numbers on screens start flashing. First comes the beam from the headlights, then the sound of metal on rails (and usually a gust of air, but not here because the tracks are packed in glass screen doors) — a visceral urban ritual for an incoming train.
Several trains have come and gone meanwhile. I’ve used the 15 minutes to pace my racing Karachi heart and align its rhythm to Lahore’s beat. We finally have our passes. I tap mine at the turnstile. Ka-ching, 40 rupees deducted. Swoosh, the gates open. It feels familiar and foreign. We’re now at the platform, with a few minutes to spare before the next train.
There’s too much to process for my design antennae. The flashing visualisations on the information screens hanging from the ceiling. They’re in English and Urdu, but the numbers are all in English. The typography is terrible. The plethora of signs on the glass platform screens separating us from the tracks. My former sub-editor’s eye is picking up spelling mistakes.
I’m trying to look for a big, beautiful map showing both the Orange Line and the MetroBus (Green Line) laid out on a schematic diagram of Lahore, but I don’t see any. I don’t see a logo, a well-defined identity for the line, let alone a coherent wayfinding system. They spent 1.6 billion dollars on this project, but couldn’t hire a half-decent design firm to build an integrated identity, communication and service design system? I’m a little crushed. The only saving grace are the big, round, beautiful, minimalist clocks next to these information screens. They uplift me.
You feel the train arriving way before it pulls into the station. The slightly scratchy PSA system announces it. Words and numbers on screens start flashing. First comes the beam from the headlights, then the sound of metal on rails (and usually a gust of air, but not here because the tracks are packed in glass screen doors) — a visceral urban ritual for an incoming train. The train travels slower in the underground section, to reduce vibrations and protect surrounding heritage, Dawar tells me. I’m not complaining. Slow train is better than no train.
The announcer now gets frantic, urging riders (four of us on the platform) to stay away (how far?) from the doors. A silver train with a red face and orange accents comes into sight. Two guards, in black trousers and a red monogrammed jacket, stand erect in front of the platform doors, their backs to the train, and reminding us all to step behind the tactile floor markings on the platform.
Did someone forget to paint the yellow platform safety lines and now the tactile markers, designed for accessibility for folks with limited vision, are being used as a safety barrier? What jugaarr! I’m a gawking tourist with my camera on, capturing this profound, brand new urban ballet. I am a voyeur and a performer.
Blurred people gradually come into focus, as the train grinds to a halt amidst shrieking metal. The train and platform doors align. Ting. Both open in coordination, to flashing door lights. How long do I have to board? I’m anxious, but I let the couple of folks leaving the train disembark, before stepping into what would essentially be a dream for millions of working class people across this country: an affordable, comfortable (and beautiful) train for urban transit.
The train is open gangway — it’s a long, serpentine car, with no barriers between carriages. You can see all the people in a single gaze. You can also see the train’s delicate ballerina movement as it gradually turns west towards Anarkali.
There’s a new train sheen and smell. Fresh. Cotton-like. The lights are soft and white. Screens are functional and playing some animation that has captured Dawar’s attention. The small green lights along the route maps above the door are in order.
There’s probably 50-odd people, mostly men, mostly sitting, face mask on, scrolling on their phones. Despite all this noise in my head, there is a reverent, pin-drop silence inside the carriage. Is it in awe of this marvelous piece of public infrastructure? Is it in reverence of this new public commons? Or is it the fear of the precarity surrounding this project since its reluctant launch by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar?
Throwing people on to the outskirts of the city with a measly cheque of a few thousand is inhumane, unethical and should be illegal. Compassionate and empathetic treatment towards people who are displaced adds less than one percent in the cost of a project of this magnitude, as Arif Hasan has argued in the case of KCR revival.
Two months since inauguration, 65,000 people are using the Orange Line per day, as opposed to 245,000 that were expected to use at launch. Project opponents on social media, egged on by Mashwani Azhar, focal person to CM Punjab on Digital Media, have used this singular fact to drag the project, and everyone associated with it, through the mud. White elephant. Waste of taxpayer funds. Too expensive to build. Even more expensive to maintain. Luxury, not necessity. Should’ve focused on schools and education instead. Should’ve provided clean drinking water instead. Should’ve given all 245,000 people a Suzuki Mehran instead. The attacks are varied, vicious and vapid. If there weren’t a sovereign guarantee on the project loan and a five-year operational contract with a foreign entity, they probably would have shut it down already.
I look at the faces of the riders in the carriage. Most appear to be working class folks. They’ve probably heard the attacks. They fear this joy may be short-lived. It’s the fear, manifested in silence.
Mobility, at a scale of 11 million people, is complex. People take individual trips, from where they are, to where they want to go. As a city manager, you try to aggregate parts of these trips, and that’s where transit becomes a crucial tool, along with land use management and zoning, to design better cities. Bundling people together along journeys helps make these trips safer, cost-efficient and fast, not just for the individuals taking these trips, but for society collectively.
But Lahore is not just any city. The city and provincial government did almost nothing to create and build robust public transit for most of its existence, all the way up to 2013. They built rings and roads, and underpasses and signal-free corridors, and threw in a couple of hundred buses, but left the citizens to figure out mobility for themselves. These decisions are not benign. They have shaped the city that Lahore is today.
Imagine Lahore had only 100 people. Forty of them are below the age of 16. Lots of young people. They go to schools, or play in parks, mostly close to their homes. Of the remaining 60, only 27 are employed. They go to work and back every day. Almost all of these 27 are men. That should explain why all you see when you’re out in the city is mostly men. The remaining 33, almost all women and a handful of men, are unemployed. They are stuck in a vicious cycle. Their mobility is restricted because they don’t have a job, income and means to move around. And they don’t have a job, income and means to move around because they don’t have access to mobility that can help them get out of this trap in the first place. A third of the city — all adults, almost all women — are stuck in this vicious trap.
How does this imaginary Lahore of 100 people move? Except babies, toddlers, old folks and people who are forced to stay indoors because of a lack of money or agency, everyone else will step out of their houses at least once a day. That will come to around 75 people who will take a trip once a day. Thirty-five of them will make this trip on foot. These are mostly the women and children who have restricted access to mobility. We have designed nothing in our cities for them, and almost everything against them.
For the remaining 40, there are about 24 vehicles: 14 motorcycles, seven cars, one taxi/rickshaw, one bus and one other vehicle (truck or tractor). Half of these 40 take public transport, and the other half take their own private transport. So that’s 15 people queuing for the lone bus, and five people taking turns with the single taxi/rickshaw that is available. Eight people take the motorcycles, and 12 fit themselves in the seven cars.
When you build a better public transport system, you first benefit the 15 people who are hanging on to that lone bus. Next, you’d probably lure in the five taking the rickshaw or taxi, because public transport would be much cheaper. Over time, those eight folks on motorbikes might switch, given they’re the most likely road user group to get injured or killed in increasing road accidents.
Maybe two of the 12 folks in the cars might switch, but the other 10 will not. They’re too bougie and they should have no role to play in this conversation. What about those 35 who are taking short trips on foot — the young folks and mostly adult women? With a safe, efficient and affordable transit system, you open up the city to them. They will take trips they’ve never been able to take. They might be able to get to jobs in new places, or visit parks or markets they couldn’t visit before. They might be allowed to go to work, now that it’s accessible and safe. These are some of the faces I see in the carriage this Sunday morning.
A good public transport system is a multiplier for growth and activity in a city. It will not just open up the city that was previously only accessible to 20 people, it will give birth to a whole new city. This is the seismic rumble you feel under your feet on that train as it curves around, what now looks like a miniature, Chauburji.
This was a contested curve. Initially, there was proposed to be a station right next to, and uncomfortably close to, the monument. Likewise, at Shalamar Bagh. Civil society activists created a lot of noise and filed lawsuits for violation of heritage protection laws. In both cases, the design was revised to shift the line ever so slightly away from the heritage sites; in the case of Chauburji, the station was moved a few 100m down south. Some battles are worth having when your chief minister is a closet dictator.
We get off at the Chauburji Station, which is looming three stories above ground, on a viaduct, cantilevered over a single pier. It’s scary, this modern engineering. There is a ribbed, arched canopy above our heads and, as I look south towards the incoming train, I’m transported from Mozang in Lahore to Mitte in Berlin. I couldn’t place it right away, but Dawar would confirm later that the Friedrichstrasse station in Berlin has a very similar canopy.
The Orange Line is transportive in more ways than one. We now board a north-bound train to go back. As we pass by a shinier, cleaner Chauburji, I remind myself that Lahore is not just 100 people and does not have 24 vehicles. To get the real picture, you multiply both those numbers by 100,000 each and try to wrap your head around the individual complexity that plays out at that scale. No one said running a city is easy. So expecting that a single, 27-kilometre line to drastically transform everyone’s life the day it opens is a bit naïve, if not downright delusional.
LRMTS proposes a network of four lines, about 100 kms in total, that should be completed by 2025. Using the same 100 people analogy, the MetroBus right now helps serve about two people. Orange Line, according to its feasibility, will help two more. Initially, in a city that has shaped itself around private mobility, the impact will be limited, and incremental. But as the network builds out, and people adjust to these new behaviours by moving homes closer to the lines and their stations, and offices and schools and markets respond by clustering around network nodes, the transformation is rapid and total.
When built out, the network will potentially help serve 65 people that are willing and able to move around the city. When the city reconfigures itself in response to these new behaviours, it will affect the lives of all 100 of the city’s residents. This is how cities like London, or Paris, or New York shaped up in the late 19th and 20th century: guided by their transport networks. And this is what scares the living daylights out of our suburban-minded decision makers, politicians and car owners.
So, no, the Orange Line isn’t under-utilised and the feasibility wasn’t flawed. Jica conducted 11 different surveys over two years — of people, households, traffic and vehicles — and ended up validating the network proposed under LRMTS, with an addition of a couple of more bus-based lines to supplement the original four.
The proposed network of four core lines not just responds to the city that exists today, but also the city that is being shaped as I write this. What the feasibility does not envision is the city it will actually end up creating (and there’s no way to know that) but it hopes to build enough capacity, and a momentum, to keep that transformation running. If built out, these four lines will shape Lahore in the 21st century more profoundly, than the last 1,000 years of the city’s entire recorded existence.
We arrive at the Anarkali Station and Dawar suggests we step out to see the station. It’s a bit of a monument, he says. We walk up to the concourse, which has a soaring ceiling, and step out into a vast, barren, brick-layered plaza. You turn around and have to squint a bit to take in the reflected light from the white-washed, quasi-monumental Anarkali Station. It seems to overcompensate for the crime that was committed at this site.
The Anarkali Station and the surrounding areas caused the displacement of a large number of people, and destruction of community and heritage sites. This was the costliest part of the project, when measured in human suffering, ripping of the social fabric, and lost heritage and rituals.
There is no way to justify this human cost, which is, in every project, inflicted disproportionately on the most vulnerable people. But there are several ways to mitigate the pain of such displacements — the foremost being fair market-rate compensation, or provision of alternative space in the proximity of the site of people’s displacement.
Throwing people on to the outskirts of the city with a measly cheque of a few thousand is inhumane, unethical and should be illegal. Compassionate and empathetic treatment towards people who are displaced adds less than one percent in the cost of a project of this magnitude, as Arif Hasan has argued in the case of KCR revival. As a society, this is the cost we should gladly bear.
While I’m trying to capture the mausoleum-esque station, Dawar spots a deal on scarves being sold by a street vendor. There’s quite a few already, selling weather-appropriate items: scarves, masks, mufflers, sunglasses. Their presence is a sign of life at this site of rupture.
Across the road, and some 150 metres away, is the MAO College Station of the Metrobus. I didn’t know this at that time, because there was no sign anywhere to tell me that. I only figured this out later when mapping the line for this piece. The Orange Line might be completed, but it has yet to be embedded in the city’s mobility infrastructure and general fabric. That work is yet to begin.
We hop back on for the last ride to Central Station. There’s a few more people now, both in the station and inside the trains. The weather is warming up and so are the people.
There are some questions to which the answers are straightforward. Yes, the ticket will have to be subsidised to make this affordable for people who need this the most, and to attract others who use more expensive means of transport, to switch to this.
Yes, this operational subsidy is given to transport systems all over the world, and the farebox recovery ratio varies from less than 10 percent to 110 percent for systems around the world, based on just one thing: how well embedded is the public transport network in the city. If you go down that list, you will realise that it is not determined by a city’s population or wealth, or development status or technological prowess. It is determined by how robust, and functional, and good the public transit system is. The better it is, the more people use it, the less it needs to be subsidised.
But there’s some questions that I don’t have answers to. Is such a train a luxury, and should this be prioritised over other needs, e.g. basic services, health, education, etc? Should there be a priority in which such things are built? Maybe this is why I need to go back to graduate school. Maybe someone, in some paper, has definitively answered this question.
But my gut tells me this is a ridiculous question. I don’t think we need to choose between health and education and water and sewage and mobility. They are all necessary, and we need to raise the standards and quality for all of them. We don’t bat an eyelid when doling out billions in subsidies to textile manufacturers or sugar barons, or give away thousands of acres of state land to private and state builders and contractors, at throwaway prices, to profit from by building suburban housing societies.
The Lahore Ring Road is under-utilised. No one’s asked for that to be brought down because it’s too expensive. Why do we need to make a choice only when it comes to providing services for working class people?
We’re back at the GPO and it is time for me to head back to the hotel. I call for a Careem, since no public transit goes to Gulberg right now. I feel overwhelmed, and a little bit giddy as I wrap my head around the enormity of what I’ve experienced. Yes, there is a new elephant in Lahore. It is Orange. And now that it is alive and rumbling, Lahore will be better for it.
Header image: Passengers board the Orange Line Metro Train | Zaroon Ahmad Khan and Abdullah Bajwa
The author is a design researcher and strategist, working in urbanism, finance and education. They can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 21st, 2021