AN Orange Line Train ride arouses mixed emotions. The first thing that strikes the traveller is certainly technological leapfrog that the train represents in the otherwise low-tech environment. Comparable to any other service in the West, it has everything a modern commuting service needs: escalators taking passengers upstairs, automated inlets taking them to the track, clean pathways and compartment welcoming them and train leaving with computerised precision of timing.
However, as soon as one takes his eyes off the train and track, the high-tech feelings dissolve quickly and the rider is taken back to centuries-old Lahore. The elevated train track snakes through a concrete jungle where nothing seems planned from houses to streets and roads choked with traffic that run along the entire 27km route. The only area where some sense of organised construction exists appears to be the government housing colonies situated on Multan Road. For the traffic mess, even that small relief is missing as a deluge of cars, Qingqi rickshaws, motorcycles run along the route — making ride an educative experience how the city has grown into an unliveable urban wilderness.
As one disengages from the surroundings and looks back to train, a feeling of emptiness takes hold and a nagging feeling of “underutilization” of this world-class facility grips one’s mind, especially of those who happened to travel in such facilities abroad. Thinly populated compartments welcome the passenger.
Punjab needs to levy taxes rather than pressing the entire mass transit system to wrong direction, says operations official
This situation defeats all previous estimates that led to its construction. In 2006, when it was first conceived, the ridership estimates topped 250,000 a day. Some 15 years down the line, the numbers must have gone up grossly. On the contrary, as official correspondence among different government departments shows, it has dropped to 25 per cent (or around 70,000) of the estimates — and it shows during the ride.
“The ridership increases by 20 to 25 per cent during morning and evening hours,” says a train employee, but that is only two-hour improvement. For the rest of the day, it is an existential issue for the entire experiment. Though getting a bit better with people growing used to the pandemic and educational institutions reopening, half of the capacity certainly stays empty all the time.
“This problem is bigger than the newly-inducted Orange Line. The entire Mass Transit experiment is suffering to varying extent because of political issues. It dropped out of favour of the new (PTI) government, which instead of strengthening weak links, has put the system on the chopping block – creating issue out of everything, without solving them. It raised fare and now blames the service for drop in passengers. With drop in passengers, subsidy bill rose and the service is held responsible. The entire system in province (Lahore, Islamabad and Multan) is currently working at 50 per cent,” he explains.
As number of passengers drops, a worried Punjab debates how to improve the usage (both passengers and commercial) and keep the service sustainable? The Punjab also knows that it does not have option of increasing fare and it can only play with numbers and non-fare income. For this to happen, it is trying a paradigm shift. So far, it has focused on service delivery.
“Everyone focused improving service,” explains one of the employees of a company running Lahore Metro Bus Service. Since the government was to give subsidy amount whatever it was, the authority reduced its mandate to serving passenger – the less, the better. No one thought or discussed how to increase numbers as they were never a priority, he says.
With change in government and squeeze in subsidy, it is a reprioritisation process for the authority. However, the authority, surviving of official money, was never administratively strong enough to reinvent itself. This weakness is haunting it now. Its lame ways can be gauged from the fact that many of its key posts have been lying vacant for months because “official financial handouts” kept coming. The contract period for managing director has expired but no one seems bothered. A company handling assets worth hundreds of billions of rupees does not have a chief financial officer for a year now. All this affects day-to-day working, leave alone conceiving and executing new initiatives, he explains.
Syed Uzair Shah, general manager (operations), however, believes “there is no need to reinvent the wheel. If the world is running such systems hundred years before Pakistan, it also located and developed income-generating sources. The Punjab needs to follow them, not go on a wild goose chase. It should levy fuel, vehicle registration and congestion taxes in the city to meet expenses, as the world does. The price of property goes up along the route and must be taxed accordingly. The Punjab needs to do it, rather than pressing the entire Mass Transit system to wrong direction.”
Disagreeing with his “wrong and convenient approach”, a transport department official, who did not want to be named, wonders: “Is it believable for a right-minded person that a company handling assets worth Rs355 billion [Orange Line Rs250bn, Lahore Metro Rs30bn, Rawalpindi-Islamabad Rs34bn and Multan Metro Rs30bn] neither has any marketing or business development plan nor dedicated department for it? It also received cumulative subsidy of Rs24bn in the past seven years on metros in three cities but had not thought about increasing its non-fare income through commercialisation of assets. It has 27km corridor and 26 huge stations but looks blank when it comes to advertising possibilities.
The transport department official believes: “All their suggestions point towards one direction: government should slap taxes, collect money and hand it over to authority. Even for argument’s sake if such a proposal is accepted, tomorrow Waste Management people would suggest more taxes to finance for their service and WASA would chime in day after. Is that a workable suggestion? The authority needs to get its act together and work on a plan to reduce load on public exchequer so that Mass Transit System succeeds and serves people rather than become a question mark.”
Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2021