There are few projects which have met such agonising delays and mutilations as the Karachi mass transit. Nearly four decades have passed, but the five-and-half-mile underground ‘spine’ which the first Bhutto government had proposed has not only remained a dream, it has undergone dilutions and transformations in a way that served only to scupper it.
The roots of Karachi’s mass transit project lie in the Karachi Circular Railway, a project brilliantly executed by Gen Azam Khan, one of Ayub Khan's trusted men. Ayub's era was one of laissez faire, and apparently the KCR was designed to help Karachi’s industrial class. Connected to the main line, the KCR brought industrial workers from what then were suburbs — Drigh Colony, Malir and Landhi — to the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate, and then went on to join the Karachi-Peshawar grid again via Wazir Mansion.
The link to the main line enabled the KCR to ship industrial goods to upcountry as well as to the harbour. But it did serve the people as well, because the KCR passed through Shershah, Lyari, Liaqatabad and Nazimabad via the uninhabited land that has today turned into the densely populated Gulshan and North Nazimabad. It was fun riding the KCR. There was a station called Central in the COD Hills. It was designed to relieve pressure at Cantt and City stations by bringing the express trains there.
As the population increased and the capital shifted to Islamabad, the KCR suffered neglect. Also to transform the transport scene was the gradual shrinkage of the railways’ role, as trucking and long-haul buses came to Pakistan in a big way in the ’80s. On the KCR, ticketless travelling became common and it ran losses. It was wound up.
Now after a lapse of decades, a Japanese-aided project is in the air, but somehow it doesn’t get started. Approved by the cabinet's economic committee in 2009, the project has already been delayed by three years, pushing its cost from the original $1.5 billion to $2.609 billion, an increase of 67 per cent because of bureaucratic procrastination. The project will make the KCR double track, build 11 elevated stations and two underground ones, and is estimated to carry 0.7 million passengers daily. Unless one of those periodic hitches sabotages the project, the revived KCR will be functional by 2017 and should partly help ease the metropolis’ transport problem.
How the old KCR stations will be reclaimed is a good question. The original plan had left enough space for link buses to carry passengers onward. This space has been usurped by construction sharks, who have raised apartment buildings and commercial centres. They cannot be demolished. How the project will go underground in built-up areas is a problem the Japanese technology can, no doubt, solve, but the problem is the lack of political will. One has to stand at one of the bridges to realise the immensity of the task, for the tracks have almost disappeared, buried as they are under tons of sand and boulders.