Karachi Mass Transit: What we can learn from others

Recently, a seminar on rail based mass transit systems was arranged in Karachi by the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport Pakistan and the Mass Transit Cell of the Karachi City Government. In a paper read at the seminar, the Director of the Karachi Mass Transit Cell presented construction cost details of rail based mass transit systems in other cities of the world. These figures were very revealing and welcomed. We can now compare our costs with those of similar cities. However, there is much more that we can learn from the experience of others and it would have been good if this too could have been discussed.

Manila, Cairo, Bangkok, Calcutta and Bombay are cities very similar to ours in demographic and social terms. All of them have rail based mass transit systems in operation. Some of them have developed these systems recently. It is important to understand the repercussions of these systems and how they have fared.

In the case of Manila, Cairo and Bangkok, mass transit rail systems have not improved traffic conditions. In all these cities traffic related problems have increased and there are enormous traffic jams in which people can be caught for anything between one to two hours if nor more. This is in spite of the fact that these cities have also built numerous flyovers and/or expressways on which millions of dollars have been spent. Traffic moves fast on the expressways but at the exit to the expressway (except when leaving the city) increased traffic congestion takes place. The recent circular road loop constructed in Bangkok has however eased traffic conditions. Planners feel that if it had been built earlier, some of the expressways would not have been necessary. It is clear from the experience of these cities that effective traffic management and planning to segregate through and local traffic and not inner city expressways, flyovers and rail mass transit systems alone will improve traffic conditions.

In both Manila and Bangkok, there is a continuous increase of bus traffic even on roads where the light rail systems have been built. Taxis are a major cause of congestion as they wait below the stations on the roads for customers. The reason for this is simple. The cost of light rail travel far exceeds that of bus travel. For instance, the sky train fare in Bangkok is between 10 to 40 Bhat or an average of 29 Bhat (Rs 37.5) whereas the same journey can be made by bus in 3.5 to 5 Bhat. In Manila, the fare is less, 12 Peso (Rs 19) when I last used it in 2000. Again, the bus fare for the same journey is less than 25 per cent of the rail fare. Again, neither the Bangkok nor the Manila systems serve the suburbs of the city whereas the major movement of commuters is from the suburbs to the city centre.

Both the Manila and the Bangkok light rail were built on BOT. The fare is cheaper in Manila because the light rail construction cost much less. In Manila it is a simple elevated transit way six metre high in the centre of the road. As such, it is environmentally unfriendly and has degraded the corridors it passes through. In Bangkok the light rail is a sky train transit way at a height, in places, of over 15 metres. Its construction cost is about ten times more expensive than that of the Manila light rail and this explains its high fare structure as well. However, due a booming tourist industry, Bangkok was able to afford its sky train and make it environmentally more friendly by linking it up through well conceived urban design projects with commercial and shopping plazas. This will not be possible in Karachi given the locations through which the light rail mass transit will pass. The lessons for Karachi from the experiences mentioned above are obvious.

Bombay and Calcutta have suburban railway systems whose travel costs compare favourably with those of buses and as such there is a disincentive for using other than the railway system. The reason for low fares is that these systems were built by the state and with state subsidies. Also, these systems are rail only corridors and as such do not congest the already congested roads as in Manila and Bangkok. They carry people from the suburbs to their places of work and back in better environmental conditions than what polluted roads can offer. Inner city mass transit systems, by linking up with them, become far less extensive, intensive and expensive. The Karachi Circular Railway (KCR), revived and extended into the suburbs, with serve the same purpose even better since its outreach will be far more extensive than that of the Calcutta and Bombay suburban rail systems. However, if it is built on BOT, without a major government subsidy, its travel cost will be much higher than that of bus transport, defeating the purpose for which it is being constructed.

All cities who have built rail based systems have not built elevated transit ways through their historic areas and through the narrow corridors of the inner city. This has been a conscious decision on their part. Thus, in Istanbul, Ankara, Cairo and now Delhi, the light rail systems within the inner city and historic areas are all underground. In the case of Bangkok and Manila, building an underground is extremely expensive since both the cities are built on marshes. As such, it was decided not to build light rail systems in the historic Pahurat and Bang Lamphu districts of Bangkok although they are congested and used heavily by commuters. Similarly, in Manila, transit ways were not built near the historic fort area and major changes were made to building an elevated light rail through the Macarty district to address environmental and heritage concerns of the citizens and urban planners.

Corridor One in the case of Karachi, passes through Karachi’s historic district where most of its important monuments and recently listed buildings are located. Karachi has a wealth of beautiful colonial architecture in its historic core. It is encouraging to note that in one of its alternative proposals for Corridor One, the City Government is planning to build an underground through this area. It is also interesting to note that building an underground is not at all as expensive as we were led to believe earlier. The Karachi Mass Transit Programme (KMTP) elevated Corridor One that the Canadian firm was to build in 1998, was costing us US$ 44 million per kilometre. In Istanbul, the cost of the elevated system has been US$ 26 million per kilometre and in Delhi (where 23 per cent of the system is underground) the average cost has worked out to US$ 33 million. And what is more surprising is that in Madrid, a First World country, the construction cost for an underground system (through tunnelling which is the most expensive of all alternatives) has worked out to US$ 53 million per kilometre! As such, six kilometres of underground on M.A. Jinnah Road is economically quite feasible. Its technical feasibility on the other hand was never questioned.

Given what has been discussed above, a rail based mass transit system for Karachi must be subsidised by the government so as to make its fares comparable with other modes of public transport. It must also make maximum use of the rail corridor and provide protection to our cultural heritage along M.A. Jinnah Road so that it can be subsequently upgraded and restored.  And finally, if we wish to solve our growing traffic problems, then the rail based mass transit system has to be a part of a larger city traffic and transport plan of which land-use planning and protection is the most important element.

One Comment

  1. sara

    there should be light rail vehicle system is islamabad as well.. but instead of railway stations there must be independent rail cars covering all the main areas n bazaars of a city

    Posted June 11, 2013 at 2:17 pm | PermalinkReply

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