The Supreme Court has ordered the Pakistan Railways to bring back the Karachi Circular Railway. The authorities have swung into action and started removing what they call encroachments on the track.
What is not clear, however, is how prepared the government is to actually get it running as much of the groundwork has not been done. The last Environmental Impact Assessment, for example, was published by the Japanese in 2009. Even the plan to resettled people uprooted to make way for the KCR is five years old. There is no clear business plan on what the fares would be either.
On Tuesday, Dec 25, Railways Minister Sheikh Rasheed spoke about the KCR. “KCR has moved into CPEC,” he said. “Our decision will be announced in five to 15 days. If the KCR project is not initiated today, it will never be completed.”
The minister was speaking to the media as he saw off the first cargo train under a public-private partnership on the Karachi-Lahore route. His words are sobering. He also spoke of another project: a high-speed double track from Karachi to Peshawar in collaboration with China. It is this project which seems to be a higher priority for the government instead of KCR.
A look at the paper trail for the Karachi to Peshawar track indicates that it is this project that is far more important than KCR. Consider the groundwork that has already been done.
On the CPEC website, you will find details of two important Pakistan Railway’s projects “Expansion and reconstruction of existing Line ML-1” which is 1,830km long and is estimated to cost $8,172 million and the “Karachi Circular Railway”. Its estimated cost is not mentioned. In fact very few details are mentioned.
In August 2016, Pakistan Railways placed a Request for Proposal to upgrade and construct different sections of the Main Line-1 from Karachi to Peshawar under CPEC. This document did not mention anything about the revival of the KCR.
In March 2018, Pakistan Railway placed another Request for Proposal for a feasibility study to improve the yards of Karachi and connectivity with the port areas as part of the Main Line-1 work. In this document, they discuss the KCR. “While preparing the proposal for a dedicated freight line from Karachi to Gwadar, the consultant must keep in view the requirement of the Karachi Circular Railway (KCR) from Wazir Mansion to Karachi City and up to Drigh Road.” The Joint Coordination Committee approved including KCR in CPEC.
According to Vision 2025, Pakistan Railways is planning to gradually enhance its share of freight transportation from 5% to 20%. The report says that based on economic indicators and developments in Pakistan especially with CPEC, future passenger and freight traffic is likely to grow exponentially. The Karachi Port and Port Qasim railways freight share is forecast to be by 2025-26 34.6 million tons a year and 40 train pairs per day. They expect that passengers from Karachi City and Karachi Cantt stations by 2025-26 will be 81m a year annum with 47 train pairs per day.
Given these forecasts, the railways started upgrading the Main Line-1 from Karachi to Peshawar. The track will be taken from 65 to 160 km/h. A centralized traffic control will be added. A new double track would be laid from Karachi to Kotri. The track from Lahore to Peshawar would be doubled. All this would possibly be paid for with a Chinese loan.
So far, this progress has been made: The feasibility has been done and the Main Line-1 was declared a strategic project in Beijing. An agreement was signed when the PM visited China in May 2017. The commercial contract for the initial design was signed then too. The Pakistan government approved it in May 2018 and it is expected to take till 2022.
The details given above give us an idea of just how important the Main Line-1 is for CPEC. Now compare this to the revival of the KCR. Much less work has been done on it.
In principle it has been agreed to include KCR in the Mass Transit System of CPEC. A Transport Working Group has been asked to work studies and consultation. Its feasibility was said to have been competed by May 2017 but it is nowhere to be found. The groundbreaking was expected in 2018. But all we have is a meeting in May 2018 with vice president of China Railway Construction Corporation Limited Yang Jinjun in which Planning Secretary Shoaib Ahmad Siddiqui said that the ML-I was strategically important and KCR was an economically viable project.
Pakistan’s federal and provincial governments have asked for KCR to be made a part of CPEC many times. But no further studies or consultation reports have been made public. A summary for the feasibility study is on the website of Engineering Consultant firm ECIL but it dates to 2002. No environmental impact assessment has been shared with the public.
KCR is not a project in isolation. Even if it were revived in Karachi it will only be successful if the city’s Bus Rapid Transit system is also built with it.
And so, the Supreme Court may order the government to revive the KCR but unless the entire project is planned properly, and integrated properly with CPEC (if that is what they want) it seems that very little progress will be possible. And it will not, as the Pakistan Railways claims be economically viable or beneficial for Karachi.
The writer is an urban planner and senior research associate at the Karachi Urban Lab at IBA and is a visiting lecturer at NED UET