KCR: The Great Train Robbery
A circular railway may actually solve Karachi's public transport crisis — this is why it will never see the light of day
Most of four dozen women who work at an office in Karachi’s business district at II Chundrigar Road considered themselves lucky. Their company picked them from their doorsteps and dropped them home. The ladies sometimes grumbled about traffic jams and air conditioning but they were mostly content if not a little grateful. Most of them did not know how to drive, did not own a car and lived so far away from work it would have taken them over two hours by bus to reach otherwise.
But then one day, their company ended the pick-and-drop service, fired the drivers and sold off the vans because of a financial crisis. The best it could do was give each woman 7,000 rupees in a transport stipend each month to make up for it.
A mad scramble began for the women to find a way to get to work. The staff came from far off places: Kaneez Fatima Society, Korangi Crossing, Nazimabad, Water Pump to name a few. Some of them found a private van service that catered to women from other offices around the area. But that service turned down women who lived in Malir and Gulistan-e-Jauhar. The timings did not work out with their shifts. And most of all, it was charging them as much as 15,000 rupees which was half the salary for some women.
These are the women who dream of public transport in Karachi. They represent millions of people in this city who have given up hope of ever being able to afford simple movement. People need to go to work to earn a living, go to university, go to the doctor, or simply get out to have fun. All of that is now hemmed in by their shrinking power to pay for transport: hundreds of rupees for chingchis, rickshaws or buses, thousands of rupees ride-hailing Careem, Bykea or Uber, hundreds of thousands if they want to own a car.
These women do not represent the few thousand men who do not dream of public transport. These are the men who make decisions in the city and provincial governments, the policy circles, the engineering consultant firms and the international donor agencies. These men do not hope to afford transport because they have the best of it. They have bulletproof Vigos and Fortuners with their hush cool interiors, cushy Toyota Civics and hybrid Prius drives with their petrol tanks eternally full. Many of them also have police mobile vans who clear their way in traffic.
Of course, these men in power have taken a stab at token efforts to get Karachi working public transportation. Over the decades, different governments launched many projects ranging from UTS buses to Green Line buses. But nothing has worked.
One of the solutions, however, lies right under our noses. It is the Karachi Circular Railway, which as its name suggests is a track that sits like a doughnut on the city and could help connect people from many different parts. It was a train service that started in the 1960s and did pretty well for many years.
Initially, KCR was supposed to help factories send boxes of shipments to the Karachi port. But because the train used to pass through neighbourhoods, people started using it to move around. By the 1970s, the KCR had grown to a 44km route and in the next ten years it had six million people using it. The trains were running 80 trips a day.
Sadly though, the KCR started suffering for many reasons by the mid-80s. At one point it was down to only 12 daily trips. By 1999 it was shut down because of losses. Grass grew over its tracks and slowly people started building homes and shops on the space where the trains ran.
Since then, the authorities have tried to get it back up to give the people of Karachi some relief from traveling like crushed khajoors in a box in busted minibuses.
The Japanese donor agency JICA, whose engineers specialise in public transport, even made a really detailed study in 2012 on how to restart the circular railway. The plan was realistic and gave the government solutions for the people who had started to live on or near the old tracks. They had to be helped if they were going to be removed. But the plan was never used.
Six years later, in 2018, when the Supreme Court was hearing a case against squatters all over Karachi the judges also ordered for encroachments on KCR tracks to be removed. By December 2018, the city administration started bringing in the bulldozers.
To start off with, ‘soft encroachments’ were removed from the track in the city’s central district. Around 7.2kms of the track was cleared from Ghareebabad to North Nazimabad Board Office.
Then there was a silence for almost five months until May 2019 when the Supreme Court ordered the Sindh chief minister, Karachi commissioner and railways to get KCR up and running in 45 days. The secretary for railways promised the court that they would complete the work and a local train would be running in two weeks. They would then hand KCR over to the Sindh government.
News of these developments gave many people hope that the transport crisis was being handled. But the KCR is not a magic bullet that will miraculously change the entire system. It is, however, the base of a master plan that will make it easier for people from all over Karachi to hop on and off trains and buses. That big picture is laid out in the Transport Master Plan 2030.
That project, known as Karachi Breeze, is made up of five bus rapid transit lines (Green, Red, Yellow, Purple and Aqua), a mass rapid transit (Brown) and a separate BRT line (Blue). The Green, Red, Yellow and Blue lines will meet at Numaish on MA Jinnah Road. All of them connect to the KCR at some point or the other and this entire public transport network would ideally cover enough of Karachi.
Work on the Green Line started in 2016 and it is expected to be completed by December this year. Almost 65% of the work has been completed. In July, the Asian Development Bank had approved a $235 million loan to help develop the Red line.
The KCR can obviously not be the same KCR from the 1960s. Its design has been redone not just because technology has changed but because Karachi has grown exponentially since those days. Today its track goes through the city’s major intersections and roads and if the design isn’t redone, there would be major traffic jams.
This is the biggest challenge in resurrecting the KCR, which is why one proposal is to raise 65% of the tracks off the ground i.e. build it elevated.
The total length of the new KCR design is 43.2km. It will be a two-way track. It is not clear how much will be elevated. One of the officials who has been working on the project said that 26.6km will be elevated. But the designs available with SAMAA Digital show that this is more likely to be 30.57km instead.
According to documents available with SAMAA Digital, the new design starts from Drigh Road station, goes through Gulistan-e-Jauhar, heading to Gulshan-e-Iqbal. From there it will turn towards Nazimabad going through Yaseenabad and Liaqatabad.
The track then heads to Manghopir and SITE before going taking a turn towards Baldia and going through Lyari, Merewether Tower, City Station and onwards to PIDC and Karachi Cantt. The KCR would then run parallel to Sharah-e-Faisal and go through Chanesar, Shaheed-e-Millat and Karsaz before completing a round trip at the Drigh Road station.
This design calls for 24 platforms of which 14 will be elevated and 10 will be on the ground or “at grade”. The plan says the stations will have parking spaces.
To date, trains in Pakistan have been running on broad-gauge tracks which were laid during the British occupation. The KCR used to run on similar tracks.
This is going to change. According to the technical preparation report made by Nespak, they will not use the older broad-gauge tracks and will rebuild KCR with standard-gauge tracks.
According to sources, the decision to lay the tracks from scratch was taken after planners realised how much it would cost to retrieve the old original tracks. They were missing in many strips. It is cheaper and faster to do it this way, they argued.
Additionally, KCR trains ran on diesel engines. In the new plan, the authorities are considering new electric trains. “The third-rail system will be adopted,” said an official, who worked on the technical feasibility. In this system, a semi-continuous rigid conductor is placed alongside the track to feed electric power to the railway locomotive.
It is worth mentioning that along with clearing the track, the authorities also have to clear out some infrastructure that was built since the KCR shut down. There is a flyover at Habib Bank Chowrangi that has to be knocked down to make way for the elevated track. Back in the days when the KCR was operational, the bridge was constructed so the train could pass under it, said an official familiar with the new design. He hastened to add that the bridge is already in a dilapidated condition and will be the only one to be demolished to make way.
There is also the matter of a land dispute between the Sindh government which had given land to the Railways to run trains but now wants to take it back as they need it for the KCR, an official said. The problem is that railways is not ready to hand the land back and is asking for equal land in return or compensated.
Will it be ready soon?
Getting the circular railway back is a massive project that will cost a lot. Its price tag right now is $1,970 million, which includes locomotives.
So far, Islamabad’s key decision-making bodies, the CDWP and ECNEC, have approved this, revealed a senior official. He refused to come on the record, however.
The project’s design has also been approved and the consultants had their assessment of how technically practical it is ready in 2017. So the major paperwork, planning, designing and engineering appear to be sorted out.
So what is taking so long? It appears to be a lack of clarity at the top on how to fund it. According to sources, on the insistence of Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, the project has been included under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor but no agreement has been officially signed to make it formal, the official said.
If this were to happen, it would involve a lot of paperwork. To make KCR part of CPEC the federal government would have to engage the Chinese government and give a sovereign guarantee for us to take Chinese loans, the official said.
Paying for KCR under CPEC will be much more expensive as the interest on Chinese loans would be much higher than what JICA was willing to offer, he added. JICA was ready to give us a loan for 93.5% of the total project cost at the rate of 0.2%. The JICA loan was repayable in 40 years. The terms and conditions of the Chinese loan won’t be so easy.
Bickering between the federal and Sindh governments is another reason the circular railway is not moving forward at the pace it should. “It is very unlikely that the project will take off anytime soon as there seems to be a lack of interest on the part of the federal government as they don’t want the provincial government to get credit for the revival of KCR,” the official surmised.
“There seems to be a lack of interest on the part of the federal government as they don’t want the provincial government to get credit for the revival of KCR.”
And so, in the meantime, and for the foreseeable future, the women who need to come to work off II Chundrigar Road laugh when they hear about the KCR. It is not a project they care about any more because they have been hearing promises for a long time that the public transport crisis will be tackled. They and the millions of other people who need to go out to earn a living in Karachi are disconnected from their government and the authorities that be. They make do with whatever informal systems rise up to take advantage of the vacuum. They dream of buses whose fare they can afford. Air-conditioned, clean buses that form a network that reaches into neighbourhoods and connects them to the main arteries. They dream of a time when they don’t need to dream of something as simple as taking a bus to work.
Additional reporting: Sohail Khan
Animation: Feroz Khan
llustrations: Obair Khan, Sheikh Faisal
Video edit: Rahim Sajwani