A train for less than one per cent

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn July 6, 2016

Description: http://i.dawn.com/large/2016/07/577c234f986e7.jpg

    • 6,000 buses could be purchased within project cost
    • Project will run into loss

    Over the last few days Lahore has been hit by terrible traffic jams, some often lasting well over three hours. On the far horizon is a pipe dream of the Orange Train Project, one that promises to transport - at its peak - 0.02 per cent of the population of the city. Bizarre planning it surely is. What about the other 99.98 per cent of Lahore?

    It would be silly to blame the Orange Train Project alone for the growing traffic jams of Lahore. But even if it was meant to solve a minute part of the problem of Lahore’s mobility, it is like removing a single rice grain from the largest ‘deg’ you could find at Data Darbar. Sounds dramatic, but then that is exactly what it is. In the blind push for completion it has, without doubt, destroyed Lahore’s finest heritage, not that such considerations bother our rulers. Why should it, for they move around in plush cars at high speed criminally blocking roads creating even bigger traffic jams.

    Yes, the situation is more than enough to make the calmest of minds lose their cool. But given that billions are, and will continue to be spent on a pipe dream on rails, let us apply the known theories of urban transportation, the commonsense solutions, the spending within means possibilities, to this project. For starters with this very money, at the rate of US$250,000 per the latest German bus (check Mann website) it is possible to purchase 6,000 of the best and latest buses to transport half the population of Lahore on a return trip.

    My calculation is based on the old LOS load formula of 150 passengers per single ‘beginning-to-end of route terminals’ ride per bus, with a return trip doubling it. Over 16 running hours this means eight return trips for the bus, or 2,400 trips a day per bus. When Lahore’s population was a mere four million this held true. Now with it near the 11 million mark the rush should surely be greater.


    But the greatest economic nonsense of the Orange Train Line Project is that it will always be a project with a financial loss. Read the project’s website to believe this. Amazing commonsense, even though I believe public transport, education and health should be financed with public money. In this age of cut-throat capitalism, we are surely justified in asking just who will foot this huge, and growing, deficit.

    Mind you the LOS Company of old in Lahore always did make a profit, and there was a time when a prestigious defence institution raised a loan from it. Then an army officer was posted as chief and it just decayed by the day, eventually going into an unsustainable loss. Yes, it died not a natural death, but one inflicted on it by our rulers and our bureaucrats. The poor suffered, but then who cared, or still cares.

    If all this money was spent on buying, and maintaining, 6,000 of the best German buses, it would mean no digging of roads, no damaging of our heritage, a probable reduction in car and motorcycle numbers meaning fewer parking problems. Finally there will also be money to build pavements for safe walking. Imagine a city where you can walk in safety. Will there be traffic jams. Yes, given car and motorcycle numbers and a wild traffic sense. Did you know that Lahore has 4.3 million registered motorcycles, almost two per average family of seven-plus persons? Add to this the fact that our population is unaware of the laws of traffic as written down in the Highway Code Book.

    Think of the staggering opportunities lost. On the probable plus side a train, if it is electric, will lower the carbon footprint. Sadly there is no evidence that it is going to be electric. On the financial cost-benefit analysis side it is, without doubt, an utter waste of scarce resources. But all said and done this project will, forever, change the way we imagine our great city to be. Urban rail projects and urban planning are deeply inter-connected.

    Now let us also dwell on the larger picture. Recently I was at the famed Institute of Transport Studies in Leeds University where the Orange Train ‘project’ was being discussed in a class as a ‘pre-implementation case’. It was clear that to understand the details of the world of transport economics, of which I was a student when studying for a research doctorate at Aston University in Birmingham, UK, in the late 1980s, one needed to be a creative mix of engineering, economics, market research and cost accounting.

    After a vigorous discussion it was clear that there was a need to understand the complex world of transportation planning and economics. My endeavour is to shun the political debate and concentrate on, very briefly, explaining the various fields that will be affected, or need to be affected. In September of 2015 at a conference in Paris, Mme Yves Crozet of the Sciences Po Lyon, LET, France, described the effect urban rail has on the culture of a city. Of importance is the business hubs, where twice a day there is a huge traffic rush. The question she posed was very simple. ‘Does the urban rail solve the traffic rush without disturbing the existing transportation available?’ My answer with regard to Lahore was: “No, it certainly will not, especially given the magnitude of the problem.”

    Then came the basic question of ‘The Total Transport Picture’. For a city like Lahore what should that be? Let me try to build one such picture. I am sure better ones can be built, as one day they will have to be, by our planners. Imagine a Lahore in the year 2025, just ten years away, and we will be catering for a population of almost 20 million. For them we have to build and plan today. If only 25 per cent of the population undertakes a return journey within the city every day, it means we have to cater for ten million journeys, both short and long. Mind you in the morning and in the evening the rush will be at its optimum. So what should Lahore need?

    The city desperately needs a complex underground rail system, call it a Metro like in France or London’s Tube Train. With names Lahore is pretty imaginative. So here is my suggestion. We must have five main underground hubs, a circular underground rail connecting eight linear lines. This will call for up to 200 stations so that passengers are never more than a 15-minute walk from home, for office. This can manage the bulk of human traffic. On the surface with, initially, 5,000 buses on planned routes (the Japanese have done that survey work 20 years ago with files lying under precious dust with the LDA), they will be able to move over three million persons on a return trip.

    My plan bans rickshaws and other such contraptions. Car will have to be discouraged. Do I have a solution for the real culprits: Motorcycles! The answer is No. The best that can be done is what Rio de Janeiro did. Regulate their flow strictly, very strictly. I am sure Lahore’s police can manage that with their ‘special tactics’. They can start doing it now, and that will make a big difference.

    Now a bit about the culture of Lahore which the Orange Train threatens to destroy. Urban rails systems and a city’s building culture are inter-connected. Hubs at critical places tend to destroy the normal flow of human traffic on the surface. Let me quote Roxanne Warren, who writing in her book ‘Rail and the City: Shrinking carbon footprint while reimagining urban space’ has dealt at length with this issue. For her ‘rail transit must add to mobility fluidity and yet remain an environmentally-sustainable urban society’.

    The question that needs an acceptable answer really is that will the Orange Line Train Project add to mobility at critical times leaving behind a sustainable urban space? Most experts claim it will block mobility of the 99.9 per cent of the people and destroy Lahore’s sustainable urban space. This needs vigorous debate. But now that it is being imposed there is a need for a meaningful debate on how to overcome the problems this project will create and then impose on Lahore and its ancient culture.

    Ms Warren in her book says: “It is natural for an architect to be immersed in issues of transportation planning, since transportation is a central component of urban planning and design – urbanism - which is the embodiment of architecture at the maximum scale. At the same time, it is essential that urbanism be conceived with deference to the much larger-scale environment of the planet.

    “Cities since antiquity are places of intellectual awareness and creativity. They are also the places where significant savings in land and fuel consumption can be realised, mostly by more compact development, and through walking, cycling, and the use of public transportation.”

    But then Karachi and Lahore are the two leading cities in the entire world with just no planned public transportation. Is this not criminal? If it is then what economically viable solution has the government come up with? Surely the Orange train project is the worse example of public spending in a resource-scarce country.

    There is also the problem of car and motorcycle parking, an aspect that Lahore has not managed at all. For over 95 per cent of the time these vehicles are ‘parked’. Has the government spelled out spaces, and facilities, for such parking? The answer is a big ‘No’. The reason surely is that the rulers do not have any ‘parking problem’.

    That is why there is a need for a ‘Total Transport Plan’ for Lahore keeping in mind the next 50 years. Mind you London’s underground system is now over 150-years old. India today has 12 cities with underground rail systems and within the next 15 years another 55 will also have such rail systems. Why we have failed on this front is before every Pakistani. Makes you think what ‘representative government’ means.


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