The Punjab government’s much tomtommed underground mass transit system has many buyers as well as detractors
n December last, the Punjab cabinet, led by Chief Minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, approved the mega development project of an underground mass transit system for Lahore, besides introducing subterranean blue and purple line trains.
The project will be completed with the financial support of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on a “build-operate-transfer basis” with no monetary investment by the Punjab government.
The underground mass transit system will operate from Valencia Town through Kalma Chowk, Liberty Chowk and Data Darbar, all the way to the airport. The cabinet also permitted the Planning and Development Board and the Transport Department to start negotiations with the ADB in this regard.
Was it just a gimmick and a ploy for political point-scoring or a genuine deal whereby the people of Lahore would get a modern and effective rapid transport system? Uzair Shah, the Punjab Mass Transit Authority (PMTA) general manager in charge of operations, says: “We are at the [project’s] early stage yet.
“First, the feasibility study for the project, completed in 2016, will be redone,” he says. “Seven years is a significant amount of time in order for key facts to alter. Hence, the feasibility study will be done all over again. Second, the Asian Development Bank has yet to be contacted for assistance.”
An underground mass transit system for Lahore has long been a favoured project for both the authorities and the public representatives, but some other rapid transport projects, such as the Lahore Metro Bus and Orange Line Metro Train, as well as the various underpasses and overhead bridges, took precedence. In 2012, the Lahore Urban Transport Master Plan (LUTMP) Vision 2030 for the Lahore Metropolitan expected the city to have four mass transit lines and several auxiliary services such as bus routes, parking plazas and transit stations. The idea was for a city of 15 million or so people, to have regional connectivity with neighbouring cities like Kasur and Shekhupura, as well as the international airport, based on thorough travel surveys, land-use patterns and plans and transportation models.
Based on the then-estimated utilisation and possible financial payoffs, it was recommended that the core Green Line be built first, followed by the Orange Line (Phase 2), Blue Line (Phase 3) and Purple Line (Phase 4), in that order. This arrangement would provide world-class connectivity to all city residents, particularly those commuting to and from the main business district.
Dr Navid Cheema, a scientist, calls it a misadventure. He cites the example of projects like the OLMT and Metro Bus, which have created problems of subsidy, sustainability and utility.
In line with the concept, the Green Line BRT was to be built in 2013 with funding from the Turkish government. Since the initial proposal for a Rapid Mass Transit System in 1991, the installation of a light rail track and, later, a medium-capacity metro remained on the table until the then chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, made the final choice for the less expensive and faster BRT alternative. Later, the government, with help from China, executed the OLMT project.
The underground mass transit system has many buyers and many detractors. Dr Shaker Mahmood Meo, the chairman of the City and Regional Planning Department of the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore, supports the project, saying, “If India can run an underground train in Delhi; Lahore, too, can.
“The public deserves a modern, efficient, safe and rapid transport system. It can only be done through meticulous planning.”
Talking about the potential challenges to the project, Meo notes “huge funding, disruption to underground cable and pipeline networks and possible displacement of people at certain points.” According to him, only the government has the resources and powers to address these issues.”
He warns that the project may not last long because of the unchecked growth of the city.
Dr Navid Cheema, a scientist, calls it a misadventure. He says projects like the OLMT and Metro Bus have created problems of subsidy, sustainability and utility. For him, the most pressing issue facing the country is a lack of finances. “The cost of an underground train project would equal that of two dams,” he says.
“Frankly, the mass transit projects are way too expensive [projects]. If the government is infatuated with a train project, it can build a railway line along the metro corridor. The best and cheapest option to resolve public transport is the availability of electric buses run both in the private and public sectors. The people ought to use public transport. It’s a culture that can be cultivated if we discourage the use of cars and motorcycles.”
Dr Hassan Shehzad, a co-investigator in an HEC-funded road safety project titled Optimal Use of Available Resources: A Prototype Model for Islamabad, is of the view that reducing the number of vehicles on roads is a goal of any mass transit system. “Unfortunately, the governments have always done the opposite — they piled buses upon buses and then they built more roads. The entire city now looks like a bridge. Even so, the city roads remain clogged. This is not a workable solution. This isn’t how smart cities function. Building more roads will not work if the number of vehicles is not reduced.
“The set pattern destroying our cities is the concentration of power in one person who hires a mad bureaucrat to play havoc with urban areas. This has happened to Lahore over decades. Unfortunately, the same thing is being replicated in Islamabad,” he adds.
The writer is a media veteran interested inpolitics, consumer rights andentrepreneurship