Lahore braces for a Rs165-billion Metro Train amid concerns about high costs, financial viability
After the launch of the Metro Bus projects in Lahore, Rawalpindi-Islamabad and Multan, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government in Punjab has come up with another major announcement for the people of Lahore. In what it terms as a historical development, the government says a 27.1-kilometre long Orange Line Metro Train Project will be constructed in the city over a period of 27 months, at a cost of Rs165.22 billion.
As per project details, the finance required for the purpose will be provided by China in the form of loan which shall have to be paid back over a period of 20 to 25 years.
The proposed Metro Train will have the capacity to transport more than 250,000 passengers in a day.
Though the project has been approved by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC), there are reservations among certain quarters that the decision was taken in a hurry and without following due procedures. For example, the Planning Commission of Pakistan (PCP) has pointed out that necessary documents such as those pertaining to impact and outcomes, performance indicators, tangible outcomes or deliverables and outcome of stakeholder consultation are not attached with in the PC-1 submitted to the commission. The PCP is also not clear about how the loan will be repaid and the operational costs will be managed and so on.
Anyhow as per the proposed plan, the Metro Train will run on an elevated platform on a route that starts from Ali Raza Abad on Raiwind Road and ends at Dera Gujran on GT Road. It will pass through Multan Road, Chauburji, Lake Road, Lakshmi Chowk, Railway Station, Hide Market and from there to its final destination on GT Road and vice versa. Only 1.25 kms of the line shall be made underground to avoid any on-ground construction on the Mall Rd.
The expected time for the groundbreaking is September or October this year.
No doubt, this project will benefit a large number of commuters but the question, once again, is whether the investment is worth making. The cost of the line that comes to Rs6bn per km is whopping in view of many who support the idea of improving the existing local transport at much smaller cost.
Khawaja Ahmad Hassan, Chairman, Lahore Transport Company (LTC) and Vice-Chairman, Metro Bus Authority, rejects the criticism against the Orange Line, saying that the availability of quality public transport is crucial for the growth of other sectors of economy and the involvement of maximum workforce in productive work.
He says it is not like other projects, "It’s unique in the sense that 100 per cent finance will be provided by China."
Hassan rejects the allegations against the award of contract, saying that it has been finalised after long-winded negotiations in which they succeeded to bring down the cost by Rs700 billion or so.
The Chinese companies shall execute the project, he reveals, whereas the civil works will be the responsibility of the Lahore Development Authority (LDA).
According to Hassan, underground rail network is not feasible as it costs 4 to 5 times what the elevated one would do.
Besides, he says, psychologists suggest travelling by road is better as it gives the passengers sufficient exposure to light and oxygen.
Hassan also says he decided to go for the elevated platform in order to avoid land acquisitions and spare the general public the nuisance. "In this system, the elevated platform shall be built on the median of the road, accommodating metro trains moving in opposite directions in U-type ducts."
Dr Noman Ahmed, Professor and Chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University of Engineering, Karachi, has some reservations about the project. He says such mega projects consume large-scale subsidies for longer periods. Though, initially, they earn political mileage for the party in power, in the long run it is hard for the relevant departments to sustain the operations.
His point is that whereas the subsidy is there during the tenure of the political party that launches such projects, the change in the political setup may lead to the end of it.
Ahmed, who has closely studied the transportation system of Lahore, says there are three major concerns that the urban planners have about mass transit projects. First, these bring too much traffic from suburban areas to the urban and add to the congestion that already exists. "It is much better to develop smaller towns and provide opportunities to people there instead of making them move to the big seconds."
Secondly, he says, the gestation period of mega projects is too long and construction-related work causes inconvenience to the general public. Though Lahore Metro Bus project was completed in a relatively shorter time, it disrupted routine life, affecting many.
The third concern Ahmed talks about is that the governments like to spend huge amounts on mass transit projects and do not focus on other "viable solutions" to traffic woes. "The 2021 Master Plan of Lahore discusses in detail the improvement of existing intra-city roads and the introduction of bus fleets to facilitate passengers. Unfortunately, there is no serious attempt to put it into practice."
Khawaja Hassan defends the subsidies given to public transport project saying that these reach the most relevant people. "Nobody would get off his car just to avail the subsidy. Only those who are in genuine need of this facility will board it."
He says public subsidy is provided all over the world. "In Beijing [China], it is up to 60 per cent of the cost." But they have plans to generate income by providing space to advertisers and generating commercial along the route. This way they shall be able to cover some of the cost. On the loan, he says it is concessional, with mark-up of less than 3 per cent and they hope clearing it will not be a big problem.
Dr Ajaz Anwar, painter and conversationist, says mega projects like this shall be debated in the presence of citizens to ensure transparency. "No doubt it is financed by China, it is still a loan which will have to be paid by the existing and coming generations with interest.
"It is unfortunate that the provincial government has announced the project despite the Lahore High Court decision against the Jail Rd signal-free corridor," he says.
"The experience of Metro Bus is there before us but it has not helped release the load of traffic as it caters to the commuting needs of a few. It is feared the Orange Line shall not be able to help."
He terms such mega projects as "political gimmicks of the rulers with dictatorial mindsets.
"They gain political mileage and leave the monuments for their posterity to boast about."
Prof Dr Tanvir Iqbal Qayyum, ex-Chairman, Department of Transportation Engineering & Management, University of Engineering & Technology (UET), Lahore, says that although the people demand an underground metro rail system it is not viable in Pakistan. The reason is simply that it does not have Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs). (The TBMs can drill tunnels without disrupting city life.)
"The circular rims of these machines are studded with diamonds which can cut the hardest of rocks once they enter a place to dig tunnels," he adds. "Therefore, the construction of an elevated platform is a better option, though it may cost higher and there is a question mark as to its sustainability and financial viability."