NEED OF EFFICIENT MASS TRANSIT SYSTEM

SHABBIR H KAZMI
(feedback@pgeconomist.com)
June 7 - 13, 20
10

Pakistan can be conveniently put in the list of countries devoid of an efficient mass transit system. People are forced to use cars and motor cycles, which increase oil import bill, cause excessive pollution and traffic jams and above all waste of precious time. While a lot has been written about the problems facing commuters of the large cities the conditions in rural areas are even shoddier. While fares of public transport are on the rise the conditions of vehicles are going from bad to worse. The situation has persisted because of lack of incentives offered to transporters, corruption of law enforcement agencies and pathetic road conditions.

Around the world, mass transit system is owned and operated by the government mainly because of huge capital expenditures, but Pakistan faces a unique situation. It inherited a reasonably inefficient system at the time of independence, which has depleted with the passage of time and rendered highly inadequate due to growing population and lack of fresh investment. Pakistan Railways has become one of the worst performing public sector entities due to massive corruption, which paved way for running inter-city buses and long haul trailers. Badly managed expressways and link roads often result in fatal accidents and loss of precious human lives.

Passenger trains operated in the country move slow due to old locomotive engines and decrepit tracks. A significant portion of the system still consists of single track but the real issue is highly fragmented booking system. The computerised booking system is either bogged down or overloaded due to a parallel system run by the operators. If one approaches a help window, the immediate reply is 'no seat is available' but one could get as many seats as he/she likes by greasing palms of the 'agents'. It seems strange that trains are overloaded but revenue is very low, which indicates massive pilferage.

Lately, the massive pilferage has been detected in diesel. According to the sources, the actual consumption has reduced to one-third of the total purchases. The worst hits are those who book their seats in air-conditioned compartments. During most of the travel, air-conditioning system does not operate because generators run out of fuel. Under the prevailing system only a limited quantity of diesel is supplied, which is sufficient to run the system for few hours. Commuters often have to fight with the employees and often pull the chains to forcefully stop the train, which delays the trains. The service of cargo trains is also disappointing and business community prefers to send their goods by road, despite being expensive. Pilferage is also high and delays are common.

Inter-city buses often offer better service but have other nuisance. Drivers often indulge in over speeding, playing of vulgar songs and movies are common. Though one could travel from Karachi to Peshawar and to Quetta by bus, the seats are highly uncomfortable. It is strange that at times getting ticket on certain routes is also difficult particularly during certain seasons.

As regards to the public transport system of Karachi, tons of papers have been written but the system cannot be improved without investment of billions of rupees. While Sindh provincial government does not have enough funds at its disposal for Karachi, CDGK has made some efforts to organise public transport system. It also suffers from limited availability of funds. The difference in demand could be gauged from the studies suggesting induction of about 1000 buses in Karachi alone. The two immediate issues are 1) how to mobilise funds and 2) can city roads bear the additional load?

It is often suggested that Circular Railway could provide a solution and many feasibility reports have been prepared. However, experts have failed in arriving at consensus. While one group is passionate supporter of the system, the other group is the worst opponent. Each group has its own convincing argument. Some of the experts are of the opinion that the multi-mode transport system is the only solution but there is no room for the Circular Railway. The infrastructure constructed decades ago has gone obsolete and requires injection of billions of rupees for revamping but benefits would be minimal. Many of the areas just could not be served by the existing system and the idea of expanding the systems makes even the experts jittery.

As a make-shift arrangement introduction of long-chassis CNG operated buses offer a practical solution but mobilising funds is an insurmountable problem without the active participation of the financial institutions. Introduction of these buses can also help in weeding out mini buses and coaches, which are creating the worst havoc on the roads. Experts are also of the view that introduction of an efficient and cost effective public transport system can help in reducing the number of cars and motorcycles on the roads and the added advantage will be massive reduction in oil import bill.

Over the years, CDGK has created signal free corridors, constructed flyovers and underpasses but irregular parking, encroachments of roads and footpaths and blatant violation of traffic rules by the drivers do not allow free movement of the vehicles. For most of problems, police could be held responsible. At times, it appears that biggest duty of traffic police is collection of Bhatta. According to transporters the annual payment of Bhatta is estimated around Rs10 billion. Had transporters been spending this amount on addition of new vehicles and maintenance of their fleets, the conditions would have been far better.

Some experts are of the view that introduction of CNG buses could add to the shortage of natural gas in the country. However, others say that CNG being a cleaner fuel can help in containing pollution as well as saving millions of dollars spent on import of diesel. They go to the extent of saying that there is no shortage of gas in the country and it is only a man-made issue. If gas-marketing companies reduce the UFG losses to half and ongoing litigation of gas fields are resolved the supply can far exceed demand.