‘THE Tube’ in London, which was the world’s first underground railway when launched in 1863, has completed 150 years. Over this century and a half, it has continued to expand and modernise, while other European and American cities have followed suit. Today, the Tube may not appear as aesthetically designed as Paris’s, but it remains one of the world’s largest underground railway systems that serves the people of London and millions of tourists efficiently. Many Third World countries, too, have opted for mass transit systems as urban populations swell and conventional and crowded modes of transport become obsolete. In Pakistan, not a single city has a mass transit system, though plans for Karachi and Lahore have existed on paper for decades. Capital Islamabad doesn’t even have a plan. In Karachi, the first Bhutto government announced plans for an underground “spine” from Liaqatabad to Tower in 1977 with room for further expansion. But the project was shelved when the military took over. Since then, many Afro-Asian cities have launched and completed modern rail-based mass transit systems, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Kolkata, Delhi, Tehran and Cairo, but the Karachi plan has remained frozen.
The Karachi Circular Railway is mentioned from time to time, and there have been many studies and feasibility reports. But the project never saw the light of day. Now a new Japanese-funded plan has aroused hopes that Pakistan’s biggest city may after all have a mass transit system for a population estimated anywhere between 15 and 20 million. Lahore’s rail-based system, too, has remained a pipedream. But with an eye on the election, Shahbaz Sharif has pursued the Metro Bus Service project with determination. Let us hope this will goad Karachi planners into doing something practical, and the first phase of the KCR’s partly underground system is ready by 2017.