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Story Publication logo May 1, 2018

These Studies Led to Further Studies


Karachi Circular Railway walkover. Image by Ivan Sigal. Nazimabad, Karachi, 2014.

An investigation of Karachi's urban development, tracing a defunct public transport route to explore...


The Karachi Circular Railway is 43.3, or 43.12, or 44, 48, or 50 kilometers long. It started in 1964, or 1969. It shut down officially in 1999, or a train still runs twice a day on part of the line. 

The city’s transit system is run by the KMC, the CDGK, the KDA, the KTC, the KMTC, by the KUTC, by Karachi’s Mass Transit Department, by Pakistan Railways, or by the Karachi Development Company Ltd. It follows the logic of the Karachi Master Plan, the KMTP, or the UTS. Perhaps one day it will follow the KTIP, and the KMTMP, with the support of the MPGO. It will be overseen by the KTMA, or the SMTA, or the PTA.

A high-level committee has been formed for the revival of the project.

There will be four rapid bus lines, or five, or six. They will be orange, yellow, red, green, blue, and maybe purple. Or brown. Each line will be financed separately, by the government of Pakistan, the Asian Development Bank, a Chinese electric company, a private real estate company, Bahria Town, or the government of Sindh province. They will have separate ticketing systems, or they will share a unified brand and ticket. Development is proceeding smoothly, or work will be stopped for lack of funding, or political interference; but homes have already been demolished and utility lines relocated. The buses will run on elevated tracks, or at grade. There will be one circular light rail, or another line intersecting it, or there will be two metro rail lines and a circular railway. There will be a cheaper system developed by Pakistani Railways with existing rolling stock. Municipal authorities will own and operate the transit system, or Pakistani Railways will retain control. It will be managed by a private contractor, or it won’t. Buses, minibuses, rickshaws, and Qingqis will run on compressed natural gas, or diesel, or both, or neither.

Karachi has a population of 18 million, or 20 million. It has a population of 21 million, 22 million, or 23 million. It has a population of nearly 24 million. It was the fastest growing city in the second half of the 20th century. Now it is the fastest growing city in the world. If it continues to grow at this rate, it will be the second largest city in the world, and the largest without mass transit.

Karachi is already one of the largest metro areas with no mass transit. It is one of the few megacities with no mass transit. 4.5 percent of vehicles on the road are public transport, of which 0.85 percent are buses. 42 percent of passengers use public transport. Public transport in Karachi is organized through the licensing of routes to private carriers.

Karachi has 9,000 buses. It has 12,399 buses, but only 9,527 are running. It has 6,457 buses and 2,715 contract carriages, buses, and luxury coaches. There are 1,800 contract buses and 1,800 route buses. A few years ago it had 22,313 buses.

To rebuild the Karachi Circular Railway, 5,000 households will need to be relocated. 23,000 people will have to move. 6,500 houses will be affected, with an average of 10 people in each. 2,500 homes and 4,500 families will be displaced. “Squatters” occupy 20 percent of the land along the route. They will be relocated to Murad Goth on the far outskirts of the city, or to other land owned by Pakistani Railways, or they will be paid cash equivalent to the fair market value of their properties and left to find their own accommodations.

72 percent of the encroachment on Pakistan Railways land is by industrial facilities, government institutions, and international businesses. Or 78 percent. No one knows how they will be moved, or compensated, or anything else.

The Future (Endless Returns)

Karachi has long been a city of immigrants and refugees. It was a safe harbor for the Mujahirs who left India after Partition, for rural Pakistanis who moved here during the Green Revolution, for refugees who fled civil wars in Bangladesh and Afghanistan, and for Pashto communities escaping 21st century counter-terror wars. They all needed housing and transport. In the 1960s, the city planned huge new neighborhoods in the exurbs and designed mass transit to connect them to the center. The Karachi Circular Railway was a key part of that infrastructure. Trains ran every half-hour, and the tickets were cheap enough that the poor could ride alongside the middle class.

The new railway buildings were designed in a modernist style by the Swedish-British firm of Marz, Reddell, Vatten. The simply drawn rail stations, switching houses, platforms, fences, outbuildings, and elegant concrete footbridges made visible the connection between a building and its purpose. Modernism promised replication — of forms, of systems, of industrial processes — and offered a grammar with which to structure the topography, to make the city legible to itself.

This vision of a rational city, growing according to the wisdom of its planners and in the service of building a nation, was eventually overwhelmed by successive waves of migration, as settlers’ need for housing outpaced the state’s capacity to plan. Many arrivals ended up in katchi abadi— literally, raw settlements. These informal housing developments were often built on state land in collusion with government administrators, development authorities, and political parties. Katchi abadi filled in, overspilled, and redrew the grids of planned communities, and spread along railways and other transit corridors.

At its peak in the mid-1970s, the Karachi Circular Railway served 7.5 million passengers daily, but by the end of its first decade, the system was already in decline. High maintenance costs and unstable funding prevented investments in the infrastructure necessary to keep up with population growth. There was no grade separation at many street intersections, and traffic congestion slowed the train as the city grew, which in turn led to lower ridership and a downward spiral in revenue. These pressures continued through the 1980s and 1990s, as the railway also faced a rash of transit crime, ticketless riders, and competition with new transport options. By 1998 the KCR was making only twelve trips a day, and traveling no faster than a walking pace in some sections. The next year it was shut down.

In the two decades since, there have been sporadic efforts to rebuild the railway. Most plans have included an upgrade to the train stock, new track technology, and a substantial overhaul of street crossings, with stretches of elevated track. The Karachi Urban Transport Corporation was set up to consolidate these efforts, and at various times it secured commitments for billions of dollars from Japanese and Chinese development agencies and the Pakistani government. But plans have been impeded by political disagreements and community resistance. One problem is the need to reclaim land from the people and organizations who now occupy it, many of whom have political power and wealth. An even greater challenge is resolving political fights over the allocation of resources among the city, provincial, and federal governments.

Every year, planners confidently state a new date for groundbreaking, a new financial package, a new authority to appropriate land and build modern light rail. Backup plans call for Pakistan Railways to simply clear the land and run the existing trains on renovated tracks.

Ivan Sigal, installation of the multimedia documentary KCR at Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto. Image from, 2018.
Ivan Sigal, installation of the multimedia documentary KCR at Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto. Image from, 2018.

For now, the rail line is a faint trace, overgrown with brush, unseen but present in the city center. Neighborhoods grow into and around the corridor, and people adopt the open space for their own use. It is a place for discarding trash and using the toilet, for poaching birds and hunting scorpions in the fields of thorn bush. Settlers live on the station platforms, in structures made of canvas, tarp, and stacked wood. Others have repurposed the station buildings as squats, using sandbags and bricks to close off doorways and windows. There are vegetable plots, playing fields, and graveyards.

In Baloch Colony, the railway is lined with open-air barbers and tailors. At Rashid Minhas Road, men and boys play billiards under the overpass. Children play cricket by the port. In many areas, the railway corridor is a shortcut for walkers and motorbikes escaping the congested streets. Near the Lyari River, a large furniture market sits directly on the tracks, and small manufacturers build and repair everything from sofa sets to chicken coops. In Shireen Jinnah Colony, vendors sell oranges, bananas, and mangos, and push their fruit carts off the tracks when freight trains crawl through several times a day. Here, too, you can buy firewood, livestock, dry goods, and cheerful plastic toys.

Many people in Karachi still hope for a rebuilt and renewed circular commuter railway, but the train’s boosters have repeatedly failed to secure political backing and financing. Alternative strategies such as dedicated bus lines may be cheaper and more effective. Whatever the future holds, efforts to reorder urban transport in Karachi will be only part of a larger transformation of the city’s contested spaces. Any new infrastructure will have to be secured by a social compact that recognizes public transport as an accepted, welcome, and safe feature of the city.






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