These Studies Led to Further Studies

A journey along the abandoned Karachi Circular Railway.


The Karachi Circular Railway is 43.3, 1 or 43.12, 2 or 44, 3 48, 4 or 50 5 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. 6

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. 7 It follows the logic of the Karachi Master Plan, 8 the KMTP, 9 or the UTS. 10 Perhaps one day it will follow the KTIP, 11 and the KMTMP, 12 with the support of the MPGO. 13 It will be overseen by the KTMA, 14 or the SMTA, 15 or the PTA.

A high-level committee has been formed for the revival of the project. 16

There will be four rapid bus lines, 17 or five, 18 or six. 19 They will be orange, yellow, red, green, blue, and maybe purple. Or brown. Each line will be financed separately, by the government of Pakistan, 20 the Asian Development Bank, 21 a Chinese electric company, 22 a private real estate company, 23 Bahria Town, 24 or the government of Sindh province. 25 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. 26 The buses will run on elevated tracks, or at grade. 27 There will be one circular light rail, or another line intersecting it, 28 or there will be two metro rail lines and a circular railway. 29 There will be a cheaper system developed by Pakistani Railways with existing rolling stock. 30 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. 31

Karachi has a population of 18 million, or 20 million. It has a population of 21 million, 32 22 million, 33 or 23 million. It has a population of nearly 24 million. 34 It was the fastest growing city in the second half of the 20th century. 35 Now it is the fastest growing city in the world. 36 If it continues to grow at this rate, it will be the second largest city in the world, and the largest without mass transit. 37

Karachi is already one of the largest metro areas with no mass transit. 38 It is one of the few megacities with no mass transit. 39 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. 40

Karachi has 9,000 buses. 41 It has 12,399 buses, 42 but only 9,527 are running. 43 It has 6,457 buses and 2,715 contract carriages, buses, and luxury coaches. 44 There are 1,800 contract buses and 1,800 route buses. 45 A few years ago it had 22,313 buses. 46

To rebuild the Karachi Circular Railway, 5,000 households will need to be relocated. 47 23,000 people will have to move. 6,500 houses will be affected, with an average of 10 people in each. 48  2,500 homes and 4,500 families will be displaced. 49 “Squatters” occupy 20 percent of the land along the route. 50 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. 51 No one knows how they will be moved, or compensated, or anything else.

Ivan Sigal, Traffic Near North Nazimabad Station, Karachi, Pakistan. Video assemblage from KCR, 2014-2017, nine-channel multimedia installation.

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.

Modernism 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 6 million passengers annually, but by the end of its first decade, the system was already in decline. 52 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.

Karachi Circular Railway
Ivan Sigal, installation of the multimedia documentary KCR at Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto.

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.

Editors’ Note

The title of this article is a quotation from “Responding to the Transport Crisis in Karachi,” a report written in 2015 by the Urban Resource Center, with Arif Hasan and Mansoor Raza.

The images and video are drawn from Ivan Sigal’s documentary project KCR, which is partially funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. In 2014, Sigal visited and photographed the entirety of the abandoned Karachi Circular Railway. The resulting work includes digital stills and video, written observations, audio recordings, and aerial drone footage. KCR is available as a single channel video, as a body of still images, and as a nine-channel interactive installation. It has been exhibited at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, Canada, the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, and in public installations and film festivals in Karachi, Nicosia, Port of Spain, Bucharest, Varanasi, Camden, Maine, and Kalkuta.

  1. Karachi Circular Railway, Facebook post, October 27, 2015.
  2. Urban Resource Centre, with Arif Hasan and Mansoor Raza, “Responding to the Transport Crisis in Karachi,” July 2015 [PDF], 18.
  3. Subuk Hasnain, “Mass Movement: Karachi’s Public Transport Woes,” November 13, 2017.
  4. Arif Hasan, “A Master Plan for The Karachi Circular Railway at Last,” March 22, 2002.
  5. Wikipedia, “Karachi Circular Railway.”
  6. Urban Resource Centre, 16.
  7. Mahim Maher, “Green Line: In a Rare First, Govt Asks City’s Architects to Weigh in on Karachi BRTS,” The Express Tribune, July 25, 2015.
  8. Urban Resource Centre, 13.
  9. Hasnain, op. cit.
  10. Urban Resource Centre, 13.
  11. Urban Resource Centre, 18.
  12. Urban Resource Centre, 18.
  13. Master Plan Group of Offices, City of Karachi, “Karachi 2020: Strategic Development Plan,” December 2007.
  14. CM Wants Karachi Mass Transit Cell Established,” The Express Tribune, August 11, 2016.
  15. Government of Sindh, Transport and Mass Transit Department website.
  16. Sindh Govt. Announces Revival of Karachi Circular Railway Project,” Dunya News, February 18, 2016.
  17. Mahim Maher, “Public Transport: Race to Build Karachi’s First BRT Gets Too Many Green Signals,” The Express Tribune, March 20, 2015.
  18. KCR, 5 Bus Transit, 2 Metro Rail Transit Systems Promised for City,” Pakistan Today, June 13, 2015.
  19. Urban Resource Centre, 18.
  20. “PM Terms Green Line a ‘Gift for the People of Karachi,’” The Express Tribune, June 16, 2015.
  21. Farhan Anwar, “Will Karachi Finally Have a Mass Transit System?,” The Express Tribune, May 11, 2015.
  22. Maher, “Green Line,” op. cit.
  23. Urban Resource Centre, 40.
  24. Mahim Maher, “Mass Transit: Global BRTS Expert Invited to Help with Blue Line,” The Express Tribune, January 18, 2015.
  25. “KCR, 5 Bus Transit…,” op. cit.
  26. Hasnain, op. cit.
  27. Hasnain, op. cit.
  28. Urban Resource Center, 18.
  29. Hasnain, op. cit.
  30. Karachi Circular Railway, facebook post, op. cit.
  31. Urban Resource Center, 20.
  32. Author’s interview with Rabyl Mirza, March 2014.
  33. Urban Resource Center, 7.
  34. Hasnain, op. cit.
  35. Author’s interview with Arif Hasan, March 2014.
  36. Urban Resource Center, 7.
  37. Hasnain, op. cit.
  38. Hasnain, op. cit.
  39. Maher, “Green Line,” op. cit.
  40. Urban Resource Center, 8.
  41. Mahim Maher, “Red Line Blues: If You Get Stuck in Karachi traffic, This Plan Could Change Your Life,” The Express Tribune, March 23, 2015.
  42. Anwar, op. cit.
  43. Urban Resource Center, op. cit.
  44. Hasnain, op. cit.
  45. Author’s interview with Zahid Farooq and Rana Siddiq, March 2014.
  46. Anwar, op. cit.
  47. Arif Hasan, “The Karachi Circular Railway Imperatives,” February 19, 2014.
  48. Author’s interview with Haji Khan Badshah, Umar Colony, March 2014.
  49. “Sindh Govt. Announces…,” op. cit.
  50. Karachi Urban Transport Corporation website.
  51. Interview with Farooq and Siddiq.
  52. This sentence was changed after publication to correct the number of passenger trips (Urban Resource Center, op. cit., 16).
Ivan Sigal, “These Studies Led to Further Studies,” Places Journal, May 2018. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.