All aboard: In mass exodus from Karachi, trains and buses less reliable but cheaper

An estimated one million people need to leave the city to go home for Eidul Azha.


Express November 06, 2011

KARACHI: Like every year, the railways and airlines had a hard time keeping up with demand as people streamed home for Eid.

Tens of thousands of people travel from Karachi for the holidays in order to spend time at their villages and towns in Sindh and the rest of the country. “It has been a long wait for us,” said Shamsuddin, the station superintendent at the Karachi railway station. “We have been waiting for someone to seriously take notice of the issue. People want to travel. But we don’t have the trains.”

Around 75 million people use trains to travel from one city to another every year, a large chunk of them from Karachi. Last year, 22 trains were in service at Eid. Now there are only 18.

The financially crippled Pakistan Railways has 528 locomotives but barely 200 of them are in operation at any given time. “We have lost almost all of the passenger traffic to rural Sindh,” said Shamsuddin. “Trains are delayed for hours because the engines break down so often. People have the choice of using the buses, but that means they might not reach in time.” Trains are still the cheapest option for the longer routes. For example, an economy seat in a non-AC sleeper to Sukkur from Karachi one-way costs Rs330.

In recent years, the number of people who can afford expensive air travel has gone up, but there are only three airlines to cater to the demand. One domestic carrier, Aero Asia, was the last airline to bow out three years ago after running into a financial crisis.

Pakistan International Airlines, Shaheen Air and Airblue have two dozen aircraft to serve over a million passengers. “Come Eid or any other holiday season and the air fare starts to rise,” said a travel agent. “Interestingly, most of our clients don’t seem too bothered about a change in the fare. I guess there is no alternative for them.” A PIA roundtrip flight from Karachi to Sukkur in upper Sindh, for example, now costs about Rs12,000.

Intercity bus operators (without airconditioning) are the biggest beneficiaries of the lack of transport options. The average bus fare for Peshawar from Karachi, that was Rs1,000 a few days ago, has doubled to Rs2,000. But this is still an option for people who can’t afford
airfare. For example, a seat to Sukkur costs about Rs800.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th,  2011.

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