Bad, bad Metro service
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and tweets @FarrukhKPitafi
I came to Islamabad some 18 years ago. That was when I fell in love with the city. Beautiful, mostly clean and green, it had a lot to offer. I was so mesmerised that I didn’t complain when a cab driver ripped me off on my very first day there. I had to submit my admission fee at Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU), catch a cab for the airport and board my flight back home. Air tickets within the country back then did not cost more than a thousand rupees apiece and I say this with good reason. From QAU I took the university’s shuttle service to Aabpara. This stop usually has a long line of taxis waiting. As my luck would have it, on that day there was a public transport strike. That essentially meant that people who usually travel in vans had to travel in cabs. So in these circumstances a cab received me. When I inquired about the fare and the time it would take to reach the airport, the driver, who had already figured out I was new in town, told me that it was really, really far off and it would cost me Rs1,000. I was running late and could not afford to bargain. In the end, he reduced the fare to Rs800. But the worst was yet to come. To make his story sound convincing he kept driving around in complicated yet discernible circles. I barely made it in time. That is how heartless the cabbies in the federal capital can be.
Later, when I shifted to the university’s hostel, apart from the university’s own transport, the most readily-available alternative to a student was the van service. To get to Rawalpindi we would have to change vans at Aabpara, wait patiently for one of them to arrive and board a van with a big number “1” plastered on the windscreen (for that was the number of the route). We would force ourselves into the already-stuffed vehicle. There was no sense of private space. Most pathetic was the condition in which women and children sat profusely sweating in the sweltering heat. Some men sitting next to the women would take terrible liberties and the saddest thing was no one could do anything about it. If you tried to protest it or report it to police you would be offloaded at the next stop. But that was only part of the problem. It is in the interest of the van drivers to take passengers who would disembark a stop or two later as this meant more money for them. If you wanted to travel from the first stop to the last you would have to endure delays which often stretched to hours as the van refused get rid of you. And these rides were health hazards as you had no way of knowing who would come and sit next to you. It was on a similar ride that I contracted chicken pox as the patient sitting next to me didn’t mind his affected skin touching anyone around. Imagine the ordeals. And that was 18 years ago. The quality of the van service must have deteriorated with the passage of time.
So when I first heard that a Metro bus service would be introduced to the twin cities, it was music to my ears. After that began the long, arduous and painful construction work. There came a stage when we thought that the project would never be completed. But it was. A couple of days before its formal launch, some of us journalists were invited for a test drive. We attended and it was a pleasant experience. While travelling from Islamabad to Pindi and back, I did have a lot of flashbacks. I kept wondering how a common commuter would respond to such luxuries.
There are many other routes within Islamabad that are almost as busy. For travellers on these routes, relief will only come when the government decides to elevate the network and add horizontal routes as well. Other cities are bound to demand similar projects. But next time you meet someone who criticises these projects unduly, ask them to experience for themselves what remains of Islamabad’s old public transport, before jumping to any conclusions.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2015.