Pakistan opens first major urban public transport scheme

Authorities in Pakistan on Sunday launched a "Metro Bus" system in the second largest city, Lahore, opening the restive country's first major urban public transport scheme.

The 30 billion rupee ($300 million) project, completed in collaboration with Turkish company Al-Buraq, will ferry up to 12,000 passengers an hour along a dedicated 29-kilometre (20 mile) roadway from the suburbs to the city centre, officials said.

Thousands of well-wishers lined the way as Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Turkish deputy prime minister Bekir Bozdag launched the service by riding the 27-station route, which was decorated with Turkish and Pakistani flags.

A general election is due in the coming months and the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by Sharif's brother Nawaz, will hope the new scheme gives them a boost going into polls, as well as easing traffic on Lahore's busy roads.

Commuters in Pakistan's other major cities without their own cars rely on an ad-hoc network of privately-run buses, minibuses, taxis and motorised rickshaws to get around.

The design of the new bus stations is similar to the Metrobus service run by Al-Buraq in Istanbul, with the addition of a nine-kilometre elevated roadway through the centre of Lahore to avoid the city's congested streets.

Building work was completed in under a year and Sharif hailed the Turkish cooperation.

"Turkey gave us lot of concessions in materialising this project. Had we contacted any other country they would have charged millions of dollars," he said in his inaugural speech.

"This is a clean and dedicated transport system which will be equally used by rich and poor."

Ahad Khan Cheema of Lahore Development Authority (LDA) told AFP that 25,000 workers toiled round the clock to complete the scheme in under a year and said the system had the capacity to carry up to 12,000 people an hour.

Iftikhar Ahmed, 45, a government employee, said the new system -- which will be free for the first month -- would make commuting much easier.

"Earlier we had to change two to three buses to reach our office, now we will be at our destination on time," he told AFP.

The Lahore scheme is not the first transport operation to be run in Pakistan by a foreign company. South Korea's Daewoo has a network of bus routes including a popular express service between Lahore and Islamabad noted for its reliability.

Student Mohammad Arsalan, 23, said he was pleased the Turkish company was involved.

"It is good that the project will be run by a foreign company and we can expect a proper mechanism to avoid any delays," he said.

wh-sz/pdw/pj

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