Islamabad – In just six weeks, Rawalpindi’s famous Murree Road has become almost unrecognizable.
Ditches have been dug, huge under-construction pillars have emerged across the road’s length and, from Faizabad to Saddar, giant machines and construction workers appear busy, day and night, in building a new road on top of the road.
The Metro Bus project, which will be the first public-sector transport service in Rawalpindi since the GTS that closed in 1998 after years of inefficiency, is planned to be completed in less than a year.
Where the project has elicited necessary criticism over its over-the-top cost and extensive environmental impact, the bus service is also expected to free hundreds of thousands of commuters from their daily misery of humiliating and inefficient public transport.
But for those 10 months or so in which the Metro Bus project is completed, the inter-city commuters are likely to face even more miserable conditions, as vans plying on the Murree Road are exploiting the construction route closures to mint money and dupe commuters.
The Route 1 vans, which will offer the biggest competition for the Metro Bus route, have been unofficially directed to move to Saddar from Chandni Chowk via Rawal Road and Kutchery, instead of moving through Committee and Marir chowks.
Van conductors are using the alternative-route excuse to increase fare prices, even though the District Regional Transport Authority (DRTA) has not approved any fare hike.
“Van conductors demand Rs40 from any stop in Islamabad to Saddar,” said Momin Ali, a student who travels from Aabpara to Rawalpindi on a daily basis. “The regular fare is between Rs27-30.”
Van drivers and conductors interviewed by The Express Tribune said they were incurring extra fuel costs because they had to drive around the Murree Road.
“If you can fill my van’s fuel tank, I have no problem in charging less fare,” said Muhammad Razzaq, a van driver.
The Rs40 fare only comes close to the end-to-end Rs37 fare for the route, according to the DRTA approved rates.
There are other complaints, as well, mostly about the inconvenience caused to commuters, who have to disembark at stops between Chandni Chowk and Saddar. These stops are now not covered by the commuter vans.
“I make sure to check with the van drivers if they will drop me off at Marir Chowk,” said Raja Khursheed, who works at a shop at Super Market, said. “But they lie to me everytime.”
Khursheed said when the van drivers reach Rawalpindi, they say they cannot head back on the Murree Road from Moti Mahal, leaving some passengers stranded. He said passengers then have to fight to get a seat in either the 1-C route from Rawal Road or share a Qinqi ride on Murree Road. In both cases, the ride costs more fare to the commuters.
Secretary DRTA Awais Tarar told The Express Tribune the re-routing of Route 1 vans was not official. But Tarar said the Rawal Road detour was shared with the transporters to ease traffic load on congested under-construction segments of the Murree Road.
He said the route will be “realigned according to the construction status on different phases of the metro bus project.”
Tarar said there had been complaints from commuters. He said the fare-increase issue was new to him but he will get it checked.