The present Awami League (AL) government of Sheikh Hasina has attached top priority to the development of Bangladesh’s railway system, which is one of the most important means of transportation in the country. Railway was introduced in Bangladesh by the British during the late 19th century primarily to advance their colonial and economic interests and things did not improve much even after the attainment of independence in 1971.
In its efforts to increase trade, commerce, tourism and create job opportunities, the Hasina government has initiated scores of transport infrastructure projects, including railway across the country since 2009. The government devised a 20-year master plan aimed at bringing all the 64 districts of the country under the railway network. Currently, railway facilities are available in 44 districts only.
A brief profile of Bangladesh Railway
State-owned rail transport agency Bangladesh Railway (BR) operates and maintains the whole railway network of the country. According to recent reports, nearly 32% of the total area of Bangladesh is covered by the railways. BR operates a track of 2706 km, employs about 60,000 people and provides passenger and cargo services through 502 stations. The striking features of the BR have been the co-existence of different gauges, including broad gauge, metre gauge and dual gauge and separation of the transport system by the Jamuna River into Eastern and Western Zone of operations.
BR operates inter-city, suburban, container services (currently restricted to Chittagong-Dhaka route), bulk freight movements (focusing on commodities such as sand, stone, food grain, fertilizer, iron and steel) and international routes on its multi-gauge network. The proposed Dhaka metro rail project would add further fillip to Bangladesh’s railway transport system. The Directorate General of Bangladesh Railway under the Ministry of Railways along with Bangladesh Railway Authority (BRA) controls the functioning of BR. The BRA also provides policy inputs to BR.
Recent railway projects
Under the master plan, the AL government has undertaken several projects to build 571.30 km new railway lines across Bangladesh. Railway Minister Md. Mozibul Haque noted that the government approved 85 projects costing Tk 45,423 crore after the formation of the Hasina government in 2009. Reports suggest that BR would build a 166.33 km new railway line connecting Dhaka with Jessore via Mawa, Bhanga and Narail with the financial assistance of China, while 50.41 km Kashiani-Gopalganj-Tungipara route to be taken up soon. Besides, the government has constructed a 35 km new railway line on Tarakandi-Bangabandhu Bridge section and revived Kalukhali-Bhatiapara, and Pachuria-Faridpur rail routes.
Moreover, the 64.75 km Khulna-Mongla section has been implemented under Indian Line of Credit (LoC). The Bangladesh government had also submitted a proposal to the Chinese government for setting up a chord line from Fatullah on Dhaka-Narayanganj section to Chittagong via Laksam. Furthermore, BR has completed a feasibility study to build a new rail link from Mavran to Munshiganj through Satkhira on its own. In addition to these, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) has endorsed a mega project of BR to build rail tracks from Akhaura to Laksam facilitating movement of goods and passenger.
Dohazari-Cox’s Bazar Greenfield Project
In order to enhance tourism and trade in the southernmost parts of the country, the AL government has decided to build a 120 km dual-gauge passenger railway line from Dohazari, a village near Chittagong, to Cox’s Bazar—a tourist hotspot of Bangladesh. Reports say the Dohazari-Cox’s Bazar Greenfield Project is among the seven investment sub-projects which have been undertaken by BR to up grade Bangladesh’s rail connectivity with other Asian countries. The project is part of the proposed Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) and would provide access to neighbouring Myanmar and beyond.
South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) has agreed to support BR in constructing the Dohazari-Cox’s Bazar section of the Chittagong-Cox’s Bazar railway route in south-eastern Bangladesh. The project was endorsed by the SASEC trade facilitation and transport working group meeting in Tokyo on November 26, 2016. BR is renovating the 47 km Chittagong-Dohazari section on its own funds. Earlier in September 2016, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which serves as SASEC Secretariat, granted $ 1.5 billion of funding to the project. This is the largest investment ever made by ADB to Bangladesh’s railways.
The Chittagong-Cox’s Bazar rail project will take five years to complete and create considerable job opportunities for local community. The rail route would be extended up to Myanmar’s border and the proposed sea port at Matarbari. The route will also establish link with the western region of Bangladesh and India’s North East especially Tripura. The rail project would help Bangladesh meet its targets under the 7th Five Year Plan and railway master plan that seeks to increase the country’s freight market share to 15% and passenger market share to 10%.
Akhaura-Laksam Double Line Project
In another major development on March 6, 2016, the Bangladesh government signed a deal worth Tk 231.37 crore with a consortium of five companies, both domestic and foreign, for the consultancy services of the 72 km Akhaura-Laksam Double Line Project in the Dhaka-Chittagong route. Railway Minister Mozibul Haque said under the agreement, all aspects of the project—from design to completion of the construction work—would be supervised by the consortium.
Reports indicate that of the Tk 231.37 crore, the Bangladesh government would release Tk 59 crore and the rest will be obtained from the ADB as loan. As part of the master plan, the AL government wants to facilitate movement of passenger and freight and increase export, import and commercial activities on the Dhaka-Chittagong route. The Akhaura-Laksam rail project is expected to be completed in five years. It may be added that Prime Minister Hasina had already inaugurated the double line railways in Laksam-Chinki Astana and Tongi-Bhoiran sections.
Dhaka Metro Rail Project
The Hasina government has also decided to improve the traffic conditions of the heavily-congested capital city Dhaka by introducing metro rail. Traffic in Dhaka, home to 15 million people, is one of the slowest in the world with commuters spending three-to-four hours in jams daily. On February 20, 2013, Bangladesh inked a loan agreement with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for setting up the country’s first-ever metro rail system, involving $ 2.8 billion.
The proposed 20.1 km ground and elevated railway would cover Dhaka from north to south with 16 stations and would carry four million passengers every day, reducing jams to a great extent. The metro rail would lessen travel time to 36 minutes, which currently takes hours. Under the deal, the JICA will release 85% of the cost at a nominal interest rate of 0.01%.
Reports suggest that metro rail project’s main construction work will begin in early 2017 and end in 2022. Once the metro rail becomes operational, Dhaka’s commuters could enjoy hassle-free journey. Metro rail officials have pointed out that the rail scheme would be noise-free, with noise barriers and vibration-free lines, and the cars would be made of stainless steel and aluminium alloy. Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority under Roads and Highways Department of the Communication Ministry is implementing the project. The metro rail project is likely to play the role of a catalyst in the economic development of Bangladesh.
Padma Bridge rail link project
In its bids to expand railway connectivity across the country, the AL government has initiated the process of building bridges along with railway lines over the major river systems of Bangladesh as well. In a significant development on August 8, 2016, Bangladesh Railway Bureau and China Railway Group signed a deal worth $ 3.14 billion to set up a rail link across the Padma Bridge in Dhaka. The bridge will establish link between the western and eastern parts of the country. The 168.6 km railway line originating from Dhaka and terminating at Jessore would also provide crucial rail link in south-western Bangladesh.
The improvement of traffic conditions would inevitably accelerate the development process in these regions of Bangladesh. Besides, the railway link is likely to augment Bangladesh’s foreign trade with India, China and Myanmar. The construction of railway line across the Padma Bridge referred to as “Bridge of Dreams” in Bangladesh, would ease dependence on riverine transport to travel between Dhaka and 21 southern districts. This new railway project is also a major component of the proposed TAR.
Dhaka-Payra Port Rail Link Project
To make transportation of goods between Dhaka and the country’s third sea port at Payra cheaper and faster, the Bangladesh government has decided to introduce container train service through foreign collaboration. On December 20, 2016, Bangladesh inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Britain’s DP Rail to design, finance, operate and maintain the 240 km Dhaka-Payra rail route. The $ 7.5 billion deal is described as the biggest foreign direct investment (FDI) for Bangladesh’s railway so far. The rail project is important for Bangladesh to expand its international trade especially in the arena of readymade garment (RMG)—Bangladesh’s biggest export item.
Experts are of the opinion that the new rail route will play a pivotal role in the development of the country’s southern region. The DP Rail is hopeful that the freight train service will start functioning prospectively in 2024. The British firm is reportedly working with China Railway Construction Corporation (International) Limited as its key civil engineering contractor. Bangladesh’s Ministry of Railways think that the Dhaka-Payra rail link could fetch significant revenue by facilitating transportation of goods to and from the deep sea port at Payra.
To meet the country’s development needs and priorities, the AL government has initiated much needed up gradation of Bangladesh’s rail transport network throughout the country. Efforts are also underway to improve sub-regional connectivity through rail and integrate Bangladesh with the booming markets of the neighbouring countries and beyond. The Bangladesh government needs to pursue the goals envisioned in the 20-year master plan vigorously as the key advantage of the rail transport network is in long distance travel and carriage of goods. BR could hugely contribute to the country’s economy once all the railway projects undertaken begin functioning.