Bangladesh Railway's efforts to add momentum to the transport of passengers and goods with the inclusion of modern locomotives face a setback as a number of century-old bridges across the country's rail network are not strong enough to withstand the weight of these heavier and faster engines.
The engineering department of Bangladesh Railway (BR) has identified seven such vulnerable bridges, built during the British period, in the East Zone, according to official sources.
The country's railway services are divided into two zones – east and west. The East Zone, which has two hubs – Dhaka and Chattogram – is headquartered at CRB (Central Railway Building) in the port city.
Over the last one and a half years, 20 modern locomotives, having a speed limit of 100 kmph, have joined the Railway's fleet in two phases – 10 in September 2020 and 10 in December 2021. Ten more are scheduled to arrive in the country this month, while the authorities are set to import even a higher number of engines from South Korea and the United States in the next several years.
The new locomotives, imported from South Korea in 2020, were lying at railway workshops without being used for a long time. At present, services are being operated on some routes with these engines. Meanwhile, the authorities have hired experts to determine the capacity of the old bridges and repair them to make them fit for the modern locomotives.
According to the mechanical department of the BR, the average weight of the heaviest locomotives of the past was 70-72 tonnes, with each of the six axles of the engine having a load of 11.96 tonnes. But the average weight of the freshly imported engines is more than 100 tonnes (15-16 tonnes per axle).
Mentioning that the railway authorities are most concerned about the seven important bridges in the East Zone, sources at the Railway's engineering department said the currently used locomotives and coaches with an axle load of 11.96 tonnes are operated on these bridges at controlled speeds. But as the new locomotives are heavier in terms of axle load, the risk of accidents will increase greatly when they cross the century-old bridges.
In addition to the financial losses of the BR, there is a strong risk of casualties, they added.
The axle load of a wheeled vehicle is the total weight bearing on the roadway for all wheels connected to a given axle.
A review of documents provided by the offices concerned shows that the seven vulnerable bridges are: Kalurghat Railway Bridge, Bhairab Old Bridge, Kushiyara Bridge, Ghorashal (up) Bridge, Shambhuganj Bridge, Ghumghat Bridge and Bridge No. 28 on Chhatak-Sylhet Route.
On 9 June last year, the engineering department of the East Zone of Bangladesh Railway sought the approval of the Director General to appoint the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet) as a consultant to check whether newly imported, and those planned to be imported, heavy locomotives would be able to operate on these dilapidated bridges.
The Railway, under a special project, is also taking the help of Buet experts to ensure a safe movement of trains on the Kalurghat Bridge before the construction of a new bridge over the River Karnaphuli for installing a rail line from Dohazari to Cox's Bazar.
After securing approval from the authorities concerned, Md Ahsan Jabir, additional chief engineer of the Railway East Zone, on 21 June last sent a letter to the Buet expert team to give financial and technical suggestions on determining the capacity and repairing of the Kalurghat Bridge.
Later, on 9 October, a three-member expert team from Buet visited the Kalurghat Bridge.
The Buet delegation consisted of Professor AFM Saiful Amin, Professor Abdul Jabbar Khan and Professor Dr Khan Mahmud Amanat. Ahsan Jabir, among others, accompanied the expert team.
Meanwhile, the Railways Division has approved the Railway engineering department's proposal to appoint Buet's BRTC department as a consultant, through a direct recruitment method, to study the technical suitability of high-speed locomotive operations in a short period of time.
The railway authorities have plans to undertake a big project to make the expired and risky bridges fit for the heavy locomotives.
They want to implement the plan in view of the consultant team's report and budget.
The bridges department of the Railway, however, says it is best to build a new bridge to replace the long-standing one for the operation of heavy locomotives and coaches in the long run.
However, due to the ongoing infrastructural development of the Railway, construction work on several important bridges has not been completed yet. Besides, work on the construction of several bridges is yet to start.
Against such a backdrop, the old bridges need to be repaired with the help of experts in order to operate the railway service with new locomotives. Otherwise, the railway authorities will face new difficulties in operating train services with good quality engines in different parts of the country even if the engine crisis is over.
Subaktagin, chief engineer of the East Zone of Railway, said if the load-bearing capacity of the old bridges is increased through renovation, it will not be a problem to run trains with new engines on them.