Freight train services that have been operational during the prolonged shutdown are facing disruptions due to congestion at container depots.
High officials of the Bangladesh Railway and the Ministry of Railways confirmed the matter to The Business Standard.
Bangladesh Railway suspended all passenger train services throughout the country on March 24 – immediately after the government declared a shutdown to curb the novel coronavirus' spread.
Though the government declared the shutdown from March 26, railways suspended their services two days prior. However, freight train services have remained operational.
Railway Ministry Senior Secretary Mofazzel Hossain said the railway authority kept freight train services operational from the first day of the shutdown. "However, from the second week of April, it faced disruptions due to container congestion."
"Today, two trains are waiting at the Kamalapur inland container depot [ICD] for the containers to be unloaded. Another train is waiting at Akhaura Railway Station and one more is waiting at Chattogram Port to be loaded,'' he said on Wednesday.
According to sources at the railways, eight cargo trains transport products from Chittagong Port to the Kamalapur ICD daily. The railway primarily transports oil, marble and stone, food grain, fertiliser, parcels, and containers. The railway is considered a cheap and safe transportation system in the country.
Md Shamsuzzaman, director general of Bangladesh Railway, said they carry only around eight percent of the total containers handled at Chattogram Port. "Of the total goods transported around the country, the share of the railways is not more than five percent," he added.
According to the Chattogram Port Authority, the number of containers of imported goods has exceeded the port's storage capacity due to slow delivery of goods during the month-long shutdown. The port handles around 80 percent of the country's external trade.
Some vessels are waiting at jetties to offload and other container vessels are waiting at outer anchorages for berthing.
The Kamalapur ICD and the Pangaon inland container terminal at Keraniganj are also at full capacity.
On March 25, the National Board of Revenue (NBR) directed all customs houses and stations to remain open – on a limited scale with a minimum workforce – so the normal supply of essential goods, medical equipment and security materials could continue during the shutdown.
This is one of the reasons for congestion at the port. Additionally, many importers have failed to release their imported items due to a lack of workers and transportation.
Seeing the congestion at the ports, NBR decided to return to full operations. The revenue authority sent directives to all customs houses to resume their activities for the normal export and import of all products.
Mobara Khanom, commissioner of customs at Kamalapur ICD, told The Business Standard that they were open right from the beginning of the holidays.
"We released essential goods, medical equipment, security materials, and imported goods during the holidays. From April 23, we have been in full operation according to the NBR directives. Now we are releasing commercial items too,'' she said on Friday.
She did not comment on container congestion at the ICD. However, the port authority hopes congestion will reduce when importers come forward to release their goods.
Mofazzel Hossain said, "Prioritising the national interest and the government's decision, we halted passenger services. However, our cargo trains are operational to contribute to the supply chain plus exports and imports of the country.''
"Though our capacity is at a minimum level to transport goods, it is popular with traders as a safe and cheap means of transportation. Every section – including the port authority, importers and all concerned – should think of the situation and find a solution. The railway is always with traders to transport all essential and important goods in accordance with its capacity," he added.