The Bangladesh Railway targets collecting as many as 560 broad gauge passenger coaches in the next three years to expand, upgrade and unify rail services, according to official documents.
The government in March this year approved the purchase of 200 broad gauge coaches, as another 100 such coaches will be bought under the Padma Bridge rail link project. Besides, the railway has submitted a proposal to the Economic Relations Division recently for buying 260 broad gauge coaches.
Currently, the railway has 468 board and 1,217 metre gauge passenger carriages, while the metre gauge railway dominates the 3,093km rail network. But the metre gauge trains are obsolete, as the small coaches accommodate less passengers than the broad-gauge carriages.
Contrarily, the broad-gauge rails – also called big trains – offer a comfortable and quick journey to more passengers.
Neighbouring countries such as India and Pakistan have almost phased out the outdated metre gauge trains. Ongoing major rail-related projects also do not have any space for the metre gauge trains, pushing the authorities to replace the old tracks with new ones.
A railway masterplan mentions phasing out all the metre gauge tracks within the next 20-23 years.
Once those projects such as Padma rail link, Jamuna rail bridge, Khulna-Mongla rail line and Joydebpur-Ishurdi dual gauge double line will complete, the railway will need more broad-gauge carriages to run the trains, says Bangladesh Railway Director General Dhirendra Nath Mazumder.
He told The Business Standard that the railway is replacing the metre gauge lines to board gauge or converting those to dual gauge for regional rail connectivity too.
According to the railway, its west zone now only has broad gauge and dual gauge lines, as the east zone has only metre gauge lines.
There are 92 broad gauge locomotives in service now, said railway officials, adding 46 more such locomotives will be added to the fleet by 2025. A feasibility study is now going on for this project, which may cost around Tk2,681 crore.
32 Chinese carriages expected in Nov
Of the 100 broad gauge coaches bought under the Padma Bridge rail link project, 32 will reach Bangladesh from China in November, said project officials.
Other carriages will arrive later in phases.
The railway is now preparing a tender for the 200 coaches approved in March by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec). The European Investment Bank (EIB) and the government are jointly financing the Tk1,074 crore project expected to be completed by 2025.
The railway's proposal for purchasing 260 coaches, which is now with the ERD to find out foreign sources of finance, will be placed before the Planning Commission for approval. After conducting the feasibility study, the railway estimated the project cost at around Tk2,237 crore.
Once the foreign financing is secured, the implementation will begin as early as in the FY2022-23.
Railway officials said 190 of the total 468 broad gauge coaches have run out their 35-year economic life.
According to the railway masterplan for 2016-2045, a total 4,211 broad gauge passenger coaches will be collected in six phases.
Do more double gauge trains promise better services?
Where India and Pakistan – parts of the same railway system launched by the British colonial government 170 years ago – have rapidly transformed their railway sector, making it the backbone of their transportation with a focus on speed and expanding networks, Bangladesh has lagged behind in both aspects.
The country's railway service and development have also been inconsistent with progress with its projects running as slow as its trains. There is also widespread discontent over the rail services and train timing in Bangladesh.
Public transportation experts say rail services cannot be improved until the authorities focus on skilling manpower alongside infrastructural development.
"Bangladesh Railway needs skilled and required manpower to ensure modern services. At the same time, it is necessary to maintain standards for operational conditions," Prof Md Shamsul Hoque, a mass transport expert and a teacher at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), told The Business Standard.
He noted that the country's development philosophy is obsessed with purchase. But the focus needs to be shifted to the development of the system and overall services to passengers.
Noting different topics such as efficient management, maintaining the schedule and round the year maintenance, he said, "These issues, which do not require a huge investment, remain unaddressed. This is a major flaw of our development philosophy."
However, Md Mamun-Al-Rashid, member at the Physical Infrastructure Division of Planning Commission, said the railway has taken initiatives to fill up 28,000 vacant posts.
"The prime minister has directed the authorities to recruit the manpower promptly. Besides, several projects have been taken up for skill development," he added.