Over the last 12 years, the railway has taken up 118 development projects, of which 79 projects have been completed, and 39 projects are still ongoing. And yet, train speed has not increased, and till now derailment and head-on clashes continue.
We have focused so much on infrastructure development projects that we have almost forgotten about the maintenance and operation-related projects. Also, when you take so many projects at a time, and do not have a sufficient workforce, the performance suffers.
The railway is a maintenance-intensive sector. It has to be of international standard, and there is no way we can say that we lack the budget. Round the year, we need to maintain the infrastructure.
We have taken projects to develop new infrastructure so that our trains can move at more than 100 kmph speed. But unfortunately, we have not taken a single project to develop the corridor access control system.
There are illegal level crossings, shanties, and markets around the railway tracks. No matter how many tracks we lay down, or replace the wooden sleepers with the concrete ones, we will not be able to raise the speed. A prerequisite for faster service is that there has to be section 144 around the railway corridors so that the trains can move without reducing its speed. But as long as we do not solve this issue, our trains will run slow.
Additionally, in Bangladesh, there is no professionalism in the rail sector. We inherited around 2,800 km of rail network and hundreds of stations when the British left the subcontinent. But when the sector did not receive any funding for maintenance, it had to shrink down the operational routes and close down the non-performing stations. Also, the human resources were brought down through golden handshakes.
Human resource is one of the major assets of the railway sector. If we want to operate trains safely, we need experienced loco masters and technicians; because we cannot train a person to become skilled like them overnight. The focus also shifted from the railways as it was a non-performing sector, and the donors were not keen to invest here as well.
For a long time, there was no separate ministry for the Bangladesh Railway. It used to operate under the Roads and Highways department. As a result, it had been deprived of investment and development for a long time.
On the other hand, investment rose on the development of highways. Highways provide a passport to freedom. Not only in Bangladesh, people everywhere in the world would rather reach their intended destination directly from their doorsteps, instead of having to hop from one station to another. Apart from the road and highways, this is not possible when travelling by train, ships or aeroplanes. So, understanding the pulse of citizens, the government and funding agencies invested more in developing the highways.
Any engineering project requires a massive amount of focused time, and many railway officials are working as project directors of several railway projects at a time. As a result, they cannot provide the quality time required, even if they wanted to.
So, naturally, the project faces time and cost overruns. Also, the projects need revisions sometimes, due to changes in different policies like land acquisition. In my opinion, if we could proceed systematically, it would be possible to see developments happening in the railway sector.
Bangladesh is a small country, and it is mostly flat terrain. Also, the capital is situated almost in the middle of the country. So if you want to travel to the furthest corner of the country, you will have to travel around 350 km. So the train is not an ideal mode of transportation in this regard as we can develop highways easily. And as our highways are getting better day by day, it will be hard to convince the passengers to adopt a station to station service, while they can easily access the door to door facility.
Yet, we need development in the railway sector because a country cannot survive with roads as the only mode of communication; and it is also not sustainable and environment-friendly. Waterways and railways are a blessing in this regard.
We need to be tactical and identify if we want to invest more on passenger transportation or freight transportation. Freight transportation will not only bring revenue but also reduce pressure on the roads and thereby will help in developing balanced intermodal sustainable transport systems.
The containers that land in our ports are moved to their destinations through covered vans, and often intermodal containers get knocked down in the ports, creating multimodal break-bulk cargo, which is not sustainable at all.
The process should be that when a container arrives at the port through ships, it will use railway intermodal to reach its destination. And if we can develop our railway tracks directly from port to different EPZs and 100 special economic zones, the containers will certainly be transported through trains, and the government will be able to generate more revenue than it will be able to generate from passenger transportation.
Moreover, due to faster, reliable and pilfer proof containerised freight transport systems, industries will get better global competitive edges.
The railway also has a lot of idle land throughout the country. Nowadays it is tough to find suitable land for commercial and industrial development. And everywhere around the world, these lands are leased to different companies so that they can build business and commercial establishments around the rail stations and tracks.
Thus, if the railway decides to use the immovable property they inherit, they will find investments easily and can generate non-operational revenue, which can be gainfully utilised to meet recurrent O&M costs and gradually become subsidy free.
The entire world knows that government-owned organisations alone cannot provide satisfactory services to passengers, which is why the government makes the roads, and private companies provide transportation services. So we need a public-private framework to ensure proper service. However, unfortunately, it is not possible under the existing structure.
In the 21st century, every country around the world is focusing more on railways, as it is more sustainable and environment friendly. Earlier, people thought only about development, but nowadays, they are thinking more about sustainable development.
As a result, the world is now promoting rail, even if they have to provide a subsidy, as the railways are more sustainable and environment friendly - less land-hungry and low carbon footprint - than other means of communication. This is more pertinent for Bangladesh with its acute scarcity and low per capita land, in tandem with high competing demand for agriculture, industries, housing etc.
The author is a professor of Civil Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET)