It was 1:30 pm on 27 September. A DEMU train pulled up at platform 7 of the Kamalapur Station. Some passengers waiting at the station ran towards it.
Nahid Sanwar was one such passenger. A police officer, Nahid has been commuting between Kamalapur and Mouchak station in Gazipur regularly for more than one year. Despite how hot it gets inside the train, Nahid takes the train to save time.
"If I take a bus from Malibagh, it will take three hours to reach the Gazipur Chowrasta bus stand. This train takes around one hour," he said.
The train left Kamalapur station for Gazipur at 1:45 pm, on schedule.
To facilitate short distance travels on rail, the government bought 20 units of diesel-electric multiple unit (DEMU) trains for the first time in 2013. It was a novel idea to bring down the cost of commuting for people and to ease the pressure on roads.
Unfortunately, the project failed miserably to serve its purpose and became one of the most controversial projects the railways ever took up.
Even though the lifespan of the Chinese-made trains was projected to be around 35 years, 17 of the 20 DEMU trains have reportedly become inoperative due to the lack of maintenance and spare parts within only seven years.
At an ECNEC meeting in 2019, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina rejected a proposal to buy six more DEMU trains, pointing out that they were not viable for operation in Bangladesh. At the meeting, the prime minister asked the railway authority to look for other options.
Out of the 12 trains in Dhaka Division, only two trains are in use. One travels from Dhaka to Gazipur and the other travels from Dhaka to Narayanganj.
At the time of the launching of the new trains, the railway officials said that the trains can travel as fast as 80 kilometres per hour and carry around 300 passengers at a time. The project had a price tag of Tk598.84 crore.
Why are these trains in shambles?
The government's project evaluation agency - Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) - conducted an impact evaluation survey in 2017 on the 20 DEMU trains.
The report found that though the railways introduced DEMU trains in 2013, no significant initiatives were taken for the maintenance of the trains. Notably, the project implementing agency, the Bangladesh Railway, mentioned nothing about maintenance issues in the development project pro forma.
While the existing locomotives are serviced every one and a half years at the workshop for those trains, no additional workforce was recruited for DEMU train maintenance. Since there was no workshop set up for the maintenance of DEMU trains, these trains eventually fell into disrepair.
"As DEMU trains are new to the Bangladesh Railways, the parts and technology do not match its existing fleet," mentioned in the 60-page report.
The report also shed light on other problems associated with the trains such as the passengers' routine suffering in the trains. Usually, these types of trains come with air-conditioning in other countries so that passengers feel comfortable. However, Bangladesh bought non-AC trains and as a result, the passengers have to suffer because of the heat inside the trains.
As the windows of the compartments are only half-open, wind cannot enter. Many of the ceiling fans are inoperative too. The IMED survey questioned passengers about the heat inside the train. A staggering 87 percent of 510 passengers surveyed in the report complained that they suffer the most in summer inside the train due to the heat.
Another major problem associated with DEMU trains is getting into the train as the doors of the compartment are a step or two higher than the railway platforms. The study identified that it was not easy for certain passengers to get on the trains. Thirty-nine percent of passengers said that they faced problems getting into the train.
Leading transportation expert professor Shamsul Hoque said since DEMU trains were a relatively new technology for Bangladesh, we needed to keep in mind how we were going to maintain the trains.
"The people who were involved in purchasing the train did this for their own personal benefit. The lack of emphasis on maintenance facilities for the trains have made them inoperative so quickly," Hoque said.
He explained that the people who were involved in the procurement of the DEMU trains either lacked the knowledge or showed sheer negligence regarding the maintenance of the trains.
"They were more eager to buy it for their personal benefit than for regular people," Hoque added.
Professor Shamsul Hoque said that as Dhaka is a densely populated city, short-distance trains like DEMU trains are necessary, however, we should have been better prepared before buying them.
It was not meant to be this way
To gather technical and operational knowledge about the DEMU trains, eight government officers took part in a 15-day-study tour, visiting the train supply and manufacturing company in China. The travel party included three people from Bangladesh Railway, three from the Ministry of Railways, one from the Planning Commission and one from the IMED. For the study tour, the government spent Tk48 lakh and 36 thousand.
Professor Shamsul Hoque believes that the people directly involved in the decision-making of the project need to be held responsible.
He said that the Planning Commission should have stopped the project and failed to perform its duty effectively.
When the professor was asked about the study tour costing nearly half a crore, he responded, "The team included an IMED personnel because if they did not include one, after the completion of the project, they would bring up a mistake."
Interestingly, while the project monitoring agency, IMED published a 60-page study, the study never mentioned the fact that the project was implemented without carrying out any feasible studies beforehand.
When asked why the absence of the feasibility study is absent in the 60-page Impact Evaluation Report, Mohammad Mustafa Hassan, deputy director of IMED who was involved in the IMED's report said that he had forgotten why it was not included in the report.
Professor Shamsul Hoque said that the railways should now carry out a study on the DEMU trains by an independent technical body on whether they should further invest in the dying DEMU trains.
TA Chowdhury was the railway's director general when the DEMU train project was passed in the weekly Eenec meeting.
Speaking to The Business Standard, he said he did not remember much about the project. However, he said that a workshop had been set up for regular maintenance of the trains at Dhaka's diesel workshop.
"If I did not set it up, then they can set up a workshop for heavy maintenance now," said TA Chowdhury. "Not just DEMU trains, a plane can also get damaged, as can a Volvo vehicle, if you do not do maintenance."
He added that a proposal had been submitted to set up a workshop in Narayanganj five or six years ago. "I don't know why it has not been set up."
Sardar Shahadat Ali, Additional Director General (operation), Bangladesh Railway, said that they do not have the actual figure on the number of inoperative trains.
"We are working to determine how many of the trains have become permanently inoperative and how many are in operation, we will soon figure it out," said Sardar Shahadat Ali.
When asked about their decision about the inoperative DEMU trains, Dhirendra Nath Majumder, the current Director General of Bangladesh Railway said that they have not yet taken any decision on what they are going to do.
Meanwhile, when The Business Standard reached out to the Railways Minister Nurul Islam Sujan on why the demu train project was taken up in the first place without accounting for its maintenance, he refused to speak on the topic.