Dhaka is an old city that has been built without any plan. No one had the opportunity to develop the city in a planned manner. That is why construction of metro rail lines in Dhaka is very challenging. Many people have expressed their doubt about the success of metro rail in the city because of this challenge.
We took the courageous decision to implement the metro rail project as per the directive from the prime minister.
As soon as we started working, we faced many new challenges along with the old ones. We did not have the capacity to overcome all the challenges at once. We, therefore, decided to take these challenges as per their importance and address them in phases.
For example, if you look at the current alignment of the metro rail line, you would find that it has been built in the same way as a snake moves. In the beginning, the alignment of this metro rail was not like that. The biggest challenge at first was to finalise it.
While constructing the metro rail line next to the parliament building, we first came across the question as to whether the area is included in the parliament complex or not. After discussions with various government departments, we learned that the area is outside the parliament complex.
The metro rail was initially supposed to go to Farmgate through Bijoy Smaroni, but we had to change it in the face of objections from the Army Aviation and the Air Force.
The initial decision was to execute the metro rail project in two phases so as not to aggravate the suffering of the city dwellers. The first phase of the work was supposed to be up to Farmgate. But later we found that there was no place to build four lines for a train turnback there. As a result, we decided to complete the Uttara-Agargaon portion of the line in the first phase.
Apart from Bijoy Sarani, Sangsad Bhaban and Farmgate areas, there were problems with alignment in Dhaka University, Curzon Hall, Secretariat, Baitul Mukarram areas too. We made sound barriers during the construction works due to the objections from the authorities from these areas to reduce noise.
The biggest challenge was finalising the route alignment. After overcoming this challenge, we found that the width of the roads varies in different parts of the city. Somewhere the roads are narrow, somewhere it is very wide. It became difficult to manage the construction work by keeping the vehicles moving.
A separate traffic management plan has to be made to reduce the suffering of the people. We worked on the construction of metro rail stations at night as it is more difficult during the daytime.
There have been no accidents during the construction work on the metro rail project as we have taken safety first policy. It was a big and difficult challenge in a crowded place like Dhaka.
We have had to face a lot of criticism for removing a lot of beautifying plants while constructing metro rail in the middle of the road.
However, we have rebuilt the road medians after completion of construction work in certain areas and planted several times more trees than before. If you go to Pallabi and northern areas from there, you will see it.
The construction of the metro rail faced a major challenge when foreign consultants and skilled workers returned to their home countries due to the Covid-19 pandemic. During that period, we prioritised the tasks that can be carried forward from home or in the factory.
The construction work did not stop during the two years Covid-induced lockdowns and other restrictions. We generated various innovative ideas to keep the construction works going.
We have set up isolation centres and quarantine centres at the field level to keep the work running in full swing. We have also set up two field hospitals and signed Covid-19 treatment-related agreements with government hospitals and private hospitals. All these measures have been taken to restore the confidence of the foreigners who were brought back to Dhaka on special flights.
It is very difficult to find land for the implementation of any project in Dhaka metropolis. Even when the land was found, we had to face many challenges to acquire it. We had to acquire a lot of land in Uttara for construction of a metro rail depot. The area was once known as a low-lying, dumping area. It will be an example of how we can improve our lands using advanced technology.
We had to build several construction yards in Farmgate, Uttara, and Gabtoli to build so many viaducts. The eviction of illegal occupants from these yards also was a major challenge.
There were other challenges too. Several Japanese consultants were killed in a terrorist attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery during the design stage of the construction work. Bringing in new consultants was a big challenge.
While building the rolling stock of the metro rail, we saw that very high-quality plastics are used in the construction of world-class metro rail. But, we decided that plastic-made metro rails would not be sustainable for us here. That is why we used stainless steel to meet the challenges of the future. We have used strong window glasses so that it is not damaged easily.
We had no previous experience in metro rails. Therefore, we had to face different difficulties at different stages. The construction of the first MRT line (MRT Line-6) was completed on a trial and error basis. Nevertheless, we have gathered a lot of experience in the first project.
Some of our people went abroad for training to increase their skills. The number of our people with practical experience has also increased. I believe our experienced and skilled manpower will help us move forward with the next projects.
As the first project (line-6) has reached the final stage, some of the people involved here will be able to take charge of the next projects.
It was said at the beginning that we did not have the financial and technical capacity to implement a metro rail project in Bangladesh. But, we are working to overcome our limitations.
In the beginning, 75% of the project's manpower was foreigners. But, now 80% of the manpower is from Bangladesh.
The big challenge in the future of metro rail will be the maintenance, and operational costs. No country in the world can bear the cost of a metro rail with fares alone. For this, some non-fare revenue has to be collected.
As part of this, we have decided to build several station plazas and several Transit Oriented Development (TOD) hubs. Some commercial spaces are also being created in the stations and some LED screens are being installed.
We are trying to ensure some revenue besides the fares from the first day of the operation of metro rail.
We have taken all these decisions in the light of our experience during the implementation of the MRT Line-6 project. All these ideas can be easily applied in later projects.
Our idea is that once the MRT line is completed, the GDP of the country will increase by about one percent. At the same time, a huge amount of people will be employed. The metro rail will reduce traffic congestion as well as environmental damage in Dhaka.
The line-6 alone will be able to carry 60,000 passengers per hour and about five lakh people will use this line daily. If the 2030 plan is implemented, around 50 lakh people will use it every day.
Now there is no certainty as to when one will reach Motijheel from Uttara. It can take up to three hours. But once the metro rail is completed, the journey will be possible in just 38 minutes. Metro trains will run every three and a half minutes during peak hours.
Metro rails will save a huge amount of time for people and they will be able to give more time to their family members, or do other work.
There are both financial and economic values of time. A large portion of GDP is lost due to traffic congestion. Metro rail will reduce this loss.
When the metro rail is fully operational, small vehicles will be stopped. This will reduce traffic congestion as well as save fuel.
The main goal of the plan under which the DMTCL is working is to reduce the traffic congestion in Dhaka metropolis by 2030.
Later, in the second and third phase, different areas of Gazipur, Narayanganj, Manikganj, Munshiganj and Narsingdi among the districts around Dhaka will be brought under the metro rail network. This will reduce the pressure of the people on Dhaka city.
Different facilities are now attracting people from different areas towards Dhaka city. Metro rails in all these areas will act as a push factor. Then people will be able to set up offices in Dhaka from their homes in the surrounding districts.
Finally, I would say that the key to building MRT in Bangladesh is a political commitment. In other words, we had a political vision, where the Prime Minister was the main driving force.
Whenever we stumble, whenever we see that there is a challenge we cannot face, we go to the prime minister. She listens to all our problems. She is giving us all kinds of help to reduce traffic congestion or improve the environment. Her assistance has increased the pace of our work.
The author is Managing Director of Dhaka Mass Transit Company Limited (DMTCL)
[The writeup was translated from Bangla based on the author's conversation with The Business Standard's Jahidul Islam]