The economy of the country has been growing steadily and some years later we will cross the threshold of the least developed country. In 2041, we are expecting to become a developed country. Are we prepared for that? I will say we are far behind in preparation in terms of communication infrastructure.
For any big economy, quality communication infrastructure is a must. Bangladesh has recently constructed the country's first expressway, the 42-kilometre Dhaka-Mawa expressway. But we need at least 8 such expressways in all 8 national corridors across the country which should be around 3,000 kilometres. These are overdue for a long time.
We are way behind our neighbouring countries let alone the developed ones. Pakistan has around 15 expressways, India has around 23, Malaysia 37 and Sri Lanka 3 such expressways. Vietnam has constructed around 5000 kilometres of expressway since 2000.
Expressway is one of the landmark infrastructures for any economy for its productivity. It saves the cost and time of transportation to a great extent. This type of road has a huge contribution to the economy. We should have taken this strategy earlier. We have just started.
Science says expressways take more room for construction, especially, in the intersections. In every country, an intersection is a popular destination for investment. If the intersection is already occupied and developed, you will find it hard to get the space for constructing the artery roads with ideal configuration.
Now what we are doing is turning two-lane roads and highways into four lanes to six lanes, roads we have inherited from the British. The whole world says, four or six lanes is not the issue. Make sure whether it has access control or not. That is, if one can drive on the Dhaka-Chattogram highway at a sustained speed of 110 kph uninterrupted, then this is called artery road.
A huge investment has been put in the roads and highways for widening them from two to four lanes, and at some places, even six and eight lanes, but these do not have access control. As a result, anyone can move in the way. Some are driving at a speed of five kilometre per hour, some are driving at 100. It is very risky as well as non-productive. Overall, be it rural roads or national corridors, we have failed to make it business-friendly.
In the 1980s and 90s, India and many other countries converted their national highways into expressways. In 1997, the Indian government made its golden quadrilateral highways with access control and no intersection. You have to change the configuration of our highways scientifically.
We have heard the government has planned to make 8 expressways across the country. We should have done it 20 to 25 years ago when land acquisition and intersections were not as complicated as now.
In 2041, we hope to be a developed country. We are far away from it. We are not yet prepared. We have just begun with 42 kilometres where Vietnam already has 5,000 kilometres of expressways. We should have at least 2000-3000 kilometres of expressways.
The number of roads in our rural areas is more than our neighbouring countries according to the per capita density of the population. But the roads are lagging in terms of quality because the development was based on poor planning. When constructing roads in rural areas, we wait for land donation instead of acquiring land.
As a result, the road is zigged-zagged because it was on donated land. When we are trying to straighten and widen roads, problems emerge. They just paved the muddy way. They are not that standard in terms of quality. As the plan was short-sighted, we achieved the target in terms of quantity. We are far away from quality.
The roads in the urban areas are also not satisfactory. Dhaka is one of the most unliveable cities in the world and it is because we don't have enough roads for ventilation. A city is like a stadium. A stadium has lots of gates to come in and flush out. Dhaka should have many roads to get into the city and get out. People want to flush out in five minutes from the city.
People are coming to Dhaka from every district daily. Ones coming from Chattogram have to come through Jatrabari. Again people who are coming from Sylhet are also coming through Jatrabari. The developed countries have ring roads. Like inner ring road, middle ring road and outer ring road.
You are not getting the production of the Dhaka-Mawa expressway only because they can come very fast but they have to stay stuck for hours in Babu Bazaar or Gulistan. The load will not be concentrated, people who want to go to Uttara can use the ring road. Beijing city has 12 ring roads whereas London has 5 ring roads. We don't have any.
Again, there should be at least one artery road that goes through the city. We don't have any artery roads in Dhaka city. We should have an access control elevated road in the city. Local people can get into buses with a ramp while at the same time the long-route buses could ply on the way uninterrupted. Now you need hours to stay at Gabtoli to get out of the city.
While you will need 20 minutes to cross Padma Bridge, the bridge will not be productive for you, if you lose hours at the mouth of Dhaka city before entering Dhaka. The offset will be on. You will need multiple gates to enter Dhaka. If you see a tailback in a road, one will go another spike through a ring road.
The development projects of Bangladesh Railway are not done in a planned way as well. The railway has a rail crossing in every kilometre with roads. Every project has a purpose and that is speed. We have been knotting up the roads with rail. The developed countries, like Japan and Singapore, have concentrated on increasing productivity. And to do so, they have been launching high-speed trains.
If you want to introduce high-speed trains, you can never knot with roads. You have to go either under or over the train line. In the last 50 years, the idea of British railways' long-distance train has gone. Long-distance trains are romantic trains and they are a kind of tourist train. Then how will the railway survive? Developed countries have divided the railway into two. One is urban rail and another is long-distance train. The urban railway is for the commuters of the city.
In developed countries, long-distance trains cannot enter into cities. But in our country, a train from Chattogram is coming to Kamalapur Railway station. It should be stopped at Gazipur. The passengers will then travel in destination-bound trains like metro trains to come to Dhaka and different small areas. You see 90 percent of the passengers of the long-distance trains get down at the airport station now.
Then you see how every day around 70 trains come to Kamalapur for a handful of people. Our rail should be brought under a two-tier system.
Most importantly, the railway is making a profit from commuter trains and is run electronically. The long-distance is a seasonal trip. The metro rail was supposed to be under Bangladesh Railway.
Another good thing. There is a huge potential for goods trains in our country. If there is a branch line of the train to Dhaka EPZ, then the industrialist would never take trucks to transport goods. Container trucks are eating up the capacity of the roads. Rail gets Tk7,000 for bringing a container from Chattogram port to Dhaka. For sustainable development of the country, rail needs to focus on container trains. Bangladesh Railway has only a 7 percent share of container handling from Chattogram to Dhaka. The rest of it is transported by road. Which stands unsustainable.
The businessmen as well as investments are also facing problems due to that. It is high time; the government should connect the Economic Zones to trains. Otherwise, the container truck will damage all the national highways.
The government will have to bring contribution to freight trains by at least 50 -60 percent to make it sustainable. Then the highways will be long-lasting. The railways' investment is mostly for passenger trains. The railway is also not prepared.
The most inherent weakness of the waterways is that the goods can be brought to the terminal. There are no crane facilities for load transfer. The goods are transferred on head-load in a small amount. Now, the freight that has been transported in the waterways is not that of high value. If you want to pull the valued goods, you will need a jetty with handling equipment. You will need an integrated parking facility so that you can bring goods directly to a vehicle mechanically. The government will need to instruct the BITWA to make jetties with operational capability.
Businessmen are always profit-motivated. They will take the cheapest mode of transportation available.
Another big problem is navigability. The government has already increased navigability in different rivers across the country but we are very late. We should have done it much earlier. Our neighbouring countries India and China have been re-excavating waterways for a long while. They are also making connecting canals.
Waterways are very important for decarbonisation too. You will need less fuel. You can transport goods of 50 trucks in a single barge. Only, you will have to ensure navigability in the dry season.
Now what we need is multimodal balanced transportation. Now our transportation is road-biased and road-focused.
The government formulated a multimodal transport policy in 2013. But it was not implemented. There is no guardian to implement it. Most of the problems will be resolved if it is implemented.
The author is a professor at the Department of Civil Engineering, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). The article is based on an interview taken over phone by The Business Standard's Ariful Islam Mithu.