Bangladesh Railway: Perspective for sustainable transport in Bangladesh

Md. Saidur Rahman, PEng
Project Director
Dhaka-Chattogram-Cox’s Bazar Rail Project Preparatory Facility

Transport is a key infrastructure sector that acts as a stimulus to economic growth and development. But the transport sector of Bangladesh faces challenges of providing cost-effective as well as equitable services and opportunities. The economy of Bangladesh is burdened by major transportation constraints resulting from a combination of factors – physical, developmental and institutional-cum-policy framework-related which lead to lower efficiency, higher transport costs, and more significantly, “transport unreliability” with major adverse consequence for the economy and environment.

Despite the observed growth of transport sector, the overall performance of the sector has been generally weak and is now considered a major constraint to the expansion of exports and economic growth. We have achieved fast expansion of the road network and able to provide considerable benefits to population lacking accessibility, however this has created a tradeoff with other modes of transport such as railways and waterways, safety of transport users and the environment.

Sustainable transport is essential to achieve many of the proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs) and the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and it is, therefore, mainstreamed across several SDGs and targets. In developing countries, although transport’s share of GHG emissions is low, the energy consumption within the transport sector especially by the road transport is growing much faster than in other sectors. So, the choices of appropriate transport options, especially for mass transportation, are critical decisions about a country’s future growth and development.
Bangladesh Railway (BR) is made up of truncated portions of the erstwhile East Bengal Railway and Bengal Assam Railway, which after 1971 War of Liberation, fell in Bangladesh territory. BR has been providing the services with a network which is not suitable for and oriented to the traffic requirements of the country as it was inherited from British Indian railways with two-different gauges; meter gauge and broad gauge, and three-pockets of networks.

In the process, BR inherited a number of structural and physical weaknesses as a part of its legacy, since it was not specially designed and constructed to serve the present Bangladesh. Due to truncation from the main system, BR is handicapped to serve the country effectively and efficaciously without proper re-orientation and development. Since the partition of India in 1947, there was hardly any expansion of the railway in East Pakistan. Since the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, instead of constructing new railway lines, some of the branch line railway sections were declared redundant and subsequently closed and no proper attention to maintain the existing asset was being given. As a result, the railway of this area inherited from British India started declining day by day and the railway started losing its glorious past.

After liberation, BR had 2,858.23 km rail line, 470 stations, 486 locomotives, 1,643 coaches and 16,823 wagons. At present (as of 2018) BR has 2,955.53 km rail line, 466 stations, 272 locomotives, 1,586 coaches and 5,299 nos. of wagons. The allocation to the railway sub-sector in respect to the total allocation of transport sector was 27% in the 1stfive-year plan (FYP), 36% in the 2nd FYP, 32% in the 3rd FYP, 16% in the 4th FYP and 23% in the 5th FYP. Those allocations could barely meet the need of rehabilitation/ replacement costs. No significant improvement or up-gradation activities have been undertaken for the development of railway sector in Bangladesh.Except in recent days, during the past three decades, the only remarkable investment is the establishment of railway network over the Bangabandhu Bridge which provides seamless railway connectivity between East and West zone of BR. Thus the railway system in Bangladesh, an energy-efficient and a cost-effective mode of mass transport, was forced to face the uneven competition with other less sustainable modes of transport especially with road transport in a land-scared over populated country like Bangladesh.

Bangladesh today has an extensive road network surpassing other South Asian countries in total road density.Interestingly, the road density of Bangladesh in terms of area (km per 100 sq. km) is the highest (265.3 compared to 71.8 km in USA) but in terms of population (km per 1000 persons) it is one of the lowest in the world (2.3 against 20.5 in USA). However, the transport intensity of the Bangladesh economy is still considerably lower than that of neighboring countries in Asia. Freight transport intensity is only 0.28 ton-km/$GDP and passenger mobility 350 km/capita (770 for India and 1000 for Malaysia). A country of about 147,570 sq. km area having a population over 160 million at present would have to cater for transport needs of 200 million people by 2020. If transport intensity based on road system alone is to reach somewhere near to any developed country, the entire population of Bangladesh might have to migrate elsewhere to make room for road infrastructure.

The road transport has, in particular, revolutionized lives, bringing great flexibility and widening horizons; but an over-concentration on road transport has a price – for health, for the economy and for the environment. There is a growing consensus that continued road building to deal with increasing demand for transport is neither environmentally nor financially sustainable. A properly integrated transport plan should utilize the best features of all modes of transport, and ensure that they can largely complement one another. As a result, the Government’s recent transport policies emphasize for a paradigm shift towards investment in railways and inland water transport.

Accordingly,BR is considered as the thrust sector of transport infrastructure in the Perspective Plan (2010-21) of the Government and its vision is to expand and improve the railway system to provide safer, better, a more environmentally friendly and cost effective transport facility to national and international traffic.The share of Government transport sector expenditure for railways has recently significantly increased, to about 45% in the 6thFYP period (the shares for roads remained as high as around 50%), and 44% in the 7th FYP(roads is over 48% and waterways around 8%) of the total transport sector ADP resources. In the 7th FYP, the Government ha sset targets to increase BR’s market share to 10% from existing 4% for passenger transport, and to 15% from existing 4% for freight transport.

Travelling by railway in Bangladesh is more safe, energy efficient, environment-friendly, comfortable and reliable than other modes of transport. Intercity trains operated by BR are already very popular in some major corridors. Railways have the in-built advantages over road transport for the carriage of containers and a range of bulk commodities. Railways can offer safer and faster inter-city travel at more reasonable fare than road transport. But the present railway network inherited from colonial era does not keep pace with the strategic transport needs of modern Bangladesh. Track, locomotives and rolling stock are in relatively poor conditions; and a range of physical and institutional issues inhibit the realisation of the full capacity of the existing network. The reorientation of the railway network and rationalization of gauges are yet to be accomplished. Over the last three-decades, the railway received a relatively skimpy allocation of resources through ADPs. As a result, the railway became marginalized.

In a land scare country like Bangladesh, over emphasis on the road sector is not sustainable in the long-term. A high capacity, efficient and environmentally sound transport system is required; this is where rail can play a huge role. The full potential of the railway can only be realised through planned investment in track, signalling, rolling stock, maintenance and human resource development. Realizing the importance of the railway communication, railway sector has been the priority of the current Government.

In order to survive as a viable mode of transport, BR must significantly improve its service quality and operational efficiency as well as establish better connectivity by applying modern technology and practices adopted around the world. Moreover railway networks need multi-modal integration with road and inland water transport systems as well as improved infrastructure facilities to be able to carry more traffic efficiently.

The railways in Bangladesh have the potential to play a major role in the context of regional transport and trade. Bangladesh has a unique geographical location with two land-locked countries, namely Nepal and Bhutan, and one territory which is almost landlocked, namely Northeast India at its hinterland. Bangladesh is very much fortunate to have two sea ports (Chittagong and Mongla) and potential for developing a deep sea port.

Besides the regional connectivity, BR can easily be connected with the international railway network through the Trans-Asian-Railway (TAR) via India and Myanmar. If the regional (including the hinterland countries and territories) and international connectivity through the TAR network is provided by Bangladesh with access to its sea ports, tremendous opportunities could have opened up for BR to trade in “transport services” in near future. In view of the structural limitation of road networks in Bangladesh, most of the future regional and international traffic movement could be moved by railway, where there are some spare capacity and further capacity can be created with minimal investment as BR already has historical physical links and connection with India and through India to Pakistan and further towards Iran to Europe. As such to facilitate direct movement between Bangladesh and North-Eastern part of India, Bangladesh and the land-locked countries through India, Bangladesh and Myanmar towards further east (China); and to establish connections with Pakistan and beyond through the TAR network, the relevant regional routes need to be compatible as regards railway track gauge, structure gauge and axle load standards, and the missing links to be completed.
The railways can also play very vital roles as a viable mode of urban transport in Bangladesh. For a large city, like Dhaka, especially when it reaches a stage where the concentration of travel demand cannot be efficiently handled by the road-based system, the development of an urban rail system becomes essential. From the experience of other mega cities of the world, road system alone cannot satisfy the need for transportation of such a large city. The existing infrastructure and social condition of Dhaka have not enough provision to introduce bus only lanes and bus prioritization. Due to lack of sufficient road capacity and limited scope for future expansion, bus services alone will not be able to meet the future transportation demand of the mage city Dhaka.

The population of greater Dhaka is expected to be 36.0 million by 2024 with estimated total 70 million person trips a day (STP, 2005). To carry this huge load and considering the long-term investments benefits, heavy-rail based metro systems (like New Delhi) is necessary for the metropolis. The secondary corridors may then justify bus rapid transit (BRT) systems, which also may feed the metro. BRT should not be considered as an alternative option for heavy rail in a large city like Dhaka.

Even the elevated motorways/ busways will not solve the problems; rather they will cater different types of traffic (like elite car owners). Instead, commuter or suburban railway systemlike Mumbai (several routes with neighboring suburban districts and growth centers) can be developed along existing corridors (and also through future planned development) for suburban commuter trips and integrated into the central heavy-rail systems since the existing rail-roads traverse many of the major urban centers.

Moreover, Dhaka has unique potential for circular waterways development as it is surrounded by rivers and waterways. This also could accommodate circular rail system to further ease the traffic loads of the city.
In fact, whether Metro Rail is essential or not for efficient transport in large developing cities depends on the city and pattern of development itself. When high-density urban development expands widely but employment remains centralized, bus and private car may not be able to provide efficient transport facilities to the mass people and in this case urban rail with coordinated feeder services becomes predominantly important for efficient mode of transport to carry large volume of traffic. The Japanese system of urban transportation by rail, and its medium-range, high-speed railway network is a model for all to emulate. Japan’s mass transit systems as well as railways are the envy of the world; fast, clean, frequent and punctual; they are a daunting example to other nations of what can be achieved when government, business and science co-operate for the benefit of all.

Japan is one the few countries to maintain faith in use of a railway network as an integral part of the mass transportation market. Tokyo’s extensive urban transport system, among the most highly developed in the world, is largely characterized by an intensive use of rail systems. It is likely that the population and employment growth in the Tokyo Metropolitan Region would not have been achieved without the development of an extensive rail network. High-speed, frequent, and reliable rail services have helped expand the area within commuting distance, while allowing employment to grow apace in central Tokyo. Singapore, Seoul, Mumbai, Malaysia and Taipei have also adopted rail-oriented strategies. Delhi Metro is very popular and is being extended to cover many major parts of the City. The two most rapidly growing nations of Asia, China and India, have been increasingly introducing urban rail systems, especially the metro, in many big cities in consideration of its capacity to cater to long-term growth. Considering the reality, Dhaka and other large cities may adopt rail-based mass transit system, which should be developed in a planned and comprehensive manner integrated with other modes of transport to ensure door-to-door services. To enhance the development effects of the system, the construction of urban facilities (compact and mixed use types) at and around the stations for the improvement of inter-modal connectivity is important.

To move forward with innovation, it is imperative that decisions are made, not solely on past experiences, but also on future possibilities and preferred outcomes. The future balanced mix of transport modes for sustainability is something that will be created, not entered into. Say, to achieve the desired vision for sustainable rail transport in near future, those in the BR and government should be asking themselves: if this is the role we want railway to play, how do we ensure things are in place for this to happen? Looking ahead to 2030, 2040 or 2050 requires us to think in conceptual terms in the hope of pushing the boundaries of creative thinking.

We are often thought of as conservative; however there is a need to proceed with foresight and look into what technological changes are taking place around the world, to embrace creative thinking beyond projecting the present into the future. It should be noted that continued development and modernization of the existing system is criticalto meet the future transport demand of the country in a sustainable manner. Our major rail stations might be destinations and lifestyle centers that may further blend our commute with our lives. People around the world are increasingly using stations, not just as places to catch a train, but as centers for leisure and business. Of nearly a million weekly visitors to London’s St Pancras station, a quarter come to eat, drink or shop rather than take a train. This trend will continue as stations become places of experiential retail and also provide facilities such as gyms, hairdressers, meeting spaces and offices.

Nothing is possible overnight, however we have to broaden our thinking to serve the nation better in wider perspective. We may now dream for the high speed rail in major corridors to build our national imageand uphold our pride and dignity, which could be possible to achieve in near future if we really want it.

A well-functioning transport system is vital to the success of the economy and to improving the quality of life of people. The transport plan for sustainable development should include basic policies of saving resources and protecting the environment and set forth the strategic tasks of building a resource-saving, environment-friendly society. With depending on imported and volatile oil prices and the alarming rates of melting of the polar ice caps, business-as-usual policies in energy consumption are no longer viable options for Bangladesh or for any other nations.

Environment-friendly sustainable transport is a target-oriented approach that is needed to place energy efficiency, environment, and health at the top of the policy agenda for transport and related sectors at all levels. These policies are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Many elements required are already known or even in place; however, their implementation must be strengthened and must be more effective. We have to think globally, but act locally to have best outcomes of these efforts.

An effective and sustainable transport system for people and goods is a prerequisite for sustainable and inclusive economic growth. Although the country has made remarkable achievements in developing its transportation system, many problems in its business, management, and planning remain. In many cases, previous policies have focused on the construction of additional infrastructure and capital-intensive, high-cost transport projects with little consideration for environmental sustainability and land-use consequences. The Government’s policy of providing long-term public investment supports for developing an integrated transport infrastructure; however, there is a need for well-balanced goals that respond to economic, environmental, and social challenges. The focus should be on productivity, carbon emissions, safety, and health; and the policy decisions should be firmly based on evidence of the costs and benefits of these policies. The greater the attention to the evidence, the better the impact policies will have.

Essentially, to encourage technical innovation, to promote behavioral change, and to make intelligent investment decisions, prices must cover the social, environmental and congestion costs of transport. There is a need to adopt a stronger passenger and user focus in transport polices. The needs of the pedestrians and cyclists, and the users of para-transits and non-motorized vehicles must be considered and understood. Transport policies must improve every aspect of traveling from point of origin to final destination having minimum impacts on environment.

There is no doubt that the transport sector issues are to be addressed in a holistic manner with an integrated policy approach rather than piece-meal sub-sectoral approach. Different modes of transport will have to fit into the transport chain by virtue of their quality and competitiveness of service. For transporting freight and passengers through a multimodal chain, all the component parts are to be seamlessly linked and efficiently coordinated to offer the shippers and travelers a full range of options from which to select preferred routings and methods of transport.

Implementation of multimodal practices would require an integrated policy approach to guide transport investment decisions on the basis of appropriate assessments of impacts of all modes of transport to ensure that investment meets the policy objective of sustainable development. The intrinsic advantages of the individual transport modes would be exploited to develop synergies between the modes in the interest of the economy and the environment. Railways in Bangladesh may play critical role as a viable and a sustainable mode of transport considering our socio-demographic, geo-political and economic environments.
In Bangladesh, public sector is the main provider of rail and air services and is also involved in providing services in road, inland water transport and shipping along with the private sector. Evidence in many countries has shown that private sector ownership and operation of transport services can also deliver social benefits to the people as a whole. In order to secure competitive access to industrialized economies and global trade generally and also to exploit the potentials of providing transport services to the sub-region, Bangladesh needs an active participation of private sector to bring in efficiencies of service operation and access to capital.

We have to be realistic while selecting appropriate transport options taking into account long-term needs, and implementation and financial issues. Integration with other transport modes must be achieved in a sensitive manner that respects people’s choices. Stakeholders need to agree on a comprehensive transport strategy plan ensuring the co-existence of different modes of transport. There must be strong political support and competent management for smooth implementation with clear-cut provisions delineating the respective roles of the different planning and implementing agencies.

About the Author
Md. Saidur Rahman, a Professional Engineer, is Project Director for Dhaka-Chattogram-Cox’s Bazar Rail Project Preparatory Facility, Bangladesh Railway, Railbhaban, Dhaka. He also served Asian Development Bank as Team Leader and Country Focal for Energy & Power Sector at Bangladesh Resident Mission. He graduated in Civil Engineering from BUET and did a Master in Transportation Engineering from Hiroshima University, Japan as a JDS scholar. He also pursued an MBA from the University of Dhaka. He has several publications in international and national journals/ proceedings/ magazines and attended many international and national conferences, seminars, symposiums and workshops. He is the writer of a research book on the ‘Travel Behavior Analysis of Dhaka City’.