Construction work of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Railway Bridge over the Jamuna river has finally started, more than three and a half years after the government approved the project.
Although the contractors began the preliminary work last month, the fully-fledged work is yet to start as they could not mobilise their manpower from Japan due to the pandemic, said officials.
Local staffers of the contractors are now preparing the construction site, fencing the site and building accommodation facilities for workers. Meanwhile, a land-related dispute with the Bangladesh Bridge Authority for building a construction yard has also been settled, they said.
The project costs have gone up to Tk 16,781 crore from Tk 9,734 crore and the current deadline is December 2025. In March 3 this year, the project cost was revised, and its duration extended by two years from 2023.
The 4.8km-long bridge will be built some 300 metres upstream of the Bangabandhu bridge, which has a single rail line.
Once built, the dual-gauge double-track bridge would be the largest dedicated rail bridge in the country.
The bridge would improve the capacity of Bangladesh Railway in operating more trains between the capital and western part of the country. It would also help reduce train delays, which are now common, officials said.
The main bridge would be constructed under two packages. Japan will fund the lion's share (72 percent) of the cost as soft loans.
A joint venture of Obayashi Corporation, TOA Corporation and JFE would construct the eastern part of the bridge at a cost of Tk 6,801 crore, while another joint venture of the IHI and SMCC will work on the western part which will cost Tk 6,148 crore, officials said.
All are Japanese companies.
"We have signed deals with the contractors on April 5 and they have formally commenced work on August 10," Project Director Md Quamrul Ahsan told The Daily Star on Monday.
"Although the preliminary work has already started, the project work will formally be inaugurated in a suitable time," he added.
The railway authorities' plan was to have the project work inaugurated by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in March, but it was dropped later due to the Covid-19 outbreak in the country, rail ministry sources said.
Replying to a question, Quamrul said, "Yes, the project is facing some problems due to the pandemic as the Japanese are not able to come to Bangladesh."
"However, we are holding progress meetings with them regularly online. Their first team is expected to come in mid-October," he added.
The delays in schedule of trains that travel between the capital and north-western and southwester regions mainly occur due to restrictions on load and speed on the Bangabandhu bridge.
With the highest permitted speed of 20kmph, it takes about half an hour for a train to travel from the station on the east side of the bridge to the one on the west, officials said.
Railways Minister Nurul Islam Sujan on several occasions said the problems could not be solved until the rail bridge and the dual-gauge double lines between Joydebpur and Ishwardi were constructed.
There is a single line from Joydebpur to Ishwardi. The railway operates 42 trains on this 174km stretch that connects Dhaka with the western region via the Bangabandhu bridge.
Officials said a maximum of 22 trains could travel smoothly on this route a day.
Considering all these factors, Bangladesh Railway has taken the project of constructing the rail bridge and a dual-gauge double line from Joydebpur to Ishwardi, they added.
In December 2016, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council passed the bridge project at a cost of Tk 9,734 crore and the project was scheduled to be completed within December 2023.
But costs of two main work packages saw a huge rise after the detailed design was made in September 2018. Besides, costs of land acquisition, land lease and building a museum were also included in the project, causing a jump in the total cost.
Increased VAT and customs duties were also responsible for the cost escalation, documents obtained by The Daily Star show.