Though most of the trains running in the country’s northwestern and southern regions face delay mainly due to inadequate capacity of railway tracks, Bangladesh Railway is adding new trains in the regions without proper assessment, worsening the situation further.
The BR now operates 42 trains in Joydebpur-Ishwardi section with a 174-km single track that connects the capital with the western zone via Bangabandhu Bridge.
The Joydebpur-Ishwardi section has a capacity of smoothly operating a maximum of 22 trains a day. And to handle trains more than that, it has to apply “block system” that allows only one train to run at a time from one station to the next one, forcing other trains to wait, said BR officials.
The BR introduced four intercity trains in the western zone in the last six months with the latest one starting operation from Dhaka to Kurigram on October 16.
Experts say the authorities select more routes under pressure and lobbying from influential people without any assessment of whether these routes would be financially viable or the train schedules would be convenient for passengers.
BR officials said two of the four trains, launched in the last six months, failed to draw expected response from passengers mainly due to ill-suited schedules and delays.
Admitting the schedule problems, Railways Minister Nurul Islam Sujan on several occasions said more trains would result in more delay in the western zone.
He, however, said they had to introduce more trains in the face of public demand.
Contacted, Railways Secretary Mofazzal Hossain claimed they introduced new trains on the basis of BR data.
Asked about the pressure of influential people in selecting routes, he said, “Such pressure doesn’t work in case of route selection. But it may work in selecting stations.”
The BR operates 360 passenger trains through its 3,000km network across the country divided into eastern and western zones.
The number of railway passengers has increased over the years. It was 90.05 million in fiscal 2017-18, up from 77.80 million in the previous fiscal year. But the BR incurred a loss of Tk 1,432 crore in fiscal 2017-18.
The delay in the schedules of trains, except for a few, which connect the capital with northwestern and southern regions has been a common phenomenon for the last few years.
Abdullah Al Mamun, divisional transportation officer (Pakshi) of the BR, mentioned three major reasons behind the delay.
He said 22 trains can run smoothly through Joydebpur-Ishwardi section per day but 42 trains now run through it.
“Most of the trains, except for a few, have to wait at nearby stations to make way for other trains, leading to delay in schedules,” Mamun told this newspaper over the phone recently.
Besides, the length of the “block section” -- the distance from one station to another -- between Joydebpur and Bangabandhu Bridge (East) Station is relatively long, meaning each train has to wait longer to make way for the other.
Another reason for the delay is Bangabandhu Bridge.
Trains have to run at the “restricted speed” of 20 kilometres per hour while crossing the bridge. It takes about half an hour to cross the seven-km stretch between the bridge’s east and west stations, he added.
The pressure intensifies during the Eid rush as the BR operates special trains to carry additional passengers. The train schedules collapsed during the last Eid-ul-Azha, forcing people to wait for up to 16 hours at Kamalapur and Dhaka airport rail stations to catch trains bound for western districts.
Earlier in January 2016, the government took up a Tk 9,734-crore project to construct Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Rail Bridge over the Jamuna. Physical work of the 4.8-km bridge will start in January next year and end by 2023, the railways minister said recently.
At a press briefing on September 17, the minister said the problems regarding train schedules on the western routes cannot be resolved until the construction of the rail bridge and the dual-gauge double line from Joydebpur to Ishwardi.
The demand for more trains has gone up drastically but it’s not possible now to add more than one or two trains on the western routes, he mentioned.
“More trains will result in more delay in train schedules,” he added.
The government took up a Tk 14,250.61 crore project in January this year to turn Joydebpur-Ishwardi section into a dual-gauge double line. It is scheduled to be completed by December 2024. Physical work of the project is yet to start.
WHY NEW TRAINS?
The authorities launched “Banalata Express”, a nonstop intercity train service, on Dhaka-Rajshahi route in April -- the first train to have been introduced after Sujan took office as railways minister in January this year. Later, the train service was extended up to Chapainawabganj.
Launching a nonstop intercity train on Dhaka-Rajshahi route was one of the election pledges of Rajshahi city Mayor AHM Khairuzzaman Liton.
A month later, a semi-nonstop intercity train service -- “Panchagarh Express” -- was launched between Dhaka and Panchagarh, the home district of the railways minister.
Besides, “Benapole Express” was launched in July on Dhaka-Benapole route to facilitate passengers going to India via Benapole.
On October 16, the government introduced an intercity train on Dhaka-Kurigram route. It also plans to increase the frequency of Maitree Express on Dhaka-Kolkata route. The trans-border train could run five or six days a week instead of four.
However, a BR official, who earlier worked as divisional manager (Pakshi), said they had urged the higher authorities not to launch any more train in the western zone. They suggested replacing the outdated coaches of existing trains with new ones and also increasing the number of coaches.
“But the authorities didn’t pay heed to our suggestions,” said the official on condition of anonymity.
Prominent transport expert Prof Shamsul Haque said that in the railway, “politics” often gets priority over technical issues and service.
The government is introducing express trains only to show off its development work despite a lack of required infrastructure, he said.
Prof Shamsul, also former director of Accident Research Institute at Buet, said no new train should be launched without putting in place necessary infrastructure including multiple railway tracks.
“Schedules of many trains get delayed for hours in the absence of alternative railway lines, leading to an increase in operational costs of the trains,” he mentioned.
Atiqur Rahman, project officer of Work for a Better Bangladesh Trust, said the railway usually does not carry out any assessment before launching a train on a route.
“The authorities choose routes for new trains under influence from local politicians,” alleged Atiqur, who has experience of more than eight years in the sector.
He suggested that the authorities should add new coaches, instead of new trains, until they can increase the capacity of the railway tracks in the western zone.
The railways secretary admitted that the launching of Kurigram Express would create “some problems” in the schedules of trains in the western zone.
“The authorities will try to manage it as the intercity trains run six days a week,” he told this correspondent on October 16.
He also said the schedule problems would largely be solved once the construction of the rail bridge on the Jamuna is completed.