People's wait for smoother and faster rail communication between Dhaka and Chattogram will be prolonged further as the deadline for expansion of the Akhaura-Lakhsam section on this crucial route is set to be extended for a second time.
Journeys on this route typically take additional time because this 72km section remains a bottleneck while the rest of the 321km rail corridor between the capital and the port city has already been converted into a double line.
A project approved in December 2014 for construction of a double rail line on this section and conversion of the existing track into dual gauge was supposed to be completed between July 2014 and June 2020.
But the main construction work only commenced in November 2016, around two years after the approval and then the project saw time extension till this June.
Now the project authorities want to revise the Development Project Proposal (DPP) with a two-year time extension till June 2023. However, the railway authorities recommended only a one-year time extension for now and that the DPP be revised later, sources said.
The project -- which is being implemented with mostly donor funds at a cost of Tk 6504.54 crore -- witnessed 73 percent progress till February this year.
The Dhaka-Chattogram rail line, the most important corridor of Bangladesh's railway network, also constitutes a major part of the Trans-Asian Railway and the Sub-regional railway corridor.
A double-track rail line between the capital and country's second largest city is essential for passenger and goods transportation.
Twelve passenger trains use the section for round-trips on the Dhaka-Chattogram, Dhaka-Noakhali, and Chattogram-Sylhet routes daily.
Besides, five freight trains use the section for daily round-trips on the Dhaka-Chattogram route.
All these trains have to spend at least an additional 46 minutes due to the ongoing work. Sometimes, delays last more than an hour, officials said.
All the trains on the single line have to wait at nearby stations to make way for each other, causing delays in their schedules.
"Besides, operation of trains on a single line often causes safety concerns," a mid-level BR official told The Daily Star recently.
BR cannot operate the increasing number of freight trains on the Dhaka-Chattogram route due to the bottleneck, he said requesting anonymity.
Officials also said Subarna Express, which is supposed to take five hours and 10 minutes for the Dhaka-Chattogram trip, takes around six and a half hours.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the project works remained suspended for more than two months last year and the authority extended the deadline till next month.
BR signed a four-year contract with CTM Joint Venture in June 2016 for construction work of the Akhaura-Lakhsam double line and conversion of the existing line into dual gauge.
The contract expired in November 2020 and financier Asian Development Bank (ADB) on February 15 this year gave "no objection" to a proposal of the project authorities for a two-year extension of the contract, documents show.
The tenure of contracts with construction supervision consultants and an INGO engaged for implementation of the resettlement work will expire next month.
Another contract with a INGO for giving training for capacity building and some other work expired on April 23.
In these circumstances, the project authorities initially wanted to revise the DPP but with the revision process being complex and time-consuming, they proposed at a meeting of the railways ministry in February that the deadline be extended till June 2023 without cost escalation, sources said.
But the project authorities were told to place only a proposal for a one-year time extension for now, they added.
No time extension has been approved till date.
REASONS FOR THE DELAYS
The project witnessed only seven percent progress in one year, from February 2020, documents show.
Project Director Shahidul Islam said the work came to a near halt for more than two months last year and the pandemic also disturbed the supply chain of construction materials.
Complications regarding land acquisition and resettlement of non-titled people -- meaning people who are not owners of the land to be acquired but who have been living and doing business there for a long time, he said.
They have to go through a lengthy negotiation process to relocate four food godowns from the construction site and in January the food department agreed to this, he told The Daily Star on March 22.
They also had to change the height of some bridges and subsequently the embankment during the project implementation period, Shahidul Islam said.
"So, we think that the project will take two more years including a one-year defects liability period and we have already sought an extension of the project deadline without cost escalation," he said, declining to specify the extension tenure.
A defects liability period is the period of time since the completion of a project during which a contractor has the right to return to the site to remedy defects.
"We have sought time extension due to ground realities," the PD said.
The work of a 10km portion from Lakhsam to Lalmai is nearly completed and was set to be opened for the publicby the first week of April, according to the PD.
But restrictions on public transport imposed from April 5 to check the coronavirus spread suspended train operations and so, the 10km portion could not be opened.
The PD further said though they will ultimately have to revise the DPP, the total cost of the project may not be increased.
BEST OPTION IGNORED FOR DECADES
Although full transformation of the "lengthy" Dhaka-Chattogram line into double lines will significantly cut journey time, BR officials and experts don't consider this the best option for reducing journey time.
Construction of a chord line (route across the outer parts of an urban area) between Dhaka and Cumilla would reduce the distance from Dhaka to Chattogram from the existing 320km to around 230km, they said.
Discussion for the construction of a chord line went on for decades, with the railways ministry even sending a proposal for constructing the line under a public-private partnership proposal in 2012 but this did not see much progress due to unknown reasons, they said.
Instead, talks moved to constructing a high-speed rail from Dhaka-Chattogram -- according to a feasibility study carried out by BR, the project will cost $11.113 billion.
Some BR officials and transport experts termed the project "highly ambitious" and said the authorities should rather build the chord line as the best option to reduce travel time between the two major cities.
BR will now carry a feasibility study for the chord line under a project funded by ADB, sources said.