Around eight and a half years ago, an axle load control station was set up at the Shingpara location falong the Panchagarh-Banglabandha highway. The primary objective behind this installation was to restrict the movement of vehicles that exceed the prescribed weight limit on the road.
Only three days after its inauguration, the Tk 5.5 million machine broke down and remains out of order till now. Meanwhile, a new axle load control station is being built in the Doshmile area of the highway, approximately 15 km from Shingpara, at an estimated cost of nearly Tk 170 million.
The issue of defective load control stations is not limited to the Panchagarh-Banglabandha highway; it extends to 18 stations installed on various roads across the country over the past two decades. Among these, 8 are permanent installations, and 10 are portable ones. Unfortunately, only five of these stations are currently operational. Many of the stations faced damage shortly after their installation, leading to repeated and expensive repairs. However, despite these efforts, most of the stations remained out of order.
After the previous load control stations became inoperative, the Roads and Highways Division (RHD) initiated a project in 2019 to establish 28 new load control stations in various districts. The total cost of this project is Tk 16.30 billion, and its progress has reached 40 per cent so far. Additionally, since 2013, 13 more load control stations have been constructed under different road and bridge projects, and a majority of these stations are in the final stages of completion.
According to the Ministry of Road Transport, the Roads and Highways Division (RHD), and people in the transport sector, load control stations are now being used for purposes other than maintaining roads. Instead, it seems that the main focus has shifted towards activities like procurement, extracting commission, and other non-road-related goals. Additionally, truck drivers claim that they can bypass the load control stations in various ways to carry excess load. This situation often leads to extortion issues for overloaded trucks. The in-person visit also confirmed the evidence supporting these objections.
Tajul Islam, former president of Bangladesh Inter-district Truck Driver Union, told Prothom Alo that load control stations became the means for extortion. Drivers are harassed in all the operational stations.
Why load control stations installed
Exceeding the weight limit in cargo vehicles can cause significant damage to roads and bridges. To prevent this, different vehicles with varying numbers of wheels have specific load limits. For instance, a 6-wheeler can carry a maximum of 15 tonnes of goods. However, in the country, goods are transported using vehicles ranging from 6 to 26 wheels.
Carrying weight beyond the prescribed limit can result in fines ranging from Tk 2,000 to Tk 12,000. The RHD attributes overloading as one of the reasons why the country's highways and local roads become unsustainable. Although new roads are expected to last around 20 years, the reality is that the highways require frequent repairs, incurring significant costs for the government.
According to RHD's 2017 estimation, around 40 per cent of trucks passing through the Meghna Toll Plaza on the Dhaka-Chittagong highway were carrying goods exceeding the allowed weight limit.
The main instrument of the load control station is the load scale. Besides that, the station has signal lights, generators, computers, administrative buildings, storage areas and other facilities.
Stations that are inoperative
Officials of the road ministry say that Tk 5 million to Tk 20 million has been spent on setting up the portable load control stations. The cost of each of the permanent ones is Tk 50 to Tk 200 million.
A load control station in Bogura's Mahasthangarh broke down within a week of its opening in December 2014. After two years it was repaired and reopened. It lasted for a week. Now the load control station equipment is left in RHD's warehouse. Two load control stations were installed in 2018 under Charsindhur bridge construction project on Shitalakshya river on Gazipur-Itakhola road. However, these stations have been inconsistent in their operations, sometimes being open and sometimes closed.
On 20 January, 2014, the old load control station at Sitakunda, Chattogram was inaugurated with new equipment. But it didn't last long. It was repaired and inaugurated again in 2016. Now the station is operational. But sometimes there are problems. RHD Sitakunda deputy assistant engineer Md Sajjad recently told Prothom Alo that when it rains, sand and soil accumulated under the load scale. Then the lane has to be closed and cleaned.
In 2014, a load control station was set up in Bathuli, Manikganj, and later reopened. However, it is currently non-functional due to damage. Similarly, in Habiganj, a load control station was reopened at the end of 2013, but its operation lasted only for two months. Load control stations were also introduced on both sides of the Meghna-Gomti River, once in 2013 and then again in 2016. Unfortunately, they were broken shortly after being established. Lastly, the load control station at Dhaleswari on the Dhaka-Mawa road had to be abandoned during the highway expansion.
The new station is being installed
Both the Roads and Highways Division (RHD) and the Ministry of Road Transport have not conducted any assessment of the past load control stations' effectiveness. However, RHD has undertaken a new project to establish 28 load control stations in 19 districts. The entire project cost of Tk 16.30 billion is to be funded from the revenue sector. Initially scheduled to be completed by June 2022, the project's timeline has been extended to 2024 due to slow progress.
According to the project documents, Tk 7.65 billion will be utilised for acquiring 64 hectares of land for constructing these load control stations. The remaining Tk 8.65 billion is allocated for purchasing and maintaining the necessary equipment for the stations. Additionally, Tk 550 million is allocated for consultants, Tk 20.1 million for foreign travel, and Tk 10 million for internal training within the project.
National Development Engineers and Spectra Engineers Limited are working as contractors for the project. The construction works proposed under the project include double storied building, warehouse, parking area, booth, road embankment, drain and box culvert, electrical works etc. There will also be parking for drivers, vehicle unloading area, restrooms, cafeteria, toilets, prayer areas etc.
Furthermore, as part of various road and bridge construction projects, an additional 13 load control stations are being established at different locations across the country. These stations are situated in Benapole, Jashore, Ramgarh in Chattogram Hill Tracts, Pakulla in Tangail, Islampur in Rangpur, Mahasthangarh in Bogura, Doshmile in Panchagarh, Osmani Airport Bypass in Sylhet, Lamakaji Bridge area in Sylhet, Raniganj Bridge area in Sunamganj, Bager Bazar area (two) on Sylhet-Tamabil road, Jagannathpur in Jamalpur, and Sonahat in Kurigram.
One side under stern control, flexible for the other
While the government has established load control stations, it has also relaxed the load limits for transporting goods in vehicles. Efforts to control load were initiated in 2012, and in August 2016, a policy notification was issued, leading to the imposition of fines. However, on the very first day, there was unrest as the Sitakunda load control station was set on fire by truck drivers and their assistants, prompting a strike by transport owners and workers. In response to the situation, the government increased the load limit in November 2017, allowing a maximum of 22 tonnes of goods to be transported in 6-wheeled vehicles. Vehicles carrying more than the specified limit were subject to fines. However, it is now evident that fines are hardly being imposed currently.
The Ministry of Road Transport stated in the relevant order that the decision to increase the load limit was meant to be temporary. However, despite almost six years passing, the limit has remained unchanged.
According to Professor Samsul Haque from the civil engineering department of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), the load capacity of each vehicle is determined by the manufacturer. The government's approval of a load limit higher than what the manufacturer specifies raises concerns. This decision potentially puts the government at fault for any damages and security risks caused. In essence, these projects seem to be undertaken to exploit and deceive the public, using their money for such purposes.
[Staff correspondents and correspondents of respective districts helped filing this report]
*This report, originally appeared in Prothom Alo print edition in Bangla, has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat