Number of trains decline despite huge investment in railways
368 passenger trains are commuting in the country according to Bangladesh Railways whereas 276 are actually in operation. A total of 92 trains, mostly mail, local and commuter trains, remain out of operation.
Low-income people and office goers mainly use these trains. These trains are also used in freight of small goods from village to town. Some of these trains remain out of operation for years while some are not plying after the corona period. But the railway authorities did not make any official announcement about stopping these trains.
Railway officials maintain that these trains are not running due to a lack of engines, coaches and manpower. The trains that remain operational are running with fewer coaches than capacity, resulting in commuting a lesser number of passengers. The operational cost of trains has also increased as trains are running with fewer coaches. The railways spend around Tk 2.5 per kilometre for a passenger while the income is around half of it.
There are a total of 104 intercity trains operational in the country. Sonar Bangla Express and Subarna Express, both trains on the Dhaka-Chattogram route can run with the highest 22 coaches but both the trains are running with 14 coaches now. Mail, local and commuter trains also run at around half their capacity.
In contrast to this sorry state, a total of Tk 920 billion has been spent in the railway sector since the Awami League government came to power in 2009. Of the amount, a total of Tk 670 billion was spent on constructing railway tracks, bridges and buildings and procuring engines and coaches. The remaining Tk 250 billion was spent on management, salary and other revenue sectors.
The scarcity of engines and coaches persists despite such huge spending in the railway sector. Railway officials have identified some reasons behind such losses including taking up development projects under political consideration and introducing new intercity trains at the behest of MPs and ministers despite the scarcity of engines and coaches, and corruption in infrastructure building and procurement of engines and coaches. These factors are continuing to increase the loss of railway.
The railways ministry boasts of introducing a total of 148 trains since 2009, but the ministry does not mention that 92 of these trains are now out of operation. According to railways ministry’s data, a total of 9 intercity trains have been introduced since the present minister took charge in 2018. Two of these nine trains run in the minister’s own district. These two trains are Banglabandha Express on the Pancharagh-Rajshahi route and Panchagarh Express on the Dhaka-Panchagarh route.
Some trains have stopped and it’s true that there is a shortage of engines and coaches but we are trying to overcome the crisisNurul Islam, Railways minister
The terminus of two more trains—Drutojan Express and Padma Express—have been shifted to Panchagarh from Dinajpur. Apart from these trains, Kurigram Express, Banalata Express and Benapole Express have been introduced as per the lobbying of the local MP and the prime minister’s electoral pledge.
A new train named Mitali Express on the Dhaka-New Jalpaiguri route has been introduced on 1 June but the railways do not have any engine or coaches dedicated to this train. Both Bangladesh and India are putting emphasis on this new train since the prime ministers of both countries inaugurated it. The train is now being run with India's engines and coaches.
Railways minister Nurul Islam told Prothom Alo, “Some trains have stopped and it’s true that there is a shortage of engines and coaches but we are trying to overcome the crisis.”
Asked why the service of railways did not improve despite huge investment, the minister said the railways had nothing in the past but the government is now trying to fix the problems in phases.
None knows when trains will resume operation
The authorities started to increase rail communication between Dhaka-Narayanganj in 2008 with a view to easing traffic congestion in Dhaka city. Two trains would commute 32 times a day on this route before the Covid pandemic. But a train commutes 16 times a day now on the route. Coaches of the trains which are operational are in a sordid state.
Railways officials said 50,000 passengers would commute on this route before the corona pandemic. Like other routes, this route is also beset with the shortage of engines-coaches although the pressure of passengers remains the same. A Tk 3.5 billion project was undertaken for the development of the route and adding one more track in 2015. The project is yet to be completed after seven years.
Railway sources said a total of 54 trains were shut in the eastern zone in the last several years. Jalalabad and Isha Kha- two trains popular among lower-income people were shut in early 2020 without any announcement. Jalalabad train would run on Sylhet-Chattogram route and Isha Kha on Dhaka-Mymensingh route.
Railways officials said the Isha Khan train would stop in at least 34 stations in five districts. The train was introduced in 1972 for facilitating communication and freight transport of people of the remote Haor region.
According to the railways, the eastern zone has a demand of 377 coaches to run local, mail and commuter trains but they have only 245 coaches.
The same situation prevails in the western zone as 38 trains are out of operation. 14 trains under the Lalmonirhat divisional office are currently out of operation. The division has a demand for 60 engines to operate 54 trains but they have only 28 engines.
Railways struggle with corruption, unplanned development
Railways publish a ‘time-table’ every year which shows there are a total of 368 passenger trains in the country. Officials said they need three thousand coaches and around 500 coaches for the smooth operation of all of these trains. But the railways have only 263 engines and around 1600 coaches.
The economic life of an engine is considered 20 years and coaches 35 years. The railways' own estimation state that 67 per cent of engines and 47 per cent of coaches have expired their economic life. Some of the engines-coaches are as much as 66 years old. These old engines-coaches need regular maintenance. There are allegations of huge corruption in maintenance. In 2020, an engine got out of order within just three months of repairing at a cost of Tk 30 million. There was some criticism over the incident but the matter was soon hushed.
Railways bought 84 new engines in three terms of Awami League since 2009. 10 more old engines were received from India as a grant. Bangladesh bought 20 set DEMU trains with engines from China at a cost of Tk 6 billion in 2013. All of these have now become dysfunctional.
Railways sources said only one train operates on the Pabna to Dhalarchar track which was built at a cost of Tk 17.5 billion. Tk 21 billion was spent on the construction of a new track in Gopalganj and the renovation of a track in Faridpur.
Railways bought 84 new engines in three terms of Awami League since 2009. 10 more old engines were received from India as a grant. Bangladesh bought 20 set DEMU trains with engines from China at a cost of Tk 6 billion in 2013. All of these have now become dysfunctional. A total of 520 coaches were bought under different projects within this time.
The government bought 350 coaches from Indonesia in two phases in the last ten years. But the coupling system (connecting two coaches) of the coaches bought in two phases is different. 10 engines were bought from South Korea in 2018. The railways instructed these engines cannot run on routes other than Dhaka-Chattogram as other tracks are too weak to take the load of these heavy engines.
A railway official on condition of anonymity asked where were hundreds of taka spent if the tracks are weak.
Why do trains go out of operation despite such huge investment, he said adding that these questions have to be asked.
The audits do not take into consideration the huge investment made in development projects in railways. The income is estimated by deducting the operational cost only. Still, the railways could never make a profit in the history of the country. The average annual loss of the railways now stands at Tk 20 billion.
The railways incurred a loss of Tk 13.85 billion in 2020-21, Tk 20.9 billion in 2019-20 and Tk 17.5 billion in 2018-2019.
Bangladesh is at the bottom considering the speed of trains but still trains get derailed, snapping communication
Professor of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and transport sector expert Samsul Haque told Prothom Alo that the railways started to get huge investments since 2010 but there seems to be no headway in their service.
He said Bangladesh is at the bottom considering the speed of trains but still trains get derailed, snapping communication.
Why should there be shortages of engines and coaches despite such huge spending, he asked.
He said the railway authorities do not have any sort of accountability.
* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Galib Ashraf