That the Bangladesh railway (BR) is seeing profit should not be a matter of surprise. As a mode of transport --- cheap and hassle-free --- there is hardly any reason to worry about its losses, particularly when it comes to cargo movement to and from the country's main land ports. Unfortunately, the opposite was the case for years --- for unlikely reasons. With connectivity not a problem, and trains operating to some of the major land ports, it is only natural that traders should opt for railway instead of lorries and covered vans to carry goods at high cost, especially imported goods from the land ports. Now that this is happening, one must not feel complacent that things are well set, and that the authorities have embarked on a massive revamping work to facilitate transportation of cargo through rail. There are bottlenecks --- some strong deterrent to getting along --- still importers are now increasingly finding railway a far more convenient means of transport. This explains the surge in railway revenue.
Facilities for transportation of bulk cargo like food grains entail a total package ranging from equipped services for loading, unloading and weighing, besides spacious yards at the railway stations, parking lot for trucks, among others. These facilities are reportedly not available in many of the railway stations and traders are somehow getting on with whatever is available in the hope that increased earnings would inspire the authorities to upgrade the facilities. Railway officials have reportedly informed the media that upgrading work is on, especially construction of double tracks.
Observers, including the traders, are of the opinion that in view of heavy pressure on the roads and the cost and time involved with carrying cargo by trucks, railway does provide a good respite. It has been reported that the cost of carrying by trains is just half compared to that of road transports. Furthermore, it is far less time consuming and also free from many accompanying hassles. Currently, imports from India take place mainly through four land ports, of which it is the Benapole port that caters for around 80 per cent of the inward cargo. For importers importing through Benapole, railway is now the most preferred mode of transport. The Indian government stopped import-export trade through Benapole port by rail and land in late March last year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus epidemic. Due to the sudden closure of trade activities, 5,000 cargo trucks got stuck in Indian Petrapole port. Imports resumed following collective efforts of India-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce, customs, ports and traders with the help of the governments of the two countries. Currently, import trade of all types of goods in Benapole and Petrapol ports by land as well as cargo rail, container train, side door cargo rail and parcel van are in operation. However, the port crisis is not over. At present, the port has 43 sheds and 10 yards. Whereas the accommodation capacity of the port is only 60,000 tonnes, goods of more than double the quantity are kept in the port. So traders are facing shortage of space and congestion of goods.
Coming to the railway, it must be stated this is one state-owned public sector that like many of its siblings has over the decades suffered from utter negligence. The World Bank's prescription decades ago --- a thoroughly thoughtless one --- to revamp the road transport sector instead of the railway had relegated the railway to the backburner. Only lately, has the government sat up, although much damage has already been done. The thrust with which the railway was energised in the early mid-eighties through the nineties is lost.
Clearly, a lot needs to be done. Although a small country like ours can be traversed well by road transports, they cannot be a substitute for railway. This is more so because of the road conditions, lack of sufficient roads and the eventual pressure on the roads at the expense of accidents, delays and indeed cost and time.
While there are reasons to feel good about the increasing earnings of the BR, the discomforting fact remains that despite huge allocations, progress of upgrading is in a poor state. The BR was reported as the worst performer among the large government agencies in the last fiscal although the railways ministry was the fifth highest ADP recipient among all ministries and divisions. As a result, some of the major projects --- fraught with time and cost overrun--- are facing uncertainty.
In view of the recent revenue surge as a result of traders opting for railway instead of road transports, it is critically important that the authorities took a strong and concerted move to improve the facilities required, including replacement of rundown locomotives with new ones. Also, to be able to carry more cargo, the number of wagons should be raised.