The volume of passengers and cargo that Bangladesh Railway can carry is many times higher than that of buses. The railway lines also do not require much space and can last long with negligible maintenance cost. Besides, railway services generate sizeable employment opportunities both within and beyond the network. Therefore, the 350 train services on different routes provided until recently by Bangladesh Railway across the country for a nation of 170 million are ludicrously inadequate. On top of that, many train routes in operation even during the British colonial era have been arbitrarily shut down in post-independence Bangladesh, mainly due to pressures from road transportation or bus lobbies.
Against the backdrop, the development budget for the railway sector was only Taka 11.07 billion in 2009 during the first year in office of the Awami League government. The budgetary allocation, however, gradually rose over the years with the current year's allocation touching Taka 130 billion. But the state-owned Bangladesh Railway has not yet been able to make much headway in conformity with the rise in budgetary allocations. There apparently has been a clear deficit in the railway authority's capacity to frame plans and then execute those. As a consequence, the ordinary taxpayers of the country have to bear the brunt of unplanned and rising expenditures, waste of time and money, as well as lack of modern customer-friendly services.
According to media reports, 41 development projects having an outlay of Taka 1,420 billion are being currently implemented in the railway sector. The sources of funding include foreign loans worth Taka 910 billion. But unfortunately, these projects seem to follow a typical life-cycle: adoption of projects without proper planning; amendments with escalation in costs midway through the projects; extension of time for completion; and lastly disruption in the execution of railway masterplan. Although the general citizens are the losers in this vicious cycle of project implementation, the local and foreign contractors, a segment of railway officials, as well as vested quarters including influence-peddlers and lobbyists thrive in the process.
The government prepared a masterplan for the railway sector in 2013. Its implementation period was 2010-30, and a target was set for executing 235 projects in four phases under it. But the plan had to be revised in 2016 as the government failed to ensure timely implementation of many projects. The new master-plan (2016-45) was then divided into six phases, and the number of projects was set at 230 with an outlay of Taka 5,530 billion. Under this latest plan, 83 projects were supposed to be completed during the first phase of 2016-20 that included the on-going 41 projects. But sadly, most of the major projects in this first phase have not been implemented yet.
When asked about this disappointing state of affairs in the railway sector, insiders claim that the sector lacks skilled manpower and is traditionally prone to corruption. Whatever capacity exists in Bangladesh Railway is jeopardised by nepotism in postings, and injudicious application of discretionary powers by high officials. As a consequence, proper selection, approval and implementation of projects as well as their monitoring suffer. It appears that the organization lacks the aptitude and skill to implement the master-plan.
A recent example of mismanagement has been the construction of Tongi-Bhoirab and Laksam-Chinki Astana railway tracks. Laying of metre-gauge lines in these two tracks was completed in 2018. But the whole Dhaka-Chattogram railway track could have been brought under a uniform track-system if mixed-gauge lines were laid earlier in these two tracks instead of metre-gauge ones. Now the two metre-gauge tracks built at a cost of Taka 40 billion have to be dismantled in order to convert the Akhaura-Laksam railway track into a mixed-gauged line for linkage with the Asian railway corridor. A similar pattern of delays, uncertainties and wastage is being observed in two other major railway projects: linkage project on both sides of Padma Bridge; and setting up of a new railway line from Chattogram to Ghumdhum via Cox's Bazar.
As previously reported in the media, around 35 per cent of the positions for the sanctioned manpower of the state-owned Bangladesh Railway remained vacant even during 2018-19 prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Of the 14 thousand vacant posts, an astounding 13 thousand were technical ones. In fact, around 70 railway stations were shut down due to dearth of manpower. All these resulted in worsening of service quality, problems in traffic management, frequent accidents, as well as routine failures in maintaining train schedules. According to railway statistics, over 3 thousand incidents of train derailment took place in the country between 2008 and 2018. There were 29 incidents of head-to-head collisions and 96 cases of wrong signalling during those 10 years. Besides, innumerable instances of delinking of compartments and accidents on railway crossings occur regularly.
It may be recalled that the railway services have been neglected by successive governments in the country, particularly since the 1980s, in the backdrop of continuous losses incurred by Bangladesh Railway owing to mismanagement. But instead of focusing on improving the railway management, the government undertook golden handshake program in the state-owned organization during the 1990s, as recommended by the World Bank, IMF and ADB. Most of those railway retirees were technical personnel, and their departure contributed to the dismal state of affair in railway services during subsequent years.
Establishment of a separate Railway Ministry in 2011 has been a laudable initiative of the present government. There have also been massive investments in the sector during the past decade mainly by sourcing foreign loans. New equipment, tools, machinery, coaches and engines are being purchased. But the dearth of adequate and skilled manpower and rampant corruption in Bangladesh Railway is putting everything into jeopardy. It is high time that accountability and transparency are restored in the sector and a 'carrot and stick' approach is adopted for tackling inefficiency and corruption, which may in turn have a positive impact on the running of services and execution of development projects.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.