The revised master plan of the Bangladesh Railway (BR) is now ready. It has been submitted to the Ministry of Railway recently for taking necessary actions to get the seal of approval.
The plan was finalised, according to a recent report, after sharing opinions with all stakeholders and reviewing the reports with an investment outlay of Tk 5.10 trillion until 2045 for making the train commuting system efficient in both cases of passenger and freight services.
The authorities tried hard to make the latest plan up-to-date based on the master plan approved back in 2013. The BR's first master plan was prepared basing on the old data of 2005-06 and without sufficient studies that resulted in different problems in setting priorities.
The railway master plan 2017 proposed to divide its development plan in total five phases until 2045 -- each with five-year tenure. Some priorities were also set in the planned projects. Such projects were designed to enhance the railway track efficiency, gradual up-gradation and conversation from metre gauge to broad gauge, improve carriage and locomotive maintenance capacity, develop institutional capacity etc.
Also a unique project was incorporated to find solution for introducing electric trains or high speed train on some priority routes. The Padma Bridge Rail Link Project was given top priority in the proposal. Introducing high-speed trains on Dhaka-Chittagong corridor and Joydevpur-Dhaka-Narayanganj route was reported to be included later, after getting the results of a feasibility study.
All such measures are aimed at raising transportation share of the railway with other transports, mainly roads as the railway remained neglected since the country's independence. However, the master plan appeared short of assessing the need of converting or installing standard gauge rail track in the country.
According to the master plan, the highest investment plan equivalent to Tk 1.48 billion will be required during a period of 2017-2020 for implementing 84 projects. In the second phase (2021-25), Tk 762.45 billion investment proposal was recommended for implementing 67 projects.
As setting up of a rail line is time-consuming, initial planning to improve the rail service was taken based on existing resources to improve both passenger train or freight services with speed and maintaining time.
Meantime, the government is also going to build the country's third railway workshop in Rajbari in order to provide backward-linkage service to cross-border train communications through Padma Bridge. The BR is expected to draw a detailed design through conducting a feasibility study on the project. At present, the country has two railway workshops, one at Pahartoli in Chittagong and another at Saidpur in Nilphamari, which were constructed during the British era. A Tk 473.1 million project was sent to the Planning Commission (PC) for the feasibility study and detailed-design project for its seal of approval.
The BR is also planning to convert all trains from meter gauge (MG) to broad gauge (BR) soon. It has now 2,877.10 km route across two zones divided by the Jamuna river. BR conversion plan from MG to BG is to allow higher speed services for removing constraints in trade with other regional countries.
However, complete switch in the popular transport service will take up to 2040 under a mega-plan for transformation of the centuries-old railways. Over two-trillion-taka investment will be required to carry out the conversion as well as construction of new BR tracks until 2040.
The worrying fact is that the train passengers are still complaining about the services provided by the railway as despite fare hike, the time schedule, seating arrangement and toilet facilities were yet to improve. Derailments of trains due to the dilapidated state of railway tracks continue to disrupt the train communication.
The government had recently raised the train fare by 80 per cent with a view to reducing the subsidy given to the railways. At present, the railway is operating 335 trains daily, all over the country, of which only four were goods or container trains. Currently, BR maintains its network in 44 districts. It has also undertaken 235 projects to expand its network in 59 districts.
Instead of constructing new rail-routes, some of the branch line railway sections were, for unknown reasons, declared redundant and subsequently closed. Besides, one of the major problems being faced by the BR at present is a serious shortage of locomotives and route capacity. However, the government is now planning to reopen most of the 27 closed rail stations within a short period of time.
It is a new challenge for the BR to eliminate a number of structural and physical weaknesses it had inherited as part of its legacy. Due to truncation from the main system, the BR was handicapped to serve the country effectively without proper re-orientation and development.
Even after so many years of liberation, a comprehensive integrated railway network between two zones (East and West) could not be established. Besides, the present rail links of the two zones are not straight; rather they have large rounding loops in many important sections.
The consistency in the rail track with the neighbouring countries is deemed necessary to establish regional corridors as BR has signed agreement to be a part of trans-Asian railway as well as other regional blocks.
The task to modernise the country's railway is onerous. The new plan requires that all non-productive and idle railway workers should be sent to retirement. If needed, young people with computer literacy should be absorbed for successful operation of the railway system.
With management efficiency, it is possible to remove all odds facing the railway. The government should refrain from enforcing another fare hike right now, which will make the railway unpopular among the common people.
In the circumstances, the railway should be made an affordable mode of transportation. With better human resources management, the railway is sure to come back to life again.