Notwithstanding the government's emphasis on reviving the country's railway, the actual work has proved so far too little too late. On certain occasions, the programmes have simply misfired. A case in point is the introduction of Demu trains. Miscalculations like this cost but the quality of service, instead of improving, deteriorates further. Demu trains' introduction has a parallel in another white elephant called Bangladesh Biman, where ATP aeroplanes were introduced during Ershad's regime. Its result can be highly gainful for promoters of such useless but costly behemoths yet the end users get hardly any benefit from the service.
This typical mismanagement and often deliberate harming marks the management of most of the public sector organisations -whether it is the Bangladesh Biman, BRTC (Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation), BTRC (Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission) or the Bangladesh Railway (BR). When their counterpart services in the private sector do hefty business and go from strength to strength, these service-sector organisations continue to incur heavy losses requiring government subsidy and injection of funds for keeping them afloat.
What is so outrageous is that these organisations try to fool the entire nation by advancing ludicrous arguments in favour of the losses made and the need for pouring in more money for keeping them running. One such proposal has of late been put forward for hiking railway fare. The lame excuse is to reduce operational expenses and make profit. Two rights groups, the Poribesh Bachao Andolan (POBA) and the Work for a Better Bangladesh (WBB) have shown how shallow the arguments are. In 2012, the BR increased railway fares substantially on the same plea. But what all this actually has come to, observes the chairman of the BOBA, is a failure to ensure quality service by the BR.
Clearly, the railway must go for serious introspection in order to exorcise the loss-making ghost residing ubiquitously at its different layers. Admittedly, the organisation has been meted out a step-brotherly treatment for long. The reasons are there for all to see. First the influential lobby of the private road transport companies want to see the back of the railway once for all. Second (perhaps this phase is hurting the railway most right now), another powerful lobby wants to see it discredited so much so that the argument for privatisation of at least some of the operational components can be handed over to the private hands.
Clearly, the problem here is that when such moves are initiated, no one remembers experiences of similar situations involving other state-owned establishments. The bitter and painful lessons from privatisation of the jute factories are conveniently forgotten. There is no reason for the BR to perform so poorly. The policy flaws have been mainly responsible for this. At a time when railway has expanded and become increasingly popular the world over, it has shrunk in Bangladesh.
There is a need for getting over this mindset first. Then it has to be admitted that railway anywhere, only more so in countries like Bangladesh where it has been subjected to neglect for decades, asks for massive investment. The return on it is also handsome. If a Laloo Prosad Yadav can turn the loss-making Indian Railway profitable within just a year --and the profit is to the tune of Rs.10 billion -the message is quite clear. It is the internal corruption that makes the service non-viable. Taken further, the message is inspiring also, because it tells that if serious efforts are put in, the BR too can be made profitable within the shortest possible time.
Laloo Prosad Yadav, admittedly, had the advantage of a well set infrastructure. Here the infrastructure is obsolete. Even the railway tracks are so weak and vulnerable that trains cannot run at a faster speed. Years ago when there were no double tracks, a railway journey between Dhaka and Chittagong normally took five hours or so. But this time has gone up now by almost an hour. So why should people feel interested in travelling by train?
All this has to be taken into account when improvement of railway service is the objective. Usually, train journey is comfortable because it is nearly jerk-free, has the advantage of toilet and even berthing facility at night. More, it is free from traffic jam on its way and above everything else safer than road travel. But all this plus points can only be counted on if the management of the railway is kept up to date.
The very concept of train journey has gone radical transformation in the advanced countries. People travel at a speed between 250-350 kilometres an hour there. This country will take another 100 years to reach that stage. But at least it can aim at covering 80-100 kilometres an hour by train if the railway is modernised. There is no point depending on the old railway tracks; they need to be re-laid and the diesel engines replaced by electric trains. A project like this should be taken up to gradually transform the BR into a modern and efficient railway service.
Along faster travel by passengers, movement of goods will be quicker and cheaper. Its advantage will get translated into economy as a great blessing. The country surely deserves a far better railway service than the one now proves to be a burden.