Despite a concerning shortage of manpower in the railway sector, the government has made little effort to address the situation and has instead focused on massive infrastructural development projects.
The government allocated a whopping Tk 54,816 crore since 2014-15 to the Ministry of Railways to implement 36 development and technical projects to improve the rail services, but experts fear that without sufficient manpower the services will not improve.
According to data from Bangladesh Railways (BR), to run the 356 passenger trains and 30 freight trains per day, the railway has allotted some 1,757 “loco masters” (train driver) posts of different categories.
But it has only employed 1,118 people for the purpose, making it understaffed to cover the 2955.53 kilometre network and connect 44 districts of the country.
Contacted, Railways Minister Md Nurul Islam Sujan told The Daily Star that there were some recruitment complications, but the ministry have made it a top priority to solve them.
He also said that they were focusing on increasing the capacity of their manpower, which would take some time.
“We provide training to increase the capacity of our manpower. But, it seems the existing training facilities and curriculum are not modern and up-to-date. We have to revise all those,” Nurul said.
Surprisingly, the current curriculum is outdated by decades, which may affect employee-performance.
“The curriculum seems to be from the Pakistan era. So we have to update it,” Sujan said.
The minister said drivers were previously trained on how to operate trains by working as an assistant to a driver for around seven years.
“But we have recently introduced a locomotive simulator to train entry-level loco masters. So, it would take some time to bring a visible change,” the minister said.
Regarding the simulator, he said it would be launched when the updated curriculum was adopted.
Apart from train drivers, BR is also understaffed in other areas.
It has around 25,845 people against 40,275 sanctioned posts, according to its data.
The BR data also shows that the railways had around 60,000 employees during the Pakistan era. Even in 1980, it had a manpower of 58,107.
But it began to drastically reduce manpower in an attempt to curb losses. It suspended recruitment in 1985, and in 1992, it sent 10,000 workers into retirement.
By 2000, its manpower had been slashed by half.
“Since there is a manpower shortage, sometimes our staff remains under pressure because of overtime work. But, we are trying to improve the situation,” Md Mofazzel Hossain, the railway secretary, told The Daily Star.
He, however, admitted that the current focus was on mega infrastructure projects.
“Still we are trying to focus on capacity-building,” he said.
Mofazzel also said although the number of trains was increasing and new routes were opening, the organogram of BR had not been updated, adding that they had sent an updated version of it with a manpower of 50,000 in 2016. Once the new organogram is approved, the railway secretary believes it will improve the situation.
Meanwhile, over 1,000 employees are retiring every year, continuing to deplete the already stretched workforce.
“There are some posts where we cannot appoint manpower directly; rather those need people with expertise and skills which comes with time,” Md Miah Jahan, additional director general (operation) of BR, said.
He also said manpower was becoming so acute that they had to close 111 out of 482 railway stations across the country.
The top official admitted to a crisis of station masters, loco masters, booking clerks, attendants and security guards.
Transport expert Dr Md Shamsul Hoque said the railway development approach of the government was not right because it was designed for infrastructural development, whereas it needed to focus on operation and functional approach.
“Our focus should be on strengthening capacity of manpower with infrastructural development,” Hoque said.
Railway officials, however, maintain that people would reap the benefits after five to seven years when the ongoing projects are completed.