BRT line-3: Promises falling flat
When the government took up a project in November 2012 to build a 20.50km road dedicated for buses between Dhaka airport and Gazipur, the plan was to operate spacious and comfortable articulated buses.
But Dhaka Bus Rapid Transit Company Ltd (Dhaka BRT) later decided to operate electric buses instead and started the process to procure 130 electric buses in July 2022.
However, the company changed its mind again and floated a tender to procure 137 diesel-run AC buses for the service expected by August, more than six and a half years behind the original deadline.
Since the company will not be able to hire an operator until the middle of next year, it will engage Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC) to operate the buses.
Moreover, all of the 25 stations will not be fully ready to provide automated ticket sales at the beginning, meaning the BRT service will be "semi-automated" at launch. Also, a portion of the flyover may not be fully ready at the beginning.
Shafiqul Islam, managing director of Dhaka BRT told The Daily Star, said he was hoping that 50 buses would arrive in the first lot by July or August and they would launch the service soon afterwards. The next lot would arrive within the following six months.
The BRT Line-3 from Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport to Gazipur was actually an extension of the original plan, which was to build the BRT from the airport to Jhilmil project in Keraniganj.
Another plan to extend the line to Mohakhali was dropped due to what officials said was the bad experience during the BRT implementation. Experts said the partly functional BRT will not ease traffic congestion to the level expected at the outset.
Articulated or bi-articulated buses are used for BRT services to cope up with the large number of commuters during peak hours, transport expert Prof Shamsul Hoque said, adding that this makes transport more efficient.
Besides, these buses would require a smaller number of employees to operate, he said.
"Since we are changing the configuration of the BRT service, we will not get the original flavour of the service," he told The Daily Star.
Besides, the regular buses will increase the operation cost and cause management problems.
Education and training are required to operate BRT buses, but the BRTC drivers will reduce productivity of the service and increase indiscipline, he added.
The project, formally known as Greater Dhaka Sustainable Urban Transport Project, was originally planned to be complete by December 2016 at a cost of Tk 2,037.9 crore.
The delay was caused by issues relating to land acquisition, relocation of utility services, design changes, contractors running out of money, and the pandemic. Moreover, physical work was suspended twice.
As a result, the total project cost is now estimated to be Tk 4,268.3 crore and the deadline is December 2024. The project witnessed 84.4 percent progress as of last month.
Meanwhile, the construction work has been making people suffer immensely, especially during the monsoons.
Once operational, the 20.5km transit will allow people to reach Dhaka from Gazipur in just 35-40 minutes.
Thanks to congestion and the battered condition of the road, the journey now takes up to four hours.
The Dhaka BRT website says articulated or bi-articulated buses used for BRT services usually have multiple wide doors for people to quickly board and exit.
The authorities originally wanted to buy 50 articulated buses and later increased the number to 120. But that plan was dropped "to reduce operating cost and considering the BRTC's bad experience in maintaining articulated buses".
Then, the decision to buy electric buses was made at the suggestion of Asian Development Bank (ADB), a major financier of the project.
The BRT in July last year invited preliminary expressions of interest, a pre-bidding process, for procuring electric AC buses.
That decision was changed again and the authorities on Saturday floated a tender for procuring 137 diesel AC buses that are 12 metres in length. They had to change the design of the stations for these buses.
Shafiqul Islam said a preliminary study found the operation of electric buses may pose risks and it would require a proper feasibility study.
Besides, procuring electric buses will take longer, because manufacturers make them only after getting orders, he said, adding that diesel buses are delivered fast.
Electric vehicles would require charging facilities, he said, "That's why we decided to buy diesel buses."
Shafiqul said he talked to the BRTC to operate the new buses until an operator is hired, hopefully by mid 2024.
Asked why the bidding process for procuring buses had not started earlier, he said the ADB was supposed to provide funds for the buses. But the French Development Agency ended up being the financier and this change caused delays.
The authorities' plan to introduce an Intelligent Transportation System to give a fully-automated service may not be implemented before the second half of next year, he said.
"Our service at the initial stage would be semi-automated," he added.