Railway Projects’ Feasibility Study: Starting point of cascading delay
More than two and a half years ago, Bangladesh Railway had launched a project to carry out a feasibility study and prepare a detailed design to set up tracks for connecting Sunamganj district headquarters with the railway network.
The feasibility study project, worth Tk 9.88 crore, was supposed to be completed by October last year.
As the work could not be done within that time, the deadline was extended till June this year. Despite the extension, only one fourth of the work ended as of August, forcing the authorities to revise the project once again. This time, the deadline was stretched till June next year.
This is not the only feasibility study project which has been revised more than once by the BR, going against the planning ministry's guidelines on such matters. The BR has, in fact, revised five of its nine such ongoing projects more than once.
Of the nine projects, one has been revised once while another was cancelled after the end of its deadline. Only two are progressing on schedule, show project documents.
Talking on the matter, experts said the delay in completing the feasibility study projects is the reflection of BR's poor performance in implementing infrastructure and procurement projects.
BR officials blamed the lengthy process of appointing consultants and frequent changes in alignment of the proposed tracks for the delay. Experts said such practices are way too common and those eat up time, causing escalation of project costs.
The project implementing agency has to carry out the feasibility study for assessing the practicality of any proposed project worth above Tk 25 crore. Any delay in completing the feasibility study leads to delay in starting the main project, the officials and experts pointed out.
At present, the BR is implementing 37 projects worth Tk 1,41,941.59 crore, most of which is loan money from various countries, including India, China, Japan, and South Korea, as well as from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
Of the 37 projects, 26 have been revised at least once. Four of those projects were taken at least a decade ago, but those are yet to be completed.
Eminent transport expert Prof Shamul Hoque said additional time can be given for a study project but there should be "logical grounds" for it. It is because poor feasibility study hampers project implementation, leading to time extensions and cost escalations.
"Sadly, time extensions and cost escalations are too frequent despite the feasibility studies, which is not acceptable at all," said the teacher of Buet's civil engineering department.
"The consultants who conduct the studies must be held accountable for the delays so that such delays can be prevented."
THE NINE PROJECTS
The nine projects were taken to do feasibility studies for different potential projects. Six of them are funded by the government. The three others are technical assistant projects and funded by the ADB.
One of them is the Sunamganj project. Although its feasibility study project was launched in January 2019, the project announcement had come long before that.
In 2012, the then railways minister Suranjit Sengupta announced that rail tracks would be expanded from Chhatak to Sunamganj Sadar upazila. Then, BR carried out a preliminary study.
The move, however, did not see any progress till January 2019, when the planning ministry approved the study project and October 2020 was fixed as its deadline.
However, it was July last year when the BR was able to sign a contract with a China-Bangladesh joint venture firm to do the work. And, the project witnessed only 25 percent progress till August this year.
In the meantime, Planning Minister MA Mannan and other lawmakers from Sunamganj locked into a feud over the alignment of the proposed rail lines. Recently, the project deadline has been extended till June next year.
Project Director Mohiuddin Arif blamed complexities over fixing the alignment and the Covid-19 pandemic for the delay.
In September 2018, the BR took up a project for conducting a feasibility study and preparing a detailed design for building tracks between Chuadanga's Darshana via the district's Damurhuda and Mujibnagar in Meherpur at a cost of Tk 12.48 crore. The deadline was August 2020.
In March last year, BR signed a contract with an Australia-Bangladesh joint venture company for the job and the project witnessed only 54.42 percent progress till August this year.
Project Director Ariful Islam said they were done with the feasibility study and were now busy with the detailed design. "We are hopeful about completing the work within December this year as per the revised deadline," he told The Daily Star on October 2.
He said the Covid-19 pandemic caused some delays.
In 2018, the BR took up another project, titled "Study for Important Projects of West Zone" for carrying out feasibility studies and fixing alignments of three rail tracks and a rail bridge.
The deadline of the Tk 9.92-crore project was June 2019. The work witnessed 52.5 percent progress till August this year and the deadline was extended till June next year, meaning the project would take four and a half years, instead of one and a half, to end.
Again, in March 2018, a project was taken for carrying out feasibility studies for building a rail line connecting the under-construction Bay Terminal in Chattogram's Patenga with the railway network.
The deadline of the Tk 4.53-crore project was March 2019. It saw 25.5 percent progress till August this year. So, the deadline was revised till June 2022.
Technical Assistance for Dhaka-Chattogram-Cox's Bazar Rail Project Preparatory Facility, a project involving Tk 121.64 crore and funded by the ADB, was supposed to be implemented between July 2015 and June 2019.
After several revisions, a new deadline was set for June 2022.
Also, the deadline for "Technical Assistance for Rolling Stock Operations Improvement of BR" was extended by one year and the new deadline is June 2022.
Besides, a feasibility study project for construction of a new rail line from Gobra of Gopalganj to Pirojpur and Bagerhat was cancelled midway after the deadline -- January this year -- expired.
The two other feasibility projects are progressing on schedule. One of them is for the construction of a carriage maintenance workshop in Rajbari while the other is for "Technical Assistance for Railway Connectivity Improvement Preparatory Facility", according to project documents and officials.
PROJECT GUIDELINE VIOLATION
Initiation of a development project, its approval and revision are done as per a 2016 government guideline.
As per Section 4(1) of the guideline, feasibility study is a must for any investment project with an estimated cost of more than Tk 25 crore. According to Section 4(3), a feasibility study project, if necessary, can be revised only once.
Section 4(4) says the deadline of a feasibility project can be extended for six months if the revision is required on a "logical ground".
The minister or state minister concerned can approve a revision proposal if the cost involving the revision is below 15 percent of the total project costs. If it is more than 15 percent of the total cost, the permission has to be taken from the planning minister.
Regarding technical assistance projects, Section 7(1) of the guideline says such projects cannot be revised more than twice.
But deadlines of four BR feasibility projects were extended by more than six months. The deadline of a technical assistance project was extended by three years while another by one year, shows documents.
WHAT BR OFFICIALS SAY
Asked, BR officials said the lengthy process of appointing consultants for feasibility studies was a major reason behind the delays. In at least two cases, it took up to one and a half years to appoint consultants after projects were approved.
Changes in alignment of proposed rail lines following "pressure or pursuance" from local influential people is another major reason, they said.
BR Director General Dhirendra Nath Mazumder said reasons behind the delays vary from project to project, but changes in the alignment and the Covid-19 situation are the main reasons.
Asked about the violation of the project guidelines, he said, "How can we go against the guidelines? I think you are wrong."
A BR official, however, said they take "special permission" from the Planning Commission in some cases as the planning ministry guidelines does not mention what should be done when any project is revised more than once.