Massive shot in railway’s arm
Thanks to the opening of the Padma bridge today, the people and businesses in south-western regions of Bangladesh will finally have road access to the rest of the country.
However, they will have to wait a little bit longer to make use of the railway system being built on the multipurpose bridge, which is the largest in Bangladesh.
If you want to go to Jashore from Dhaka by train, you currently have to spend around 10 hours to travel the 480-kilometre (km) distance, which includes a stretch through the Bangabandhu Bridge on Jamuna River.
But once the Padma bridge opens and the under-construction rail line from Dhaka to Jashore via the bridge becomes functional, the distance would decrease by 200 km and cut the travel time in half.
The much-awaited bridge will play a greater role in expanding the rail network in south-western parts of Bangladesh.
The double-decker bridge with road and rail facilities will create a scope to link around a dozen new districts by railway, which will help implement the government's plans to bring the entire country under the rail network.
Besides, the bridge will create strong railway connectivity among the capital and three sea ports --Chattogram, Mongla and the under-construction Payra port -- and give a boost to freight transportation.
It will also help establish a link with the Trans-Asian Railway Network and boost cross-border railway operations for both passenger and freight trains.
"The bridge will work as a transformational structure for the expansion of the country's rail network and open new windows in this regard," said Prof M Hadiuzzaman, director of the accident research institute at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.
However, he said Bangladesh Railway has to develop some crucial structures, including the rail lines and inland container depots (ICD), to reap the benefits of the bridge.
Bangladesh Railway has already undertaken a project, styled "Padma Bridge Rail Link Project (PBRLP)", to connect Dhaka and Jashore with a 169 km rail line via the bridge.
IMPACT OF PADMA BRIDGE
Currently, Bangladesh Railway has a rail network across 44 districts and as per its 30-year master plan (2016-2045), all districts sans Bhola -- the country's lone island district -- will be brought under the network.
The government undertook the Padma Bridge Rail Link Project (PBRLP) in 2016 to build a rail line between Dhaka and Jashore through Padma bridge.
Physical work of the Tk 39,246 crore project started in July 2018 and the overall progress was 57.5 per cent as of April this year.
The authorities expect to start rail operations from Dhaka to Bhanga, which is already connected with the rail network via Faridpur, within June next year while the full line would be operational by 2024.
The rail line will reduce the travel distance between Dhaka and Jashore by more than 185 km, Dhaka-Khulna by 212 km and Dhaka-Darshana by 44 km, shows a project document.
The new line will connect four districts -- Munshiganj, Shariatpur, Madaripur and Narail -- with the country's growing rail network, officials said.
Currently, Khulna is linked with Dhaka by a rail line through Bangabandhu Bridge, which takes more than 10 hours, not only for distance but also for speed restrictions on the bridge and lack of track capacity.
"The journey time would be reduced by four to five hours once the direct line via Padma Bridge is operational," Afzal Hossain, project director of PBRLP, told The Daily Star recently.
All the trains that now operate via Bangabandhu Bridge will be operated via Padma Bridge upon completion of the line by 2024 as expected, he said.
Besides, the bridge would create a scope for operating inter-city trains between Dhaka-Gopalganj, Dhaka-Faridpur and Dhaka-Magura, the railway engineer said.
Currently, freight trains from India come up to Noapara of Jashore, he said, adding that once the Dhaka-Mawa-Jashore line comes into operation, those trains would come to Dhaka directly, which will ultimately increase cross-border transportation.
"It wouldn't have been possible to expand the rail network in the southwestern region had the bridge not been constructed," said Afzal, adding that Padma bridge will play a great role in railway expansion.
Prof Hadiuzzman said the bridge will facilitate Bangladesh Railway to bring two sea ports -- Mongla and Payra -- under its network while Chattogram Port is already connected with the railway.
Bangladesh Railway is currently implementing a project to link Mongla with Khulna and has plans to build a line to connect Payra.
This way, the three ports and the capital would come under a strong railway network and create a huge opportunity for Bangladesh Railway to increase its freight transportation many folds, which is a step that could help the state-run transport agency reduce the gap in its income and operation costs, Hadiuzzaman said.
However, to reap the benefits from the connectivity, Bangladesh Railway has to build two ICDs near Dhaka, preferably in the south of Dhaka city, to facilitate the shifting of containers.
"If all these can be done on time, then the railway will see a paradigm shift," he added.
Following Bangladesh Railway's request, the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), a regional office of the UN, agreed to incorporate the Dhaka-Bhanga-Jashore route as a part of the Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) Network.
The TAR is a regional transport cooperation platform aimed at enhancing the efficiency and development of the railway infrastructure in Asia, according to ESCAP.
The network now comprises approximately 125,500 km of railway lines serving 28 member countries.
Bangladesh Railway has to do many things, including gauge conversion from Meter Gauge to Broad Gauge, to establish effective connectivity with the TAR, in which Bangladesh is a signatory, Hadiuzzaman said.
OTHER EXPANSION PLANS
To take benefits of the bridge, Bangladesh Railway has a plan for a project -- the Bhanga-Payra Rail Link -- which would create the scope for expanding rail networks in Barishal division -- crisscrossed by rivers -- earlier thought to be too challenging logistically.
Bangladesh Railway has already completed a feasibility study and detailed design of the rail line from Bhanga to Payra port in Patuakhali via Barishal.
The 214 km line, which will have 19 stations, will cost around Tk 41,797.6 crore, or $4.93 billion. The proposed deadline of the project is June 2029.
The rail authorities are now searching for funding for the project, which once implemented, Barishal and Patuakhali will directly come under the rail network and several other southern districts will also benefit from it.
Besides, Bangladesh Railway is implementing a project for construction of Khulna-Mongla port rail line, to connect the country's second seaport with the rail network. The Tk 3,801.61 crore project is expected to be completed within this year.
It has also undertaken a project to connect Magura with the railway network. Physical works of the project, titled "Construction of broad-gauge rail line from Madhukhali to Magura Via Kamarkhali", began last year. The cost of the project is Tk 1,202 crore and expected to be completed within April 2024.
A feasibility study for the construction of a rail line from Darshana to Meherpur via Damurhuda and Mujibnagar has already been completed and the project would cost around Tk 2,000 crore.