For a country so densely populated like Bangladesh, road transport being the major mode of transportation makes little sense. The absence of Padma Rail Link has been the major barrier to a railway-focused transportation system throughout the country.
In a country like Bangladesh, with higher land scarcity than the others, railway based mass-transport should be considered primary. Because, railways require less land per unit of operation, less fuel and produce less greenhouse gas. While estimates vary by source, trains produce 11-27% of carbon dioxide of what cars produce per passenger-km. The Government of Bangladesh has taken the Railway Master Plan (July 2016 – June 2045) to be executed in 4 phases to create robust rail connectivity between different parts of the country. But the major challenge is that Bangladesh is a country of rivers, both small and large, narrow and wide rivers flow through the heart of Bangladesh, making railway connectivity difficult.
Rivers - Historical Barriers
The history of railway in Bangladesh began as early as 1857 when Eastern Bengal Railway was incorporated by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. One part of Bengal, which is the west bank of Hooghly river, used to be part of the Eastern Bengal Railway. The first ever railway lines to be constructed in Bengal ran from Kolkata to Kushtia and was completed in 1862, which later in 1870 was extended to Goalando Ghat of the current Rajbari district of Bangladesh. But not any further due to the mighty Padma river.
The other part of the river Padma, which is around 4-8 kilometers wide, was covered by the Assam Bengal Railway that was primarily established to serve British-owned tea plantations in the then Assam (which incorporated parts of Sylhet as well). The first line that connected Chittagong and Comilla was opened in 1895, which was eventually extended to Assam’s Badarpur, via Akhaura (in Brahmanbaria) and Kulaura (in Moulvibazar). There is a clip taken on this rail line in the famous ‘Around the world in 80 days’ film.
However, in 1942 both Eastern Bengal Railway and Assam Bengal Railway were merged into one single entity, Bengal and Assam Railway, followed by the partition of India in 1947 which saw the birth East Pakistan, the parts of Bengal and Assam Railway which are in present day Bangladesh, became Pakistan Eastern Railway which after independence turned into Bangladesh Railway as it is today.
It is worth mentioning that the rivers Jamuna and Padma, due to their massive width, were barriers to railway connectivity between the two parts where railways historically developed in their own ways. The 5 km long Jamuna Bridge inaugurated in 1998 with a railway track attached to it, has revolutionized railway connectivity between Dhaka and the northern part of Bangladesh. Before the construction of the Jamuna Bridge, there used to be the Balashi Rail Ferry to cross the Jamuna river.
But the southwestern part of Bangladesh was not as lucky since there was no railway that crossed the river Padma until Hardinge bridge was inaugurated in 1915. Even then, the bridge was in the upstreams of Padma where the river is narrow, effectively cutting the southwestern Bangladesh off railway connectivity or later, providing a complex railway communication that takes hours to circumnavigate the downstreams of Padma.
A Time-consuming Circumnavigation
Circumnavigating the downstreams of Padma is not an easy task. First, a train has to go backwards, towards Sirajganj, crossing the Jamuna river using the Bangabandhu bridge, then it has to head towards Pabna and then cross the upstreams of Padma using the Hardinge bridge, constructed during the British colonial period to reach Kushtia, from where the train can reach Jashore Junction, a prime railway station in the southwestern Bangladesh. There exists railway connectivity between Jashore and Khulna, a divisional city. The Barisal division is entirely deprived of railway connectivity as of now. Even if railway connectivity between Jashore and Barisal is constructed, financially it will not be viable considering the time it will take to travel by train to Barisal.
It is worth mentioning that the Southwestern district of Faridpur was well-connected to Kolkata, the capital of undivided Bengal before the partition of India through Rajbari-Faridpur railway. However, following the partition of Bengal, Dhaka became the capital of Bangladesh (the then East Pakistan) which Faridpur had no railway connectivity with. Due to mismanagement and financial losses, the Rajbari-Faridpur railway line was closed in 1998.
The Railways Master Plan 2016-2045 is for establishing a railway link between Dhaka and Cox’s Bazar, Mongla Seaport, Tungipara, Barisal, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and other regions of the nation. 230 projects totaling Tk5,50,000 crore will be carried out in 6 phases as part of this master plan. The plan includes 15 corridors, all targeted to be operational within 2045.
Dhaka - Chattogram - Cox's Bazar - Deep Sea Port
Chilahati - Ishurdi - Khulna - Mongla
Dhaka - Bangabandhu Bridge - Darsana/Benapole
Dhaka - Bangabandhu Bridge - Rajshahi - Rohanpur
Dhaka - Bangabandhu Bridge - Ishurdi - Parbatipur-Chilahati/Birol
Dhaka - Sylhet/Shahbazpur
Dhaka - Bangabandhu Bridge- Sirajganj/Roypur(Jamtoil) - Burimari
Dhaka - Mawa - Bhanga - Jashore - Khulna - Mongla
Dhaka - Mawa - Bhanga - Jashore - Benapole
Dhaka - Mawa - Bhanga - Barishal
Dhaka - Mawa - Bhanga - Kashiani - Gopalganj - Tungipara
Dhaka - Mymensingh - Jamalpur - Tarakandi- Bangabandhu Bridge
Dhaka - Bhairab Bazar - Mymensingh
Dhaka - Mawa - Jajira - Rajbari - Moukuri (Mizanpur) - Bara Durgapur (KhasChar) - Pabna - Ishurdi
Dhaka - Paturia - Douladia - Moukuri (Mizanpur) - Bara Durgapur (Khas Char)- Pabna - Ishurdi
Among the planned corridors, Corridor 2, Corridor 7A,7B,7C,7D, Corridor 9A are dependent on the opening of Padma Rail Link.
Along with the Railway Master Plan, Bangladesh has adopted the National Land Transport Policy (NLTP) and National Integrated Multi-Modal Transport Policy (NIMTP) with commitments to develop strong railway connectivity throughout the entire country. The building of 798.09km of new railway lines, the construction of 897 km of dual gauge/double railway lines parallel to existing railway lines, and the repair of the 846.51km railway network will all be undertaken as part of the 8th Five-Year Plan. The 8th Five-Year Plan will see the purchase of 160 locomotives, 1,704 passenger coaches, contemporary maintenance equipment, an improved signaling system at 222 stations, and strengthened management of the railway.
But the national policies are not the only ones. Due to Bangladesh being located in a strategically important location to connect Southeast Asia and Asia, Bangladesh is part and parcel of other regional connectivity programs such as the Trans-Asian Railway and South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC).
When shipping was not well-developed in the 1950s, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) planned a Trans-Asian Railway, with the objective to provide a 14,080 km rail link between Singapore and Istanbul with possible links to Africa and Europe. The plan did not fare well due to political instability. By 2001, the need for increased connectivity emerged again, and 4 corridors were studied, including a southern railway corridor, connecting Istanbul to Yangon, through Islamabad, Delhi and Dhaka. An agreement came into force in 2009, named the Trans-Asian Railway Network Agreement, which Bangladesh signed in 2007. Circumvention of Padma through alternative routes could increase travel time through the Trans-Asian Railway, which can be avoided effectively, with the help of Padma Rail Link.
Another important regional connectivity project, namely SASEC is also concerned with the Padma Rail Link. A project-based partnership between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka is known as the South Asia Subregional Economic Cooperation (SASEC) Programme. It was established in 2001 with the goal of promoting regional prosperity by enhancing cross-border connectivity, fostering trade among member nations, and fostering regional economic cooperation. In order to improve intra-regional commerce and investment in the subregion and therefore spur economic growth, SASEC wants to establish the vital multimodal transportation networks. In order to meet the demands of the expanding economies in the region and to support the SAARC transport corridor network, SASEC aims to improve the region’s road, rail, and air connections as well as construct port infrastructure. SASEC has a total of 11 transportation corridors, several of which pass through Bangladesh. The Padma Rail Link can potentially be utilized for SASEC connectivity projects as well, bolstering trade and transportation between South East Asian countries.
Insufficiency of Railway and Hindrances
Compared to other nations, Bangladesh’s railway coverage is significantly lower. A country this small should be able to travel faster. The geographical location of Bangladesh provides Bangladesh with a large enough coastline for marine transportation, enabling Bangladesh to be a major manufacturing hub. But a major hindrance in its way is the inefficiency of road based transportation, which can be avoided by establishing railways all across the country.
While countries like Thailand, Vietnam, India and Pakistan had railways covering 16-27 thousand population per route-km in 2005/06, Bangladesh in 2014 had railways covering 60 thousand population per route-km, more than double. Which indicates that Bangladesh has a shortage of railways and it requires doubling its railway network.
Population Per Route-km
Source: World Bank Railway Database
No Data Found
On the other hand, carrying goods, agricultural products and raw materials across the country is mostly dependent on highways and road networks. This increases price volatility by increasing the dependence on fuel prices. A railway based goods carriage network could allow Bangladesh to provide targeted subsidies in order to keep prices stable.
In 2004/05, countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Pakistan had railways carrying 3-5 thousand ton-km whereas India had 407,398. However, Bangladesh had railways carrying only 817 freight ton-km. If it has to be increased, rail connectivity with land ports and sea ports have to be established, in which Padma Rail Link plays a vital role by creating scopes to connect Mongla and Payra ports to the capital.
Source: World Bank Railway Database
No Data Found
Leveraging Padma Rail Link
The distance from Dhaka to Benapole in Jashore is currently 391 km, due to the circumnavigation of the downstreams of Padma, which will be cut down by 187 km to only 206 km if Padma Rail Link is constructed. However, on the 10th of October, 2023, the section from Dhaka to Bhanga was launched. The Bhanga-Jashore section is supposed to be inaugurated in June, 2024. With the opening of Bhanga-Jashore section, distance from Dhaka to Jashore will be further reduced to 169 km only.
The distance from Dhaka to Khulna, a major divisional city of Bangladesh will be cut by half through Padma Rail Link. After inauguration of Bhanga-Jashore section, it will be reduced by 215 km and come down to 207 km. The Dhaka-Khulna rail line will be further extended to Mongla port for carrying goods.
In 2014 monetary values the financial cost of the rail infrastructure connecting Dhaka and Jashore through Padma Rail Link is BDT 20,970 crore, with a Net Present Value (NPV) of BDT 990 crore discounted to 2023, and the Economic Internal Rate of Return (EIRR) is 12.6% without considering a branch line to Barisal and Payra.
Primarily, the Dhaka-Jashore rail will focus on goods carriage. The line’s capacity is 44 slots per day, of which, initially 24.5 slots will be assigned for freighter trains and 6 slots per day will be assigned for passenger trains. Of all the freights, 25% is supposed to be hauled to the Inland Container Depot (ICD) at South Dhaka and the rest to Chattogram or Matarbari deep sea port.
A major problem with Bangladesh’s railway is the unavailability of tickets for the passengers. Even though Dhaka-Jashore line’s focus on freighter trains will boost the economy, equal emphasis should be given on passenger transport as well. Chances of backlash from the road transport companies is assumable. But the government should mainly focus on increasing public welfare. The fare from Dhaka to Bhanga is comparatively higher than the other routes. Considering the construction cost of Padma Rail Link, even though it might be justified, in order for complete utilization of the infrastructure for public welfare, there is scope to rethink the passenger fares on this route.
About the Author
Najib Hayder is the Blog Manager at The Confluence. Formerly he has served as the Head of Policy Debate at Youth Policy Forum. A former debater, business graduate by chance and policy-enthusiast by choice, currently pursuing Masters in Development Studies at the University of Dhaka.